Screenwriting : How do you address the theme of your screenplay? by Chad Stroman

Chad Stroman

How do you address the theme of your screenplay?

Theme exists in just about every screenplay and film out there. Sometimes multiple themes exist. Some are parallels to the plot (the plot gives us the theme) and other times they are character driven. Sometimes they are externally or visually confirmed and other times they are internal realizations made within a single protagonist.

How do YOU approach theme and it's place in your screenplay? Sometimes a heavy hand can result in the theme being almost too present and we feel a bit beaten over the head with it (Yeah we get it, the theme is XXXX) and other times by design it's meant to be very ethereal (Hmm the theme could be XXXX or it could be YYYY). Sometimes the theme is revealed right at the beginning and is part of the whole inciting incident and is built upon through all the acts or beats of the story. Other times they show up in the middle of a story and lead to a 180 in the direction we thought we were going. And still other times (especially in Romantic Comedies and Hallmark Movies) they show up at the end (and are often repetitive through multiple variations on that same theme being played out with just different characters, set pieces, Vermont).

So how do YOU approach theme in your writing?

Are you more of a "theme is self evident and clear" or more of a "it's gently hinted at throughout but never boldly declared or revealed"?

What are some of your favorite or inspirational uses of themes in screenplays or movies you admire?

Phillip "Le Raconteur" Hardy


This is an excellent question and topic. I rarely think about theme in the early stages of writing. I write the story and a theme emerges. For example, when I wrote Four Negro Girls In A Church about the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, I wanted to convey the story in a powerful and emotional way. This meant presenting the POV of the victim's families, the politicians and the KKK perpetrators.

Here's what the Wildsound Festival Folks said about the script:

This is a wonderfully moving retelling of the story of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963, taking a deep look at some of the characters involved and giving an almost unsettlingly unbiased account. The script doesn’t ever lecture the audience in any way about right and wrong, just provides characters and context and lets them come to their well and should be respected.

A few years back, I wrote a story script about sex trafficking called Seven Days In Istanbul. It was based on a Frontline documentary. When I did the research, I was appalled that millions of people are victims of a worldwide issue, that in my opinion, is largely ignored by society.

This is the logline from the script:

When his young Ukrainian Bride is kidnapped by a brutal sex slave operation, her determined husband travels to Turkey to negotiate for her freedom.

I didn't intentionally paint the sex trafficking people in an unflattering light. I let their actions speak for themselves. I portrayed their single-minded desire to make money and callous treatment of the human beings they were victimizing. It was all based on the real actions of the people the story was based on. The script became a cautionary tale about trusting people you know little about and the tenacity of one man to secure the return of his wife. That second theme is reflected in my logline.

I believe if you craft a compelling story with conflict and obstacles for both moral and immoral people, or even ones in the middle, themes will probably emerge.

Thanks for posting a good topic.

Doug Nelson

For me, theme is the crux of the storyline - it's my reason for writing the script. I generally reference it in the title to keep me on track (Dead Man's Hand, Life Cycle, Hope and a Wish, Halt...), but I need to remember that not everyone knows or understands the imagery to which I'm referring. How many of you know what the Dead Man's Hand is or how it came to be known? (A pair of black aces and black jacks - Wild Bill Hickok's hand when he was murdered.)

I try to weave the theme throughout the storyline without getting to preachy or heavy handed but I always have to keep the intended audience in mind.

Ethan Frome

Theme reveals itself through character and plot. Who the characters are and the choices they make should and will coincide with your theme. The key to not being too “on the nose” is your dialogue. Your dialogue must convey things but also leave room for the audience to breathe at the same time. It’s a balancing act. What determines which side you’ll lean towards more than the other (if at all) is how well it serves the story. You lean where it’s needed. For it to feel “fresh“ to you, how you reveal theme through plot and/or character should be approached in a different way than you’ve seen or are used to. Hope this helps.

Phil Parker

I usually have one or more 'themes' in my story, some major and others minor, but my central focus is on one controlling idea or moral premise. Like Doug mentioned, that idea/premise is the reason I decided to write the script, and it's brought into focus by the choices that the characters make.

For example, here are two moral premises from my screenplays:

1. The good of the many always comes before the good of the few.

2. To truly heal, you must forgive the person who wounded you.

All of the characters, in each of those scripts, either agree, disagree, or sit on the fence with regards to #1 and #2. Their actions (and non-OTN dialogue) demonstrate their position. The moral premise acts as the touchstone, the barometer that shows us how they change (or don't change) during their journey.

I think the trick to weaving your themes and moral premise into the story without them sticking out like dog's balls, is to make the external goal a metaphor for the inner journey.

Dean Owen-Sims

Learn form the best: Craig Mazin

John Ellis

For me, theme comes first - what question about the human condition am I asking? What's the reason for writing this story? From there, the script is about answering that question, through the characters' journeys. Is the answer positive, negative, ambiguous?

It also informs me of first, who's the best MC to tackle this question? Who's the best POV character to reveal the process (not always the MC). And second, which type of supporting characters will advance the journey? They all must answer the question in their own arc. But will it be a reflection of the MC's arc? Parallel? Photo negative?

All this comes from the theme.

Christopher Poet

This is going to be a funny one, but how roasted am I going to get if I say I don't pay attention to this personally? At least, when I write, I do not write with the question in my head being "What will my theme be and how will I show it?".

That is not to say the stories lack themes. They defiantly have themes. But it is not something I am continuously considering unless it is something I am actively trying to control. In most cases, it is not. I write my stories for the characters who partake in them and to develop who they are. This has been my approach for a good 5 years and it has not failed me yet.

Craig D Griffiths

I try to start with a theme or question.

“Would you die to give someone a better life?” the “they would be better off if I was dead”. Not sacrifice, not saving a life. Just giving them a better shot at happiness. This was the theme for my script AMY. What drove her was something different. She was sick of never getting a break. As she put it “the word wants me to be less than I am and be happy about it”. How far did I have to push her for her to realise the world is better off without her in it.

Sometimes themes change for me. I’ll start think I am talking about “belonging” and it ends up being about “avoid the truth”.

Most of my themes are things that can be yes or no. I try to pose a spectrum. With AMY, is her sister better off with Amy dead, or is that a permanent solution to a short term problem?

Louis Tété

I usually have an overall theme defined through dialogues and actions in the first pages. Then as the script moves along, that overall theme is divided in sub-themes. Those sub-themes are more specific to the characters and the situations than the one established at the beginning. Themes are made to offer a discussion and interrogations to the audience.

Nick Assunto - Stage32 Script Services Coordinator

Depends what theme I'm working on and how tangible that theme is. I wrote a script called JUST FRIENDS, ACTUALLY. It's an anti-rom-com. So the theme is more intertwined with the plot and incredibly clear from the title, and the way the story plays out. Actually some times people read the pitch, not the script, and ask why they don't end up together in the end, and I point to the title.

Jason Mirch

For me it varies - sometimes I start by asking a thematic question and other times I let the characters' journey and narrative uncover the theme Sometimes I stumble on a common idea that all of the characters are bumping up against during the narrative, so I start to lean into that theme. Sometimes I a surprised by the theme I ended up landing on, because it was so unexpected.

Vic Burns

I tend to think in terms of tone and emotion when I write, making sure that first scene and ten pages hammer home. I guess you can find a theme in anyone’s work - but it’s not something I’ve ever given much thought.

Maybe that’s why I’m still unproduced...

Jim Boston

Chad, I handle theme on a screenplay-by-screenplay basis: Sometimes, I try to be blunt with the theme ("We can play this music!" from "Rivertown Rock!"); other times, I attempt to go I tried to do in "Really Old School" and "Gayle Strawberry and Her Soda Pop Music Makers."

But no matter the script I'm working on, I try to let my characters carry the theme across.

Great question, Chad! All the VERY BEST to you!

Laurie Ashbourne

This is a great topic that often goes undervalued, but it's the first thing I ask when taking on a new job. Hopefully this helps.

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