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5 Ways to Use Theme to Transcend Your Knottiest Story Problems

February 28, 2020
5 min read time

Author and screenwriter Steven Pressfield in his short book, “What Is Your Story About? The Centrality of Theme in the Creative Process”, relates a tale of an agent reading five hundred screenplays over the course of a year and not finding a single writer she felt she could represent. She saw one thing at the core of the problem: “The scripts,” she said, “were never about anything.”

When you’re struggling to make your screenplay work, theme is one of the greatest tools in your toolbox. Theme is what your story is about. Everything in your script should ultimately operate in service of your theme—from your characters to your storylines, to your opening and closing scenes, to even your title.

Though it might seem like something you “should” know right away (and you might), knowing what your story is about at its deepest, most essential level is often something you discover through the work of writing draft after draft and refining and studying your story as you go.

How Theme Works in a Story

In order to be “about something,” your screenplay should propose a thematic question which you then explore over the course of the story, allowing your audience to draw their own conclusions in answering it. That answer isn’t delivered on the nose or heavy-handedly, but rather, is something that’s considered from all sides. As Pressfield says, there’s no one right answer when it comes to theme. Instead, it should be something you, as the writer, are drawn to explore through story.

Your thematic question is different than the story hook; the narrative question that keeps your audience engaged, wondering what’s going to happen in the story. Theme is about the deeper levels of storytelling.

The beauty of knowing your theme is, as Chuck Wendig, author of “Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative” succinctly states, “The value of theme for you as the storyteller is that it gives you a constant touchstone as you tell the tale." In other words, it helps you make every choice along the way as a writer.

How To Find Your Theme

Here’s where to look to help you find your theme. As you consider each, remember your script may or may not reflect theme in each of these areas, so they can be a way to help you find your theme, or a way to find places to enhance and improve your work.

  1. The characters’ core beliefs and values
    One place to look for theme is within your characters’ beliefs and values. What do they care about? What are the stories they're telling themselves? What do they believe about themselves and the world?

    Do those beliefs serve your characters throughout the story, or are they forced to abandon them and change at the end of the story in order to achieve their goal? What themes are your characters’ beliefs, values, and stories organized around?

    What your characters focus on can help you see your theme.

  2. The protagonist’s character arc
    Your theme is also expressed through the transformational arc your main character undergoes through their story journey and the decisions they make along the way.

    How does your protagonist grow? What’s the underlying essence of that transformational journey? What lessons do they learn and internalize?

    Your protagonist will (or should) embody your theme throughout the story.

  3. The antagonist and secondary characters
    In addition to your main character, your antagonist and secondary characters also play a role in exploring variations on the theme, usually in opposition to the way the central character is exploring them.

    Your antagonist will likely represent the counter-theme; the darker side or cautionary expression of your theme. For example, if your theme is family is everything, your antagonist might grapple with failure due to not having a family to rely on, while your protagonist might succeed because they have one to turn to.

  4. The title
    Your title is a powerful place to express theme. If you have a working title or one you feel settled with, ask yourself how or if the theme shows up in it.

    If your title doesn’t currently express your theme, could it? What journey will your story take its viewers on, and what will it illustrate to them? That is you’re your story is about, and how can that theme show up in your title?

    Naomi Novik asks the thematic question, what is home? in her book, “Uprooted.” About a character who is taken (uprooted) from her home and must find her place in the world again, the story beautifully illustrates this theme through its many nuanced layers—as well as appearing clearly in the title.

  5. The setting and world-building
    In a fictional world, the setting, tone and world are part of how your theme is experienced and delivered to your audience.

    For example, the world in “His Majesty's Dragon” (also by Naomi Novik) is organized around a theme about being of service. It shows up in the title, through the characters' actions, and through the military world in which they exist, interact and operate.

  6. The story patterns
    When you take a step back and look at the patterns you’re writing into your story, and even how you're writing, the theme can emerge. Study your plot points, structure and repeating patterns to extract and understand the meaning of what you’re writing. Do your characters keep making the same kinds of choices over and over again until they finally break free? Are they consistent throughout the story or do they change?

    These patterns can help you see the larger theme you’re working with.

Solve Story Problems With Theme

When you find yourself encountering a story challenge, ask yourself, “Is this in service of my theme?” If not, this is the place to innovate, change and refine.

Everything in your story should ultimately operate in service of your larger theme, so once you identify what that is, cut or revise anything that doesn’t support it.

  • Use theme to guide how you begin and end the story.
  • Use theme to define your protagonist, who will represent the successful expression of your theme.
  • Use theme to design your antagonist as the perfect opposition to your protagonist and it will represent the counter-theme.
  • Use theme to discover and heighten the climax of your story and all of your plot points in between.
  • Use theme to title your script.

In short, use theme to help you solve all your story issues, once you know what it is.

As Paddy Chayefsky (as quoted by Robert McKee) said, “As soon as I figure out what the theme of my play is, I type it out in one line and Scotch-tape it to the front of my typewriter. After that, nothing goes into the play that is not on-theme.”


Your Weekend Writer’s Assignment

Reflect on your current screenplay. What is it about, at its most essential thematic level? What thematic question is your story exploring and considering? It’s okay not to know the answer right away, but putting your subconscious mind to work on this question will help you begin to unravel story issues, one by one.

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