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Learn & Become A Better Screenwriter


How to Maintain Theme in Your Story Outline/Storylines, Scene Outline, and Script?

Once you’ve found your theme, how do you weave it into the fabric of your narrative?

Here are 6 tips to guide you:

Tip #1: Your theme is an idea that you want to argue. This idea can influence many different types of choices in the story, from something as encompassing as the setting of the entire story to something as minute as a single word choice made by a character. Many writers say that once they’ve identified their theme, they write it on a piece of paper and hang it on the wall so that they are constantly reminded of the purpose of their story. In the writer’s room of a TV show, you might find a theme written on the whiteboard so that all the writers are aware of the message that they are working towards.

Tip #2: Theme is often tied to the ending of your story. While the bulk of your screenplay will explore both sides of the theme, it is the ending that decides the message. Let’s say that your protagonist chooses not to stoop to the morally-questionable tactics of your opponent but then dies in the end. You’re ultimately sending the message that dirty tactics will prevail. In the Star Wars franchise, we have the opposite, the idealistic version of that message -- despite the temptations of the dark side, Luke defeats the forces of evil -- arguing the theme that justice prevails when we work together with diverse allies, respect the wisdom of our elders, and discover power within ourselves by opening ourselves to larger ideas (The Force). Overall, the franchise ends positively. How do you want your story to end?

Tip #3: Theme is also directly related to your protagonist’s character flaw and the way that your protagonist changes or arcs. Does your protagonist start out as arrogant or hubris and through a series of obstacles and events change to become more down-to-earth and humble? Or does the protagonist stubbornly refuse to learn and maintain his or her arrogance, ultimately causing his or her downfall? In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan’s arrogance ultimate blinds him and causes him to lose everything. The lesson learned by your protagonist will be the lesson you are conveying to your audience.

Tip #4: In general, you want to try to avoid ever directly stating the theme. Keep this in mind as you try to weave your theme into your narrative. In Jurassic Park, there is a very clear theme of the dangers of genetic engineering and DNA cloning. While no character ever explicitly and singularly states, “DNA cloning is unpredictable and dangerous,” that idea becomes very clear as we watch revived dinosaurs hunt and kill people across the island. In this example, theme is conveyed through the premise and ensuing action.

Tip #5: To help generate a thematic statement, make a list of words or phrases of concepts that are (or will be) part of your story. Use some of these words in your statement. You can create variations of the statement by mixing the words around until you get closer to the statement you want to make. (You don’t have to use all of the words in your statement.) For example, a list of concepts present in a story might be: family, community, treating others better, patriotism, past loves, and old grudges. Some variations that might result from this list could be:

  1. if you let old grudges go, your family and community will treat you better;
  2. bolstering patriotism will make people in a community treat each other better;
  3. letting go of old grudges in your family will help you in your community;
  4. harboring old grudges will alienate you from your family and community;
  5. when past loves see your renewed patriotism, they will treat you better.

Note how each variation of theme indicates a different story – and will make for different choices in many aspects of the script. 

Tip #6: Remember this helpful distinction: Plot is what the story is about. Theme is what the story is REALLY about.

These are just a few tips to help you along the way. We hope they ignite some big ideas for your story. Most importantly, have fun!