Theme is the most important element of a good screenplay. It’s the driving intention behind the film. It’s the message that the writer is trying to get across to the audience which, when effectively communicated, satisfies them, emotionally and analytically, and makes them feel they’ve just watched a good film. It is, in a single sentence, what the movie is really all about.
It doesn’t matter what the theme is—love conquers all, real beauty is on the inside, life sucks and then you die—if you effectively prove or disprove it, you’ve succeeded as a writer.
What makes the theme so important to a screenplay is that it guides everything—the plot, who the hero is, who the villain is, the action, the dialogue, the subplots—everything!
The theme is like the writer's mentor. It answers all of his story questions.
Who is my hero?
He is the one person who is best able to prove the theme.
Who is my villain?
He is the one person who is best able to disprove the theme or prove the counter-theme.
How do I choose my subplots and characters?
By finding those subplots and characters that best align with and against the theme.
How do I know what my characters should be doing and saying?
By having them always act and speak according to their thematic value (positive or negative), testing the hero by pushing the theme or counter-theme.
If you've ever been bewildered about what your characters should do or say next, chances are you either didn't know that the theme drives plot and dialogue or you never fully developed your theme.
It is not easy to develop a precise theme when you start writing your outline. That’s because the theme is not an independent concept; it is the link between plot, character and dialogue.
You may start off by defining a precise theme for your story, but it will usually change, sometimes significantly.
You develop your theme by working it against the plot and characters as you develop your story. You get an idea of your theme and begin to plot out the scenes. Then, as you see your story more clearly, it will shed light on your theme. You polish your theme and continue writing.
The same is true with characters. The more you learn about them as you imbue them with thematic qualities the more light they shed on the theme. And the theme will change again.
Theme, plot and character move together as a unit. Focus the theme and you focus plot and characters. Develop the plot and you develop the characters and theme. Sharpen the characters and you sharpen theme and plot.
At some point you will have that Aha! moment and realize that you've nailed your theme. That's when you go back over your outline and find that when you revise it this time everything falls into place.
The theme is the Rosetta stone which allows you to translate that great concept you have into a great screenplay.
©Jeffrey Scott, All Rights Reserved