Theme is tricky.
Just when we think we’ve caught it and wrangled it into submission in our scripts, it wriggles out of our grasp. Which is, unfortunately, problematic because theme is one of the most important elements of screenwriting. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that theme is the backbone of any story.
First, let’s look at the definition (because I love definitions).
- The subject of a talk, a piece of writing, a person’s thoughts, or an exhibition; a topic.
- An idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature.
So theme is what a story is about.
Our high school English teachers taught us that themes are broad terms with capital letters. Love, Revenge, Good vs. Evil, Power, Prejudice, Innocence, Guilt, Money, Corruption, Life, Death — these are the things stories are made of.
Any of these Capital Letter Themes would make a fine starting point, by which I mean that they’re not the theme, full stop, end of sentence. True themes are a little bit more than one or two words. They’re what I like to call “nuggets.” Pieces of universal truth or wisdom about the human experience that anyone might understand and relate to.
Therein lies the problem with Capital Letter themes — they’re not specific enough to actually say anything at all. The idea of Power will get you going, but your job as a writer is to extrapolate meaning from that broader thematic topic. Something like, “Power always corrupts,” or “People will do anything for power.”
When you narrow the focus of your theme, it goes from being a Capital Letter to having actual meaning.
Pete Docter, writer of Up, Inside Out, and Monsters, Inc., said about theme: “The more specific and particular you are in the storytelling, the more generally it applies. If you try to generalize, then nobody really gets anything. But if you’re very specific and personal about it, it seems to resonate more.”
Theme is ultimately what connects you, the writer, to your audience (readers, viewers, or otherwise). And what you say with your theme — about the world, about life, about the human experience — is what your story is, at its core, about.
Theme is story; story is theme. One informs the other, and vice versa. As a screenwriter, you need both to write a successful script.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.