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Theme: Three Points

By Michael Schilf · January 21, 2010

There was a time when I wasn’t so sure a theme was necessary in writing a good screenplay. All you needed was an interesting character, who wanted something badly, and was having trouble getting it. That was it. If we had someone to cheer for, with a clear goal, and lots of conflict and obstacles, the script would work.  And if someone asked, “What’s it about?” I would dish out a logline: “It’s a comedy about a nice guy who turns to a scheming lady’s man to help transform him into a womanizing jerk in order to win the girl of his dreams.“

Sure, that’s fine for a quick studio pitch, but what is it really about? Acceptance? Identity? Truth? What does the protagonist want? In the past, I’d say, “he wants to get the girl.” Now I understand: “He wants to be loved and accepted for who he is.”

There is a big difference there. The story structure and plot points don’t necessarily change at all, but once you start thinking about theme clearly – in every scene – you will make much better decisions because if you understand what your characters really want at the fundamental root of their soul, they, in turn, will help pave the right roads for you to follow. 

Theme is crucial to your screenplay – it’s the root of everything. And here are three key points to help you narrow it down. 

1. Why? Why? Why tell the story? This is the most important motivating factor for writing the script. 

2. Exploration of the character is crucial to the theme, for the character guides the writer into conflict. Theme and conflict are crucially linked.

3. The writer shows the theme through characters in different ways but the theme will always be rooted through a character’s primary goal.