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Theme Comes From Character

What is the spine of your screenplay? What are you trying to say? What is the theme of your story?

Those are questions that can drive even seasoned professional screenwriters crazy. But they are important questions to be able to answer if you want your screenplay to connect with an audience. I’ve often  been surprised by how many screenplays I’ve read in which there is no clear theme or spine to the story when it’s so easy to create. Simply, the theme of your story comes from your hero’s inner need. The lesson that your hero needs to learn in order to achieve a satisfactory character arc should be reflected in the theme or the lesson of your story.

What is theme?

To put it as simply as possible, the theme of your script should be derived from whatever point you’re trying to make with the story. Certainly not all stories have a particular message or lesson that the writer is trying to show, but all stories should have some sort of spine where the main character learns something or grows in some way. If you don’t have that as a writer, then you’re not writing anything that’s dramatic, and a lack of drama will lessen the entertainment value of your script and will make it more difficult to reach an audience.


Many times the inner and outer goals of the hero will be two different things. In fact, many of the best stories with the most interesting characters have heroes whose outer want and inner need are in conflict. Usually it’s the inner need that drives where the thematic elements are coming from because that’s where there is the most potential growth for your hero. For example, Will in Good Will Hunting has an outer goal of going through state-mandate therapy in order to stay out of jail so that he can work with a prestigious math professor at M.I.T. He also wants to be free to hang out and drink with his friends. However, his inner need is to be with the love interest, Skylar in order to live a more complete life. He has a subconscious fear of letting people get close to him, so it’s a lot easier for him to hang out with his friends than to emotionally invest in Skylar. It isn’t until his best friend tells him that he wants him to make that leap that he actually does. Thematically speaking, Good Will Hunting is about letting go of your past so that you can embrace your future and reach your full potential. The threat of jail represents Will’s past. Working with the math professor represents one possible future and his relationship with Skylar represents the best of all worlds, and that is what we are hoping for as an audience. We want Will to be able to throw off the shackles of his past so that his future can be better. That desire on the part of the audience comes from the theme of the film, which is also the spine that holds all of the individual story components together and that comes from the inner need of the main character.

Why is theme important?


In much the same way as the Force binds the galaxy together, the Theme binds your story together. I can’t tell you the number of disorganized messes that people have sent to me in the guise of screenplays. The problem is always the same. The writer either hasn’t included any kind of thematic idea, or he or she has included too many thematic ideas and can’t decide which one to go with. The latter problem is actually a worse one to have than the former. A lot of action films or screwball comedies can be lacking in theme. You don’t have to have some overarching lesson, but it is still very important, even in films like those, to give your hero some kind of issue to overcome or lesson to learn in order to give the story a direction. If you don’t currently have that in your script, it can be relatively easy to develop your hero to the point where you can create one. The real disorganization comes when a script has multiple thematic ideas all competing for dominance in the storyline and you have no idea what the story is about. I just recently read a script for a client where this was the case. I made the point to the writer that it was imperative for him to settle on one of these components or the story was going to suffer. What was the main character’s biggest inner hurdle going to be? It almost didn’t matter which one the writer chose, but he at least had to choose one thematic element that would serve as the spine to his story.

Just like a human being cannot walk without a spine, neither can a story be truly dramatic or entertaining without one. What are you trying to say in your screenplay? What do you want the hero to learn? The spine or theme of the story is what will get the audience engaged and get them to care about what’s going on, not only with the story, but with the characters as well.

The most challenging thing about the theme is to get it into the story without it really being there.


Huh? Yes, you read that right. The last thing you want is some line of dialogue where some character tells the hero (and thus the audience) what he needs. It’s even worse if that dialogue comes from the hero. The theme of the story has to be shown to the audience through the action of the story and the actions of the characters. The revelation of the theme must be disseminated through the subtext of the story. I love The Wizard of Oz, but the most awkward moment in the film is at the end when the Scarecrow asks her what she learned, and she basically spells out the lesson of the film. Then, just to pile on, she has to tap her heels together and continually chant, “There’s no place like home” in order to get home. It’s one of the most memorable moments in cinema, but is also the most on-the-nose reveal of a film’s theme that I can think of.

CasablancaRickAndElse          AClockworkOrangeAlex

Personally I love films like Casablanca, A Clockwork Orange, and even more modern films like American Beauty or Birdman where the spine of the story is always there, but never directly mentioned. It’s something that you can feel. It gives you an emotional attachment to the story and makes you think about it long after the film has ended. All of those films had well-defined heroes with clear inner and outer needs that quite often were in conflict. The individual lessons of those films, and therefor their spines, came directly from those characters’ needs. We cared about what happened in the story because we cared about what happened to those characters, and from there flowed the dramatic and entertainment value of the story. Even The Wizard of Oz, despite it’s on-the-nose reveal of the theme at the end, has stood the test of time precisely because it’s such a powerful story from a thematic point of view.

AmericanBeautyRosesOnAngela          BirdmanRigganAndBirdman

What is the theme of your screenplay? Do you have any sense of how you’re trying to get your main character to grow and what her character arc will be? Have you been able to connect that to the thematic elements of your script? Or worse, do you have too many thematic elements bogging down the narrative and preventing the hero from achieving that strong, clear character arc? Monument Script Services can help find those issues and offer up solutions to make it so you can create the spine from which you can build the rest of your story. Click the link below to review the various services we can provide.


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