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A Quick Tutorial on Developing Theme:

Quick, Effective Ways to Discover and Develop Your Story’s Organic Theme

Screenwriters often mistake stagnant ideas for theme. Case in point, I recently had a client who declared that her movie was “about the theme of loneliness.” When I read the script, I definitely observed characters that were somewhat isolated due to their life circumstances – but there was absolutely no point being made about the state of loneliness in general, there were no heroes making active decisions as a result of or in regards to loneliness. In short, loneliness was not the driving force of the story but instead a periphery underdeveloped idea.

I see this all the time.

Writers, by nature, are often cerebral and literary – thus causing them to overeagerly mistake heady ideas as thematic statements. Such enthusiasm proves dangerous when the writer starts throwing in unnecessary scenes or making inorganic story choices to accommodate a so-called theme that doesn’t even really exist!

So, the question becomes how to clarify the rather nebulous issue of distinguishing between stagnant ideas cluttering the narrative and a cohesive story that makes a clear thematic statement. The problem has only been compounded by the fact that so many screenwriting books stress the importance of theme without providing the direct, concrete rules for doing so. Feeling lost, the aspiring (and seasoned) writer gropes for anything resembling lofty, ambitious theme – only to feel more adrift than ever.

Fortunately, this month will correct the issue at hand by empowering you with a few simple, direct, no-nonsense ways to develop your very own theme in an active, cohesive manner.

Principle #1: Get Accustomed to Making Active Statements.
Never, ever settle for saying, “My script is about loneliness” or “My script is about fantasy” or “My script is about good versus evil.”  None of these sentences convey meaning or put forward an assertion, none of these sentences make a statement about the topic. Right away, then, you want to make sure your thematic statement conforms to two rules:

  • It shows cause and effect.
  • It comes to a definitive conclusion.

Here’s a simple exercise to help get you on track with active statements. Use the following model to start identifying what you want to say and how you want to use your hero to say it:

My main hero changes from ____________ to ____________ when he finally ______________.

Let’s take a look at a few contemporary examples to demonstrate. For Liar, Liar you might say:

Jim Carrey goes from negligent father to available father when he finally risks telling the truth.

Or, from Ordinary People:

Donald Sutherland goes from repressed people-pleaser to honest man of action when he finally speaks and acts on his true feelings.

Immediately, then, an active statement of cause and effect is being made. Carrey abandons his lies (cause) in order to become a better father (effect); Sutherland acts on his true feelings (cause) in order to lead a healthier life of honesty (effect). Essentially, then, you could generalize these statements into general truths about life: in order to live an honestly, you have to risk speaking and acting on your true feelings; in order to fulfill your potential, you have to risk emotional vulnerability. Are conclusions being made? Yes. Is there cause and effect? Yes.

So if we were to revise the script by my recent client, we would forego simply saying the story was “about” loneliness to instead make an active statement, such as:

My hero changes from a lonely martyr to a happily connected man when he finally releases the memory of his dead wife.

When you’re pitching your movie, you no longer need to hide behind passive statements like, “It’s about loneliness” or “There are themes of repression”; instead, you can engage interested parties with active statements like, “It’s about the fact that refusing to properly grieve death leads to continued loneliness” or “it’s about the loneliness that plagues us when we fail to move on from the past.” Clear, direct, simple.

Principle #2: Make Sure Theme Gets Dramatized in Story
In order for your thematic statement to be actively dramatized, it must do the following things:

  • Motivate your hero’s behavior
  • Lead to Hero Gains
  • Provide Conflict that Stands in the Way of Your Hero
  • Lead to Possible Risk

Let’s take a closer look at each one of these elements:

1: Motivating Your Character’s Behavior:
In order to craft truly powerful transformation, your hero has to fight on behalf of those starting conditions. Liar, Liar doesn’t present some inactive hero who tells a casual lie or two while he otherwise tends to the garden; no, Carrey lies in every single scene; his lies sustain him through work, they sustain him through home, they sustain him through every imaginable encounter.

Likewise, Ordinary People features a main character that fights to please others: Sutherland constantly acts as the middle-man between his wife and son; he constantly appeases both in a way that undercuts their true feelings; he constantly aims to create a happy household that doesn’t exist. In both cases, the main character pursues that initial approach to life with do-or-die conviction. To return to our example, this lonely martyr needs to fight for his isolation – refusing help, driving people away, coming up with excuses to remain isolated; or, if we are to be more subtle, sabotaging new relationships with outwardly logical reasons that really mask a deeper fear. Whatever the case, the beginning of the movie presents a character that actively pursues loneliness in his own way. It is not a condition or an aside or a briefly mentioned idea in dialogue – it is a motivating force.

2: Leading to Gains
There has to be a pay-off for this behavior, there has to be a goal or an idea of success that the character strives for throughout the movie. There has to be juicy temptation to keep the hero locked in his motivated force. For Donald Sutherland, success looks like the continuing approval of his wife – it looks like his son’s successful reintegration back to normal life – it looks like his wife and son getting along.

For Jim Carrey, success looks like getting promoted – it looks like winning the case – it looks like worming his way out of sticky situations. These gains are all-important because they justify your hero’s fight and also strengthen his conviction. In our more introverted example, the lonely hero might liken success to living an autonomous life where he doesn’t have to make any compromise – ridding himself of an intrusive influence – being comfortable with the familiar.

3: Providing Active Conflict
There needs to be conflict that stands in the way of the hero’s behavior, makes the journey much more difficult. Conflict is an essential ingredient because it forces the hero to make higher and higher stakes recommitments to his own misguided way of life, ultimately setting him up to get to a point of surrender where he simply says, “This way of living doesn’t work anymore.” The conflict needs to actively challenge the way the hero usually maintains his life. Obviously, the very premise Liar, Liar rests on the twist that Jim Carrey can only tell the truth for a single day. This bit of magic immediately throws a wrench in his usual deceptive tactics and forces him to scramble to maintain his usual life.

In the more subtle Ordinary People, Sutherland comes up against the growing awareness that his wife will not compromise when it comes to tending to their son’s emotional needs; he likewise must content with the growing reality that his son’s problems cannot be swept under the rug – they will only worsen and worsen. As a result, Sutherland spends a good deal of the movie making higher-risk decision to maintain The Happy Home until he realizes the happy home simply cannot be maintained. Our fictional movie would most probably see the lonely hero falling love with someone new – or feeling compelled to be part of an inclusive group – some force that progressively intrudes on his desire to be alone.

4: Possible Risk
Risk basically answers the question, “What does my hero stand to lose if he keeps on acting this way?” Liar, Liar makes it very clear that Jim Carrey will lose his son forever if he cannot muster the strength necessary to drop his lying ways. Similarly, Donald Sutherland stands to lose not only his son’s emotional wellbeing but also his very own pride if he continues to try to play impossible peacemaker. However, all great storytelling packs both sides of the equation with risk. In sacrificing their approach to life, the hero also gives up the potential gains that he had been chasing for all along. To reclaim his son, Jim Carrey must risk the professional achievement that has always been so dear to him. Donald Sutherland pays a much steeper price – his authentic voice means risking his long-cherished marriage. In our movie, the hero’s attachment to loneliness might cost him the possible true love of his life; on the other hand, accepting this love might lead to further heartbreak.

As you can see from these examples, attaching risk to both the old pattern of behavior as well as the new pattern of behavior leads to high-stakes drama that makes theme an active powerhouse.

Getting to Work
The amazing thing about breaking down the components of theme is that we have covered so many essential principles of great screenwriting: we have identified clear points of transformation for the hero; we have identified clear character goals; we have identified source of clear, relevant conflict; we have cultivated high-risk drama; and, best yet, we have made a clear dramatic statement. This kind of knowledge of your screenplay is an absolute must if you want to craft a successful film story. Here are some exercises to get you started on a great outlining process.

1) Make a list of what you think your movie is about, what thematic ideas you want to explore.

2) For each idea, complete the above exercise – how does your hero transform? How does each thematic idea figure into the transformation?

3) For each thematic statement ask the following questions:

  • How does my hero fight for his opening conditions?
  • From this vantage point, what does success look like for my hero? What does he stand to gain?
  • What conflict actively opposes my hero’s fight?
  • What does my hero risk losing if he continues with this way of life?
  • What does he risk losing if he makes a new choice?

2 Responses to A Quick Tutorial on Developing Theme:

  1. Sam Gharai says:

    Hi Jamie,

    I loved this essay a lot!

    I’m working on a screenplay right now and, although it’s nothing like INCEPTION, I wanted to know if you think this would be a good example of an ACTIVE STATEMENT for that film?

    “Cobb goes from a pessimist to an optimist when takes an offer to salvage his life.”

    Reason I ask is I want to ensure that I completely understand how to design a solid Active Statement.


  2. Jamie Stein says:

    Hi Sam, thanks! When I think of “Inception,” I don’t think of it as a story of pessimism vs optimism. I think of it as a movie about emotional catharsis: Cobb starts out as a man on the run from his deepest guilt (in this case, quite literally – his projection of his wife’s memory is out to kill him!) and he ends as a man who has not only confronted this guilt but actually let it go. So, I would frame Cobb’s statement like this:

    Cobb goes from a ruined, haunted man on the fringe to a redeemed, unified man back in touch with life when he is finally willing to forgive himself for his most destructive mistake.

    A few helpful notes:

    1) A hero’s transformation is basically another way of answering the question, “What is at stake for my hero in this movie?” Always go for the most obvious answer. In “Inception,” Cobb’s optimism isn’t the main thing at stake – what’s really at stake is his last chance to be with his children -which, taken one step deeper, is about him reclaiming the pieces of his destroyed life. This movie is about a destroyed man finding redemption.

    2) The act that facilitates the transformation will always happen at the end of the movie (otherwise, there would be no movie – can you imagine if Will Hunting realized that “it wasn’t his fault” in the first half hour?). Cobb is still outrunning his wife (and his guilt) when he accepts that assignment – this doesn’t change until he confronts his wife at the climax (and lets her go). That act is always going to be the thing your hero is absolutely determined to avoid (that is why it will be such a powerful act of surrender when it finally happens), and it’s always going to be something inside of himself.

    P.S. Have you checked out my blog posts on “Inception” yet?

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