Monday, August 6, 2007


Theme is the core idea or message pervading any given story-line (or at least they say it should be so). It is often (I think) confused with genre and so it’s not unusual to read about a gay or detective theme movie.

Theme is a symbolic distillation of the story’s premise... the “Godfather” stories probably have a theme of Family. Why? The title of the book/film implies family, the history of the Corleone clan is the basis for the trilogy, the entire life-cycle of the human experience is covered birth-to-death in all films etc. But you won’t find the words “theme=family” written down anywhere... it won’t exist in the SP or the film credits... but it’ll be there. Buried.


There are unlikely to be any new themes coming our way soon. This is because they’re pretty ordinary little messages that have existed for as long as people have wanted to tell (and hear) stories. Ideally we get to know pretty quickly what the theme for a story might be and then witness that same thing pervade the entire story, see it mirrored throughout in characters and relationships and dialogue. Is “Pulp Fiction” (1994) really about drugs and murders? Or is it about salvation? Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) decides to quit the business while he can, while Vincent (John Travolta) keeps going and dies on the job.


Does a story need a theme to be any good? Probably not. Would having a theme guarantee its success? Nope.

Instead, it’s there to glue everything together. In that regard, keeping it in mind really just acts as a way to retain focus on what’s important when writing the story.

Theme comes in two parts... the first part is the subject matter, a broad categorization if you will; the second is a specific question or statement within that subject matter.

It’s this second part that is the tough nut to crack. It is completely freeform and you can come up with anything you want. Whether or not you’ll find anyone out there that agrees with you or not is a different matter. In other words, it has to make some sort of sense. And it probably won’t come across too well if you ram it down your reader’s throats.

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Example: “Toy Story” (1995) is about love... Woody desperately wants Andy to love him, specifically to love him best of all. He wants to be the top toy. Buzz’s arrival is an immediate threat once all of Andy’s birthday presents are unwrapped... Woody’s rivalry dominates once Act 1 is over (about 19 minutes into the film). That is until the end of Act 2 (at about 60 minutes) when Woody finally gets it while contemplating escape from Sid’s bedroom. Woody cannot make Andy love him... he has to accept whatever happens. So it’s not just about love... the question posed by the storytellers is “can you make love happen” ? Or something like that. And the answer is of course no.

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Example: “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) is about freedom... actually it could be about several other things, notably change, hope and “the system” and so-on. It’s probably less important which one is chosen... as long as there is one and it’s the best fit for the story. CUCKOO is probably about freedom because the protagonist McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) doesn’t have any... he is institutionalized because he’s acting crazy but he’s just pretending so as to get out of work detail at the Prison. Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) is the antagonist because she’s going to do everything she can to stop him achieving his goal of leaving the Hospital. In the course of his stay, McMurphy befriends the quiet Chief (Will Sampson) and instills in him a desire to escape... to be free. The two come close to getting free, but as fate would have it, McMurphy doesn’t take his opportunity. Probably because he’s rather help Billy (Brad Dourif) get laid. So it’s not just about freedom... the question posed by the storytellers is “is freedom worth having”? Or something like that. And the answer is yes.

Remember - the answer your story provides doesn’t have to conform to anyone’s preconceived ideas of what the answer should be. But if it’s something kooky... like hate - “don’t we all hate tall people?”... then it’s likely not going to be a best seller. You may believe it but nobody else will. It also has to make sense... you may honestly believe that a return to innocence will make you happy, but it’s simply not something one can actually do. Without a lobotomy, I mean. And it has to be something everyone else could reasonably relate to.

Ideally it should be posed as a question... it doesn’t have to though. “Wall Street” (1987) didn’t do so with its theme of greed. It basically made a statement like “greed is good” and then proceeded to show us the protagonist Gordon Gekko’s (Michael Douglas) downfall. In other words, the statement was refuted IMO.

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I recall looking for a book on the subject of Theme but it didn’t exist. It’s usually more a chapter within one or two text books on screenwriting (if you’re lucky). BTW: The Screenwriting Expo folks have a DVD out from James Mercurio on this very topic... I don’t have it - nor have I seen it - but I do have others in the series and they’re very good.

So what are the common subject themes? Here’s a list I’ve been compiling for some time now. Remember the list below represents the first part... you have to supply the second part, representing your “take” on what it is you’re trying to say with your story. Hopefully you do have something to say... not a lecture, but your point-of-view.

And if someone else has a different list, it really doesn’t matter... If someone else has a better list, then use theirs! Don’t get hung up on the little stuff... if you think an idea you have falls under A or B, then just pick one. Seriously. It’s not important that you choose J.1.c vs. J.3.k... it’s just a list of indented words straight out of an Inspiration 8 drawing.

A. Coming of Age

B. Fall from Grace

C. Fate

D. Love
        1. Platonic
        2. Romantic
E. Pursuit/Rescue

F. Revenge

G. The Big Mystery

H. The Big Con

J. The Big Battle

        1. Man vs. Abstract
                a. Allegory
                b. Dreams
                c. God/s
                d. Magic/illusion
                e. Superstition

        2. Man vs Monster
                a. Machine
                b. Supernatural ghosts/demons

        3. Man vs. Man
                a. Addiction
                b. Alienation/Isolation
                c. Art
                d. Business/Commerce
                e. Charity
                f. Escape
                g. Family
                h. History
                i. Humor
                j. Politics
                k. Religion/faith/salvation

                l. Self
                        (1) Avarice
                        (2) Betrayal
                        (3) Courage
                        (4) Decadence
                        (5) Deception
                        (6) Duty
                        (7) Envy
                        (8) Excess
                        (9) Fortitude
                        (10) Generosity
                        (11) Gluttony
                        (12) Greed
                        (13) Grief
                        (14) Guilt
                        (15) Hope
                        (16) Identity
                        (17) Jealousy
                        (18) Loss
                        (19) Poverty
                        (20) Pride
                        (21) Prudence
                        (22) Sloth
                        (23) Temptation
                        (24) Truth
                        (25) Vanity

                m. Sports/Competition
                n. The Sexes
                o. Violence
                p. Wrath

        4. Man vs. Nature
                a. Death/Decay
                b. Time
                c. The Unknown
                d. Weather
                e. Blight
                f. Animals
                g. Change
                h. Confinement
                i. Old Age
                j. Disaster
                k. Disease
                l. Monotony
                m. Hard Times

                n. Medical Disorder
                        (1) Physical
                        (2) Mental

        5. Man vs. Society
                a. Assimilation
                b. Attitude
                c. Chaos
                d. Class
                e. Community
                f. Crime
                g. Culture
                h. Exile
                i. Freedom
                j. Justice
                k. Language
                l. Marriage
                m. Misogyny
                n. Morality/Ethics
                o. Nationalism
                p. Oppression
                q. Prejudice
                r. Race
                s. Taboo
                t. The Law
                u. The System
                v. Tradition
                w. Work

        6. Man vs. Technology
K. The Great Journey

L. The Noble Sacrifice

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