Theme gives your story purpose. Theme gives your screenplay meaning.
Let’s say that someone reads your screenplay and asks, “What’s the point?” They’re usually asking about the theme.
In a screenplay, the theme is the heart of the story. There are many ways to interpret theme. It can be the moral, the underlying message, the central topic, or the “big idea”. It might be a premise, a point of view, or an abstract concept. But primarily, it’s the reason that you’re telling the story in the first place – the idea that adds greater value and resonance to your story as a whole. It is generally something that you explore rather than define and it is also often a reflection of your beliefs as a writer. Whether your theme is idealistic, pessimistic, ironic, or something else entirely, is up to you.
One writer might believe that if you work hard enough, you can achieve greatness. Another writer might believe that only those born with true talent can achieve greatness. A third writer might believe that you can only achieve true greatness by sacrificing everything. While those three writers might explore similar themes, they will tell very different stories and send very different messages by the end of their screenplay. The Academy Award-winning film Whiplash offers one take on those themes – in order to achieve true greatness, you must sacrifice everything.
Overall, a good theme is an overarching idea that permeates every aspect of your screenplay and is ever-present in the subtext of your scenes. Some of the best themes deal with universal truths or inherently human emotions that transcend cultural boundaries, but it’s also fine if your theme is more specific or relevant to a niche audience. Ultimately, your theme is up for interpretation. Just try to be conscious of it as you write and it will find its way into your story. How? See the tips below for various ways to capture theme in screenplays.
It’s important to note that there are many ways to interpret theme and this is merely our way of looking at it.
The film 500 Days of Summer explores love and relationships, but ultimately sends the message that, no matter how painful a breakup may feel, life goes on, you will find someone else, and eventually the heartbreak will be forgotten.
The Wolf of Wall Street demonstrates how unscrupulous methods in business might be lucrative in the short term, but will cause you to lose everything in the long run.
The Hunger Games trilogy shows us that a single person has the power to catalyze widespread change.
In TV, theme is exactly the same, except that it emerges in two primary forms – series theme and episode theme.
In Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks, the “series theme” is a version of the “individual versus society”. Sam and Lindsey struggle to find their place in the world while befriending a variety of different cliques at school. Over the course of the series, we learn that not everyone fits into the molds or stereotypes that society expects of us. The theme is that it’s not only acceptable but also important for us to become our own unique individual. We are not limited to being a “jock” or a “stoner” or a “nerd”.
While the entire series explores that idea, each episode also has its own “episode theme.” In the first episode, the story begins shortly after Sam and Lindsey’s grandmother dies and, as it causes them to begin questioning basic childhood beliefs, we learn that we all have to grow up at some point.