How to Find the Theme of a Screenplay

Take a look at this image of these books on a shelf.

Do you know the secret of why they are so upright and tidy like that?

And NO, the answer is not IKEA! 🛑

It’s the binder of each book that keeps the sheets together. Strip away the book binder and you’ll have paper sheets flying everywhere.

When you’re writing your screenplay, think of the binder as the theme for your script. Think of Lord of the Rings and the power of the One Ring 👉

What’s the overall theme that binds it all (as in your screenplay beats)?

A mix of incredible dialogue, amazing scenes, a wonderful plot, and impressive characters are the hallmarks of a good script. They can almost cover up the absence of a theme.

However, without a theme, viewers will still notice that something isn’t quite right. 

The theme of the screenplay!

The theme is to a screenplay what a binder is to a book. Scenes, characters, plots, and basically all else revolves around the theme. The theme is what binds all the screenplay elements together into one cohesive narrative.

In simple words, it is the agenda of your script. The moral issue is entwined in the story and molds the plot. It is the message you’re passing to your viewers and is considered the philosophical or emotional backbone of a script.

Here are examples of themes in cinema –

🎥 Technology and humanity don’t get along: The Terminator, 2001: Space Odyssey

🎥 Coming of Age: Any John Hughes movie, Juno, Rushmore

🎥 Family is most important: Godfather, Breaking Bad

🎥 God’s relationship with humanity: It’s A Wonderful Life, Dogma, Oh, God!

And there are many more.

Here are 3 ways you can discover the theme in your screenplay

Harness your stream of consciousness 

Staring at a blank piece of paper, screenplay ideas can be hard to come by, let alone a theme. You can scratch your head for hours and still get nothing.

Sometimes, the best way to write and find a theme is by not thinking at all. Freewriting is a powerful tool that harnesses the power of one’s stream of consciousness. 

It breaks the shackles of basic restrictions and conventions, setting free your creativity and allowing a theme to unknowingly emerge.

Free writing involves capturing ideas as they come to mind without judgmental analysis. You may stumble on creative ideas that perhaps wouldn’t have been possible with scripting restrictions hanging over your head.

Immerse yourself in your world

Most people start out with ideas. Mostly cool ideas that would look… cool on screen.

But when you sit down and write, you might not be ready to tie all these ideas together. So it’s good to place yourself in your own world.

👉 Have conversations with your characters.

Be like Barbara Walters and ask them questions. This also helps with character development as you see what motivates them, what drives them.

👉 Spend a day in the pub in your world.

What’s the talk about in the world? What’s the gossip? 

Sometimes the best way to feel the pulse is to spend it with the plebs. If you ever read George R.R. Martin, you’ll notice the detailed description on food and alcohol. It’s like he actually drank and ate with his characters.

Here’s George Martin on world building and immersing yourself in your world:

How to get started

Break out your pen and don’t stop writing until you’re through. The first scene you come up with can serve as inspiration for the theme and the rest of the plot line.

Probably not all you’ll write will be very good. However, there are bound to be little pockets of gold within the rumblings that you can use. 

You’ll be surprised at how you can conjure an epic story and theme from scratch. A theme can pop up from the first actions of your characters.

For example, say you came up with a scene about a detective on the trail of kidnappers. The latter in search of money, thereby exploring the theme of whether money is the key to happiness. 

Free writing is also desirable for uncertain writers who aren’t sure which niche path to take.

It subconsciously answers this question, bringing to the fore what you are passionate about.

Use common themes in movies but make the characters your own

Another great way to nail down a theme is to start with one already in mind. That could be inspired by a movie you like.

You probably have a couple of films you watch on repeat.

Your favorite ones can offer guidance. Borrow a theme but be sure to make the characters your own.

With an initial theme shaping your story, characters’ moments, plot points, and scenes should offer a continuous reminder of it. 

The Leitwortstil technique is a common way to put this across. It entails a repetitive phrase that reminds the audience of the theme at important plot points. 

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy is a perfect example. 

The protagonist is constantly reminded of the weight on his shoulders because of his newfound powers.

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Let’s explore two more popular themes you can play around with and mold in your preference.

First up, the theme of Love. Oscar-winning Titanic shows the incredible power of love.

That it is an immense force that can make one give up his life for their true love. 

This culminates in the final scene when an elderly Rose drops the necklace into the ocean. Thereby, implying she’s onto the memory for all these years.

We constantly see how the protagonists battle opposition, including nature, to be together. Your story doesn’t have to take place on a ship and be exactly like this one.

Just show the audience the lengths to which two characters will go to realize their love. 

In Rocky, an important theme comes up: perseverance.

An underdog trains his heart out and goes the distance with an unbeaten world champion.

Instead of boxing, you can make this theme your own in another way. 

The 2006 blockbuster, In the Pursuit of Happiness, shows us perseverance from another angle.

Protagonist Chris Gardner, a homeless salesman, puts in the work to find happiness and fulfill The American Dream.

There are so many themes to choose from. Be sure to pick the one you are passionate about and learn from successful movies that have portrayed it wonderfully before.

Use literature and apply to modern times 

Great works of literature from the past can also be squeezed out for a theme or two.

Many successful screenwriters have attested to triggering their light bulbs through ancient works of art. Shakespeare’s Rome and Juliet has formed the reference for several themes.

Once you understand the underlying message in literature, you can make a new story with old ideas.

In Romeo and Juliet, for instance, it’s clear that love or romance is the primary theme

The story implies that love can be an overpowering force to the point of violence. That its passion can supersede loyalties, among other values. They defy their friends, family, and the authorities to be together.

Nothing stands in their way, and whatever does, they find a solution past it. Simply put, the two lead characters fight for a forbidden love. From different opposing backgrounds, they battle the odds in a world of arranged marriages.

This concept is literal in a sense that there’s an actual movie adaption of Romeo and Juliet, a 1990s cult classic 📽️

The Princess Bride, a 1987 adventure-romance hit, is thought to be inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Although not outrightly stated by William Goldman, the man behind the story, we can see a lot of similarities. In both, love is portrayed like fate, a force too powerful to go against.

Both Buttercup and Juliet are to be married off after encountering their first love. The female leads have no interest in their arranged partners and consider death as a way out. 

Juliet says she’d rather jump to her death than marry her betrothed.

Buttercup threats to commit suicide in the honeymoon suite. It was also curious how poison worked its way into both storylines.

In a nutshell, The Princess Bride, just like Rome and Juliet explores themes of suicide, arranged marriages, and love. 

The modern romance epic goes to show how present-day artists can be inspired by ancient works and great minds of past centuries.

Finally, even Quentin Tarantino (who wrote and sold the screenplay) got his big break with the love theme in the movie aptly named True Romance 📽️

Put it all together

As I mentioned earlier, think of the theme as the binder that holds it all together.

Whether it’s Save the Cat or the sequence method 👉

Without a theme, all you have is clutter of ideas. One or two might look cool on screen. One or two characters might have a line or two.

By having a theme, you take your narrative to the next level. With a theme, those random dialogue on page 23 isn’t so random anywhere.

There’s a reason why each and every word on your screenplay is written down on paper (or on a screenwriting software).

Writing with a theme shows you have complete mastery of the narrative and your world.

It’s what makes a set of random ideas into a cohesive critique of humanity and the universe.

It’s how you make movie magic! Protection Status