Theme is a delicious ingredient of story that enriches every element. Barri Evins’ tips for adding theme from the outset to elevate your story.
A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for Barri’s newsletter and follow her on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.
In my Big Ideas Screenwriting Seminar, we discuss theme in depth.
It draws people to your story.
It adds impact and resonance.
It broadens the audience.
It makes your story speak to people and linger in their minds.
Theme is a delicious ingredient of story that enriches every element.
An added dimension that engages readers and elevates your piece to a higher level – when it is one of your first ingredients!
In advance of our weekend together, my seminar students get a questionnaire that asks about what I call their “Forever Films,” three movies they could – and do – watch again and again. That’s followed by specific questions about those films. One asks what the theme of each of their Forever Films is. As always, I learn a lot when I teach. Students often answer that question with the plot, or miss the primary theme. But that’s okay, because by the end of the weekend, they will learn a great deal about how to identify and articulate themes, as well as how to use them to make their work personal to them, as well as compelling to readers.
Here’s how you can add the delicious ingredient of theme to your story.
What The F#*k Is Theme?
Remember Aesop’s Fables?
Aesop was a slave who lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 564 BC and created more than 600 fables. Each has a “moral” – the lesson intended to be learned through the story. It is believed that Aesop earned his freedom through storytelling and went on to serve as an advisor to a king. Wow! There’s a powerful message for writers about the sheer power of storytelling.
For more than 2000 years we’ve been listening to, reading and retelling fables. Their morals provide useful life lessons and resonate with audiences of all ages.
Even if you believe you don’t understand theme, I bet you’re familiar with these fables and can easily identify their “moral,” aka Theme.
The Tortoise and the Hare…
Slow and steady wins the race. Never give up!
The Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing…
Appearances can be deceiving.
The Fox and The Grapes…
It is easy to despise what you cannot get. The origin of the term “sour grapes.”
The Lion and the Mouse…
No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.
Many fables have endured for so long that they sparked cultural idioms, such as The Boy Who Cried Wolf. We all know what it means to “cry wolf,” and that being a habitual liar means one will ultimately not be believed, even when telling the truth.
See? Not so complex and abstract. You DO understand theme!
It is the “moral of the story.” Themes are adages – ideas that are universal truths – they are never truly debated or disagreed with. “Yes, money CAN too buy happiness,” argued no one ever. At least, they are truths that we hope to believe, that fit in with our notion of “a just world.”
Each story has one predominate theme. The one thing the story has to say. Think about themes as big, broad universal messages about life. They are visceral. And they are primal, meaning intrinsic to the human experience, understandable by all people.
“True love conquers all.”
“Just be yourself.”
“There’s no place like home.”
“Be careful what you wish for.”
Theme is what the hero learns along their journey.
Of course, there are some hero’s who do not change. The appeal of the story is not in their change but the lack thereof, and the adventure they have. We want our James Bond to be the same time and again. But that’s a discussion for another column. Meanwhile, there’s a great explanation of the hero who does not arc by ScriptMag’s Mystery Man here.
Great Themes Are Personal to The Writer
The themes you choose for your work are you, as an artist, saying to us, as an audience, “This is what I believe is important in life.” It’s what you want to say to the world about what you believe about the human condition. Even if you’re not using human characters to say it.
When you know what strong central ideas inform you as a human being, shape your vision as an artist, and express your point of view on our lives and our world, you can choose story ideas that, at their heart, explore these concepts, even struggle with them.
You will be writing something unique to you that can speak to an audience. It will be fulfilling for you, and your passion for the meaning of the story will shine through.
This is the difference between art and craft.
This self-awareness is one of the first crucial steps on the journey from being a writer who writes what they think will sell; or writing that one story personal to themselves directly mirroring their own experience, or imitating what their writing heroes do, to developing their own unique voice. This just happens to be what every agent and exec in the business is hoping to find – a writer with a voice.
Bake Theme In From the Start
I’ve talked a little about theme in the past – that audiences savor a hint of theme in every bite. In one of my ScriptMag articles I referred to theme as the peanut butter in the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.
For the purpose of scientific research, I just ate a Reese’s left over from Halloween.
Yup, some peanut butter in every bite makes it yummy.
To get some theme into every bite of your story, you really need to know your theme before you begin. You might think that you will amble around, see where the story takes you, and eventually, IT WILL COME.
I say, “Bah!”
That’s great if you’ve got 40 years to spend wandering around in a writing desert, and possibly never finding the Promised Land. Yeah, maybe you’ll stumble across a pretty oasis, but that’s not reaching your final destination. Do you really want to meander endlessly, or do you want your story to get out there and reach people who want to hear it?
The best way to incorporate theme is to outline. Yes, I’ve said it once, twice, a thousand times – I think I’ve snuck it into almost every monthly column I’ve written for ScriptMag since 2012! But, you may not realize that outlining isn’t solely about structure and “what happens next?” It’s about arc – the journey your hero takes from beginning to end of the story and how those events change them. That change illustrates the theme!
If you’re not outlining, you are writing with beer goggles on! Check to see if that applies to you here. You simply can’t see clearly. You can’t fully grasp the big picture.
Writing is decision making. In your search for great writing, let every decision you make pass through the keyhole of thematic. It’s your decider from big choices to small ones. Each has an impact on the reader. Sprinkles on top don’t make the entire dish delicious.
This is why I encourage the writers I work with on Story Consultations to use the Big Ideas Structure Template, which you can get here, because it forces you to think about the arc of the hero and the theme from the outset. And with every page you add to your outline, the header on arc and theme pops up at the top to remind you that each major beat should contribute to the hero’s arc and support the theme.
Baking it in from the start, as part of the essential ingredients, ensures there will be some theme in every bite. It’s far more powerful than trying to shove icing between every layer when your cake is already put together.
Will your protagonist be a ball player, a banker, or a bread baker? Which choice will externalize their most significant internal characteristics that will change over the course of the story and best illustrate the theme?
Is the heroine’s outfit when we first meet her dowdy or is it worn? Slight difference, but a significant implication. Which better defines her at the outset? Theme is the decider.
How does the hero treat the people that we meet in the first act? Their co-workers, friends, family, romantic partner? Are they kind, condescending, or disconnected? The choice goes straight to who they are as a character and helps establish them to your audience so they are rootable. We can see how they need to change over the course of the story – thus, illustrating the theme.
When you let theme be your decider, you are able to weave theme throughout the story, ensuring there is some in every bite.
Theme in The First 10 Pages
This is the only “page count” rule I actually believe in when it comes to scripts. Because, gosh darn it, readers and audiences wanna know what your story is about – pronto. That said, I’m not a page count freak, so if your Theme Stated is on page 11 – or heaven forbid, page 12 – DO NOT STRESS and start trimming words. It’s not worth it. First 10 is just a worthy target to shoot for. It’s the first ten minutes of your film.
A few words about “Theme Stated.” While this has been brilliantly articulated by several smart people who came before me, most notably my friend Blake Snyder, here referring to an example, “Like many Theme Stated moments, it’s spoken to the hero by someone the hero doesn’t think has anything to tell him – and seems unimportant at the time.”
A supporting character will make a statement to the main character that reflects the theme of the movie. It won’t be obvious. It will be conversational, perhaps an offhand remark. But it will have a meaningful and resonant impact later.
Please don’t hit us over the head! Oblique can be very powerful. Stating The Antithesis of the Theme can also be well played.
Remember, the Theme Stated cannot be spoken by the hero – because they don’t know it yet!
A Terrifyingly Good Theme Example
Logline: When a Great White shark terrorizes a quiet New England beach community, the town’s police chief must overcome his fear of the water and join forces with a grizzled shark hunter and a daredevil oceanographer to hunt it down.
Jaws is one of my favorite examples of theme because it is so clear, rich and layered. That may be partly due to its adaptation from the terrific novel by Peter Benchley, which was scary enough so that when I read it as a kid, and finished late at night, I was afraid to go into the bathroom, because: “Water!” Benchley also co-wrote the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb.
So what is the theme at the heart of this story? The entire story revolves around fear.
All three major characters reflect different points of view on fear.
Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody, the protagonist, is paralyzed by his fear of the water. He’s just taken a new job on an island, thinking it would be safer for his family than the dangerous big city. The irony! So from the outset, the writers have surrounded the hero with his deepest fear: Water. When he caves in to the city council and opens the beach despite the threat, sure enough, the shark shows up and eats the boy on the yellow raft. People start shouting, and Brody runs toward the water where his young son is swimming. But he can’t go in. Literally. Despite the potential jeopardy to his own child, he skirts the edges of the waves, screaming at people to get out of the water.
Enter Robert Shaw’s grizzled fisherman-for-hire, Quint. Ultimately, we learn through his riveting telling of his experience in the water with sharks – based on the true story of the shark attack on the sinking USS Indianapolis – that he has a healthy respect for the dangers of the ocean. As well we should, since human beings are not truly equipped to be there. We’re out of our element.
Enter Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper, an ichthyologist brought in to help identify what kind of monster they’re dealing with. Dreyfuss is a daredevil. He’s fearless.
When it comes to the water, we humans are the proverbial fish out of water. Due to evolution, we are not designed to be super fast swimmers. We can’t see well underwater. We can’t hold our breath very long. We are defenseless. These vulnerabilities make it a perfect setting for a horror story, ensuring it has the potential to scare a broad audience.
There you have it. Three perspectives on fear.
I know you remember the iconic line, uttered by Roy Scheider when he gets the first close up look of the massive shark, shown here, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” That’s how most people remember it. The actual line is, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” That line was not in the script. It’s an improv, based on the on-set joke about the “stingy” producers working on a shoestring budget. It became a catch phrase amongst the cast and crew that Scheider kept inserting into scenes.
According to CinemaBlend:
In Jaws, Roy Scheider’s Sheriff Brody utters the line after getting his first good, up close and personal look at the shark he, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw are hunting on the high seas off of New England. It wasn’t the only time he uttered the line during filming, as the actor threw it in here and there as he ad-libbed at various stages in the production. It was this particular moment, however, that made it into the finished product, and with good reason. When the stunned Brody backs into the cabin and tells Shaw’s Quint, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” shocked expression on his face, cigarette clamped between his lips, it’s such a droll, human, perfect reaction that it had to be that shot.
Cool as that trivia is, the point is that the line you remember the most has nothing to do with the theme.
The actual Theme Stated comes early in the film. It is made by greedy Mayor Harry Vaughn – a character who Brody “doesn’t think has anything to tell him” – on page 11 in Benchley’s draft:
VAUGHN Martin, sharks are like ax-murderers. People react to them with their guts.
Pretty awesome dialogue. But not in the script. The movie stayed true to Benchley’s idea, but spelled it out a little more directly. I found this version in Benchley and Gottlieb’s draft:
VAUGHN I don't think you can appreciate the gut reaction people have to these things. BRODY I was only reacting to what I was told.
[NOTE: Brody is referencing the coroner’s statement: That he believed the girl was killed by a shark. Mayor Vaughn, concerned about the town’s profits over the upcoming holiday weekend, has just convinced the coroner to retract that statement. It could have been a boat propeller… Yeah, right.]
VAUGHN (taking Brody aside) It's all psychological, anyway. You yell 'Barracuda' and everyone says'huh'. You yell 'Shark' and we've got a panic on our hands. I think we all agree we don't need a panic this close to the 4th of July.
In the film, at minute 13 – subtract a minute of opening titles and you’re actually on page 12 – I found the identical lines as above, with a slight modification to Brody’s interjection, “Harry, I appreciate it. I was just reacting to what I was told.”
So the central idea, the universal concept that forms the heart of the story is FEAR.
It’s a “gut reaction.” The panic is “all psychological.”
And the story gives us three perspectives on the psychology of fear.
Brody’s fear is paralyzing.
Quint has a healthy level of fear, based on his experience of how dangerous the ocean can be.
Hooper’s fear is nearly non-existent. He’s fascinated.
So what’s the theme here – the one thing that Benchley wanted to express to the audience in this story that clearly revolves around the concept of fear?
It’s in Brody’s arc. He starts out truly wanting to do his job and keep people safe, but his fear prevents him. Over the course of the story, he meets Quint who has a healthy degree of fear, and Hooper who is fearless. Here’s Brody at the outset – skirting the water’s edge, screaming for kids to get out – while other parents run in to save their kids from being eaten:
In the end, how is his change illustrated? He conquers his fear – he is in the water, on a rapidly sinking ship, and he can’t swim, when he kills the shark – going mano-a-sharko, so to speak – enabling him to save the day.
One way to express it would be, “If we don’t conquer our fears, our fears will conquer us.”
Primal. Visceral. A universal truth. Applies to how to live life. The moral of the story.
In an interview prior to the release of the film, Benchley said, “I wanted to convey the visceral fear people have of being eaten.” You can watch it here.
And In The End
Take a minute to think of one of your “Forever Films.” One that you could – and do – watch again and again. There may be many things you love about it, but now think about its theme. I’ll betcha’ when you hit on that theme, it is something that resonates with you personally. That message speaks to you, it draws you into the story, it is delicious to you, and it makes you eager to watch the movie again and again.
Share something in the comments… I’d love to know your ”Forever Film” or book and its theme that speaks to you on a deep level.
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