Theme is something many writers struggle with, but the truth is it rarely emerges at the beginning of the beginning of the script development process, more often than not it’s something that is REVEALED to the writer after a few drafts. At least that’s my experience with my own writing but also what I’ve observed with the many writers and screenwriting students I’ve worked with thus far.
To find a theme there are plenty of theoretical tools out there from Lajos Egri’s “The Art of Dramatic Writing” to Darak Mark’s “Inside Story” but I like the way Carson Reeves from Scriptshadow put it simply, in layman’s terms, in the article below: “WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY?”. That’s all a theme boils down to. Oftentimes finding your theme is an unconscious journey, a deep truth we unearth from the depth of your psyche through a trial-an-error process.
I see writers try to force a theme and shape the story accordingly to reflect the theme they set out to investigate only to find they got sidetracked and hit a brick wall. I tell them not to worry. A theme is rarely set in stone. Eventually what they were really trying to say with will emerge, maybe after 4 or 5 drafts, sometimes more. Creation is messy. Messier than a lot of screenwriting gurus would like to claim. In fact, one of the most honest book on the subject is Ed Catmull’s “Creative, Inc”, a book about the Pixar process, which reveals how haphazard storytelling can be at times, even with the most brilliant storytellers at the helm.
In any case, without further ado, here is Carson’s take on theme, with a few examples which will help you demystify a key notion in screenwriting…