January 15, 2016

Themes Explained: What They Are, How to Use Them, & Why They're Important

The funny thing about themes is that even though writers can manage to tackle a 100-page screenplay full of complex characters and multiple storylines, many of them wouldn't be able to tell you exactly what their story's theme is.

If you were like, "That is 100% me," you're not alone -- you, me, as well as countless other screenwriters get confused trying to define, find, and come up with these strange little abstract concepts called "themes". But never fear, because Darious Britt is here to break down 1.) what a theme is, 2.) how to recognize them in films, and 3.) how to use them and work with them in your own writing.

Theme:

"A central idea in a piece of writing or other work."

If themes were supervillains, their evil superpower would be their ability to stupefy people with their elusory nature. I mean -- the central idea of a story -- what is that? This is why Britt's video is a must-watch, because we get definitions, examples, and tips that demystify a lot of what makes the concept of themes so difficult to grasp. (Am I being a drama queen about this? Is everyone else like, "Um -- themes are simple, V. Read a damn book,"?) It's helpful, at least for me, to think of themes as the "moral of the story", one of the few alternate monickers Britt mentions in the video.

Okay, so why is it important to come up with a theme? 

They help define the universe

Themes help define the universe in which your story will take place, as well as the filter through which all of your information will be administered. In other words, the theme helps color every part of your story, from the characters, the plot, the actions, everything.

They will go full Welcome Back Kotter on you

Screenwriting is super, super, super hard, you guys, and sometimes ironing out ideas and concepts is a task that proves to be too big for our britches. We get lost. We get confused. We get frustrated with all the directions our mind wants to take our story. But, themes help to bring us back. They return us to our original idea, the center, the heart of our story. They say "Welcome back, ol' chap," kiss us on the forehead, and let us set out again into the treacherous wilderness of screenwriting once again, only this time, we know where we are.

Like Britt says, you may not have to "come up with" a theme at all, because sometimes they materialize in your screenplay without you even trying. By the way, don't think that you have to try and reinvent the wheel (one of my biggest issues with coming up with a theme), because there are plenty of them that are proven to work, and are used consistently in film. Script Magazine lists a bunch of -- I guess -- theme nuggets -- I just made that up -- anyway, these are essentially just topics that can help you come up with some bona fide themes: Redemption, Resurrection, Prodigal Son, Transformation, Vengeance, Innocence, Justice, Sacrifice, Jealousy, Friendship, Fate.

In the end, a helpful way to really understand what the hell a theme is is to watch a bunch of movies and come up with their themes. Examples, examples, examples! That's my go-to method of learning anything. So, give it a shot!      

Your Comment

16 Comments

Man... I'm sure this information is useful but I seriously cannot get through this style of video. I can't concentrate at all on what he's saying because it's so manic. What is up with the trend of A.D.H.D. editing in tutorials? Am I alone in thinking this?

I will point out though that I really REALLY appreciate how No Film School always breaks down posted videos in text form. Makes digesting the content way more convenient when watching a video isn't possible (in public, at work etc.).

Thanks for doing that!

January 15, 2016 at 3:24PM

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Austin page
Videographer
81

I think Darious videos are becoming better and better, but at the same time I understand your point. The problem is - I think - nowadays you kinda HAVE to force some kind of "hipness" and rythm into Youtube videos, and at the same time build a character for yourself, or people just wouldn't watch and you'll have a very hard time being relevant and followed. We live in the time of nonexistent attention span where tons of people all-form-and-zero-substance make million views. You have to deal with that in a way or another. I think Darious videos have lots of substance, and that particular style helps him reaching the widest audience possibile. There are notable exceptions to this, like Tony Zhou, who manages to reach millions even if he doesn't appear on video and has a clean, sober style. But I think it is, as said, one of few exceptions. If you think about it, almost every famous Youtube channel has a distinct style that can appeal some and annoy others... For example every once in a while I get annoyed by Film Riot's constant need of cracking a joke every five seconds... But I can understand why they do it, and it works for them.

January 15, 2016 at 3:35PM, Edited January 15, 3:44PM

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David R. Falzarano
Director / Writer / Editor
1291

https://vimeo.com/115206023

That's a really interesting video essay deconstructing style of video essays and what makes them appealing. It's point 2. that Kevin B Lee makes about Tony Zhou's hyper narration that made me feel it was relevant

January 15, 2016 at 7:37PM, Edited January 15, 7:37PM

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"What is up with the trend of A.D.H.D...."

TL;DR.

(Just kidding.)

January 21, 2016 at 7:38PM, Edited January 21, 7:38PM

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sorry for the double post, please delete this

January 15, 2016 at 3:25PM, Edited January 15, 3:35PM

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David R. Falzarano
Director / Writer / Editor
1291

Themes:
1. They glue your ideas together, they keep things moving the same direction, they keep your story from getting lost on irrelevant and distracting tangents.
2. Themes are subliminal, they influence the way people think and what they believe, often without them knowing it... Yet so many writers pretend they don't exist... No judgments here, but this does strike me as terribly irresponsible. (If you want proof of the influence of themes look no further than the highly unfortunate example of Birth of a Nation; before that film came out the KKK was dead, after it came out, its less than subtle themes inspired old Klan members to reorganize and the Klan came back in force. Stories are incredibly powerful, under the right circumstances they can be either destructive or constructive motivators and influences).
3. Why not consider your films theme? I mean, making people laugh is always a noble and wonderful profession, so maybe this theme thing doesn't always apply to every film in every genre: like pure, goofball comedy. But to write a drama, for example, without a central thematic premise is going to make your film, and thereby your audience, discombobulated as to what your film is about (on an emotional and mental level, although they may or may not know why they're confused/dissatisfied). Themes are the organization of the soul of your movie, they are what you believe, who you are. Themes are just personal philosophy embedded into the story, so why leave your soul out? Why not write something that could make the world just a little bit better for the handful of people who deeply connect, perhaps even on a spiritual level, to your film? Theme can be thought of as subtext too, its the underlying message. You can't control everyone's subjective perception of your film, but if its in your subconscious it may very well show up on the screen in the form of ideology; So I try to do my best to make it conscious, to be intentional. The way I see it, I know everything else going into my film (lighting, set design, casting), so why forget about the most important part? Why forget about the thing that is reflected by and is the culmination of, all of the other choices I've made while making my film?
4. Analyze one of your favorite movies, my guess is that if you search hard enough you'll be able to boil the film down to its central idea, aka moral, aka premise, aka philosophy, aka ideology, aka message, aka subtext. You might come to a better understanding of why you love that film so much, why its among your personal favorites. Maybe you'll even learn something about yourself, after all, isn't that what story telling is for?

January 16, 2016 at 4:19AM, Edited January 16, 4:39AM

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Concerning 2, I think you are mistaken in your assertion that BOAN resurrected the klan from death. Racism was alive and dominant at the time and needed no help from a movie to kickstart it again. BOAN was selling the dominant racial ideas at the time to people who already shared those views. I think using the movie as an example of how powerful movies or stories are or can be hasn't aged well as an idea. Most everyone I know doesn't get inspired, motivated, or excited to action by any movie. More often they become passive consumers wallowing in fantasyland. YMMV.

January 16, 2016 at 3:46PM

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Daniel Thoen
ne'er-do-well
251

You're right and also I'm right I think; BOAN didn't create any racism, but it sure didn't help and it surely exacerbated the problem. Its was not, and I didn't mean that, it was not the only factor, rather it was part of the culture that encouraged racist ideologies. Films, art and stories are part of the culture, they feed into our fears and hopes for better or for worse, they do not make the culture, but surely they influence it. Also, just because someone is a passive observer doesn't mean they don't take in the onscreen ideas. In fact if one is passive they are more likely, I think, to absorb ideas into their subconscious without even realizing it. Secondly I doubt that you don't know people who get inspired by movies, you don't think that Star Wars has actively inspired a lot of people, including someone you know, over the years? I think you can even be inspired without being able to articulate it, without consciously knowing the source of your inspiration. Finally themes don't just inspire, they can also question, challenge, console etc. the possibilities are endless. Don't you have a list of favorite movies, some of which inspire you? I think everyone has a list of some sort of media--music, movies, books, games, comics--that inspire them. Films are just part of the media culture that everyone carries with them in their hearts and minds. All I meant is that filmmakers should be conscious of the impact of what their films say on a thematic level. I don't mean that most films make people go out and change their lives, but consider this example: an overweight 14-year old girl has grown up with films, music and images that bombard her with an idea as to the way she is supposed to look. How is she supposed to feel? Films did contribute to the culture that shapes how she may come to feel about her body (for better or worse). I could generate negative and positive examples all day, but this one I think is very relevant and illustrative.

January 16, 2016 at 8:11PM

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ok. Your writing is all over the map and its hard for me to tell what you are trying to really get at.

Sure, films are part of culture. Reflecting culture. Whatever. No argument there and nothing new.

Star Wars inspires. Yeah. Did you want to bring this up as an example of a powerful movie? I would grant that it has inspired more than a few to want to get into movies, and it changed how popcorn movies were made, and it's had a big effect on pop culture. There is a lot of fan fiction and people love wallowing in the fantasy world. People love the movies. They are comforting. But how powerful is it? How are you measuring? Has it actually changed lives for the better? I think its escapist fantasy. Quite fun to be sure, but pure fantasy. I've found many documentaries to be much more affecting to me than fiction movies and I hope you can guess why.

Of course I have a list of favorite movies. I don't know how inspiring they are. I enjoy them. I get more inspired by real life. YMMV.

I have no idea what you are driving at concerning an overweight 14 year old girl and how she is supposed to feel. Are you looking for a collective hand wringing? People (at least in the U.S.) have more opportunity now to live and express themselves however they want compared to any time in history. Everybody gets bombarded by media. Doesn't mean you have to buy what is being sold.

January 17, 2016 at 12:00AM

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Daniel Thoen
ne'er-do-well
251

I have been confused as to what you're getting at as well. Lets clarify.

My point is this:

Films reflect and contain the ideologies of their creators.
People who watch films absorb these ideologies.
Therefore Films influence people's ideologies.

Is there a part of that equation do you disagree with? Also:

On the second point: people absorb ideas whether they are aware of absorption or not --thats kinda what the subconscious does; it seems to sponge up random shit that you find there later and wonder "where the hell did that come from." And if one is a more active viewer one will realize the ideology packed into the films they watch and will filter what they agree and disagree with. The ideology is there, every single coherent film has characters, plot points and filmic techniques which express or deny attitudes, beliefs, ideologies, emotions, themes etc. Give me ANY film that is relatively coherent and I can tell you some of the ideology it is trying to bet across. My point is that some of that ideology (theme) gets into our heads. Film is after all a mode of communication as much as it is an art.

Also:

I never excluded documentary films... they're films too. and...

Fiction can be equally powerful: Just because it isn't about a real world event doesn't mean it doesn't express actual ideas which influence the way people think. By reflecting culture, as you admit the movies do, they reinforce cultural values do they not?

Perhaps I've been using inadequate examples. Personally: Tangerine changed the way I think about transgender people, now I'm helping with a documentary on a transgender couple. The Thing changed the way I thought about existence itself. The Big Short changed the way I think about Wall Street, government and the banking system (it changed the way everyone thinks whom I have talked to). Seven Samurai made me remember that its important to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. Her made me think differently about Artificial Intelligence. The 400 Blows made me contemplate the importance of family. There is no conceivable way that I'm the only one who's life has been changed by the movies. For Godard they were his religion, they may not be that to everyone (I wouldn't even take it that far) but I think its beyond reason to think that many people's lives haven't been changed by cinema (and I don't mean big changes necessarily, perhaps you just look at something differently and do not behave differently, but my point is that cinema can change the way people THINK).

There may be 0 films that are inspiring or intellectually or emotionally challenging to you, but YMMV.

January 18, 2016 at 4:14AM, Edited January 18, 4:59AM

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My original point was to show you where you were factually wrong about BOAN and it's audience. I think I did that pretty well, as you didn't argue that point back. Perhaps I made a mistake in sharing my skepticism of the value of cinema as a catalyst for social change.
Then you have been going off on all kinds of tangents and assertions, and I'm not seeing what is to be gained by trying to rein you in to see how my pov differs.

January 18, 2016 at 8:01AM

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Daniel Thoen
ne'er-do-well
251

?? You used BOAN and movies made today to understate the influence of cinema, thats what I was arguing against. You didn't argue from a historical perspective you commented on all movies by transcending a whole century from the silent era to now in your original argument. I responded in kind, referring to movies generally over all time. Sorry that I misunderstood you, but your original assertion lead me to think more broadly than you intended because of its own inherent scope. That is why my last comment was meant to "clarify."

January 18, 2016 at 4:29PM, Edited January 18, 4:34PM

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Cheese and Rice!

Firstly, I don't think "understate" means what you thunk it means. Did you mean to use the word "undermine"?
It's true I didn't write from an encyclopedic historical perspective. Just my own lowly opinion, which hasn't been refuted yet. Sure, cinema has influenced some trends in society at large such as fashion (whoopee!), , but my point was about the transformative power of a cinema of ideas (aka themes). For good or evil. I just don't see the connection. Yeah, Antonioni and Bergman explored existential angst in pretty bold ways, but so what? Good luck getting anybody but close friends to watch them fellas. You may get another perspective about life from a movie and it can complicate your view of the world (I don't think I would label that good or bad, just art), but I don't think anyone ever became a Nazi because of any movie. I'm also skeptical anyone decided to behave like an angel just because they saw a movie. Thus, lack of power. (There is an argument in here about the power of alleviating boredom and the value of laughing at comedies, but it really is diversion and escapism) Please, prove me wrong. You wrote, "Stories are incredibly powerful, under the right circumstances they can be either destructive or constructive motivators and influences (sic)". I want to see the example that illustrates this.

As a reminder, you brought up BOAN and tried to argue about the power and influence of it's themes. Your lazy ahistorical understanding is what I originally protested. You are still wrong. You wanted to use the movie as iron clad proof of some half baked idea about the influence of themes. I didn't buy your argument and spoke up. Your subsequent list of movies don't illustrate power to me. I've seen all but Tangerine. I enjoyed exploring each movie you listed, but none lit a fire under me to change my ways. None inspired me. I did enjoy consuming them.

I am merely skeptical of the great transformative power of cinema. Is that a sin? It transforms people into couch potatoes I guess, consuming stories. Hardly uplifting.

I'm sure you meant to clarify. . .

January 18, 2016 at 9:52PM

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Daniel Thoen
ne'er-do-well
251

BOAN sparked immense controversy. It was a rallying cry for the KKK. Nobody became a racist because of BOAN I never said anything of the sort. BOAN propped up an ideology, it gave inspiration to the regeneration of a movement (it didn't create the movement). It inflamed tensions. It did not define the conversation on race, but it was PART of it. Films are communication, people communicate ideas, ideas influence people, BOAN is no exception.

I don't think you're actually listening because you aren't arguing against what I actually am saying. Because of that and also since you just insulted my intelligence this is my last comment. I'm well aware what "understate" means. If I said anything that you took personally, which you are now reacting to, I apologize and beg your forgiveness, I assure you that I intended to comment on your ideas. Not you.

January 19, 2016 at 1:33AM, Edited January 19, 1:38AM

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It served to rally the NAACP anyways.

I don't grant movies the power you seem to. It was a movie that happened to be popular that played on racial stereotypes. Thats all. Your oft repeated thesis that films=communication was understood the first time. I thought this idea was so boring and innocuous it didn't require validation.

I don't remember trying to insult your intelligence. Please don't ask for forgiveness from me, I don't take anything said on the internet personally. Good luck in life.

January 19, 2016 at 8:02AM, Edited January 19, 8:02AM

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Daniel Thoen
ne'er-do-well
251

I would argue that a theme cannot be summed up in one word. A theme needs a qualifier to have any meaning. Take vengeance for instance. Vengeance could be justified/honorable in one script and self-defeating/evil in another. It's not vengeance itself, but the effect of vengeance that is the theme.

January 23, 2016 at 11:58AM, Edited January 23, 11:58AM

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Steven Oder
Director, Cinematographer, Editor
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