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.
"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!