A plot tells what happens. A story tells how it happens. A theme defines the purpose of the story in the first place. At the simplest level, a good story consists of nothing but an intriguing and interesting plot. However, even the most sophisticated plot can be more compelling when combined with a theme. A theme basically defines what your story is about.
In “Jurassic Park,” the theme is that people shouldn’t mess around with nature. The movie sets out to “prove” this theme by showing the consequences of what happens when people try to manipulate nature.
Imagine if “Jurassic Park” was about how people shouldn’t mess with nature, and then the hero creates a new dinosaur that can be trained and this new dinosaur saves the day by eating the mean ones. That would contradict the theme that “people shouldn’t mess with nature” and weaken the story as a whole.
In “Terminator 2” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the theme is that every human life is valuable. “Terminator 2” emphasizes how killing isn’t the solution to our problems while “It’s a Wonderful Life” focuses on how a single life can affect so many other lives in positive ways.
To remind the audience about a story’s theme, movies typically repeat that theme in multiple places throughout the story. In “Terminator 2,” the theme is that killing is wrong, which appears in several scenes:
The first time we learn this theme is when the good Terminator almost kills some people until John Connor stops him.
The good Terminator shoots the asylum guard in the leg and says, “He’ll live,” thereby demonstrating that he’s not going to kill again.
Sarah Connor is unable to kill the inventor of SkyNet.
The good Terminator fires back at the cops surrounding the Cyberdyne building, yet causes zero casualties.
The end where Sarah Connor tells us that the Terminator learned the value of a human life so maybe we can too.
By defining your story’s theme, you can make your story richer and more coherent, which can only make your story more interesting as a result. A theme may be complicated or simple, but it’s an essential part of story telling. A theme acts like a guidepost to keep you focused on telling your story in a way that’s consistent with your theme.
If your story contradicts itself about your theme, your audience will get confused and your story will feel weak. However, if you keep every part of your story reflecting your theme, then your story will feel stronger and more satisfying.