Stories without a theme might be entertaining and they can even be extremely profitable as well. The problem is that they’re often entirely forgettable a few years later. Anyone remember Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies “Red Heat” or “Commando” in comparison to his better known movies “Terminator 2” and “Total Recall”? When you look at which movies remain popular and which movies fade into obscurity, you’ll notice that the ones that people still remember have a strong theme.
“Harold and Maude” is a cult classic and its theme is about doing what you want in life because people afraid of death are also afraid of life. You might come up with different interpretations of the theme, but the basic idea is to live your own life.
“A Clockwork Orange” is still memorable and still interesting because of its theme that questions what makes a person good or evil? Cans someone be forced to be good and if so, are they still a man?
“Titanic” was about living your own life free of other people’s expectations. Nobody really cared about watching an ocean liner sink. They all cared about watching the hero (Rose) learn to become a stronger, independent person.
When you have a strong, dominant theme, everything else about writing the screenplay suddenly becomes much easier. If your story’s theme is about an underdog fighting for respect, then you automatically know that your hero and all his or her mentors and allies must also be fighting for respect in some form.
Where screenwriters go wrong is when they try to tell multiple stories within the same story, which only creates a jumbled mess that makes no sense to anyone. Watch a bad movie like “Cowboys and Aliens” and you’ll see the hero is trying to find his wife while the villain (the aliens) are trying to mine the land for gold. This would be as confusing as a romantic comedy that suddenly had alien flying saucers show up with the military trying to shoot it down. Don’t tell multiple stories. Tell one story and tell that same story multiple times.
In “Rocky,” Rocky is an over the hill boxer who wants to prove to himself and the world that he deserves respect. His girlfriend is a timid girl who’s trying to hide from the world and doesn’t believe in herself. Her brother feels neglected in his life as well while Rocky’s trainer always dreamed about getting the chance to train a contender. Everyone is an underdog so everyone’s stories and their interactions with each other support the overall theme of the story, which creates a unified experience.
In general, watch popular movies to see how a strong theme holds the story together, and then watch the unsuccessful sequels that often ignore the story’s theme in place of more action. The original “Star Wars” trilogy remains popular to this day because of its theme of good and evil and the mystical power of the Force that has pseudo-religious overtones. All those “Star Wars” prequels are universally considered awful because they lost that theme. Instead of learning to become a better person through the pseudo-religious influence of the Force, the “Star Wars” prequels offer bad action in place of intelligent writing. If “The Phantom Menace” and been the first Star Wars movie, there would never have been any demand for any sequels.
Your theme is your guide, much like how ship navigators once used the North Star to guide them in the middle of the ocean. Make sure your story has a single theme and then make sure all your characters follow that one theme. If you do this simple step, you’ll create a more unified story in the end.