Pick a great movie and chances are good it focuses on a single idea or theme. Then the plot and subplot revolve around different ways of looking at that theme.
Once you know your story’s theme, then you can make every character and action emphasize that idea. In “Terminator 2,” the theme is about learning the value of human life. Notice that the hero (the good Terminator) goes from being a killing machine to learning to value human life by achieving his goals by not killing anyone.
In the meantime, Sarah Connor has turned herself into a human killing machine but at the last second, can’t go through with killing the inventor of SkyNet. This shows another way of looking at the theme of valuing human life.
In “Disconnected,” the theme is about suicide told within a world where everyone learns they’re part of a simulated reality experiment that’s going to shut down in a week. The hero starts as someone with a depressing life that she attempts to kill herself by swallowing an overdose of sleeping pills.
Then the hero goes from feeling life is pointless to suddenly enjoying life as people around here freak out that the world is going to end. Finally at the end, the hero realizes she needs people to be happy, which is the theme of the movie.
When you have a strong central theme, it’s easy to know who your characters must be (alternate points of view of the theme), who the villain must be (the negative aspect of the theme) and what goal the hero is struggling to achieve (the positive aspect of the theme).
Think of a movie that lacks a strong theme and chances are good you’re watching a listless story that dilutes its focus because it doesn’t know what to emphasize. Think of a great movie and it’s always based on a strong theme that it echoes through different characters and subplots.
When you understand that “Disconnected” is a movie about suicide and questioning the point of existence, you can better understand how everything in that story focuses on emphasizing that theme.
Know your theme and you’ve gone a long way towards defining the foundation of your entire story. Fail to define a theme and your story will likely flounder in all directions and you won’t know why it’s not working.
Theme is crucial to telling great stories so define a specific point of view and let us hear about it over and over again in different ways. That will help create a great story of your own.