Start with a Theme

There’s a saying that people often can’t see the forest for the trees. This means focusing too much on details that you can’t see the big picture. That’s typically how most people write a screenplay and that’s why there are so many disjointed screenplays turned into disjointed and unsatisfying movies.

When you focus only on details, you create scenes that have no relation to other scenes. Instead of offering a unified story, such movies present seemingly random scenes and information that make little sense. The key is to create a unified story by starting with a single theme. Then this single theme defines:

  • The hero’s initial, dead end state and his or her final change in the end
  • The villain as the anti-hero who represents the opposite of the theme
  • The hero’s mentor who represents the theme
  • The hero’s ally who also needs to change based on the theme

With a dominant theme in your story, you risk creating a hero, villain, mentor, and ally who have different goals and motivations. Notice that in “Rocky,” Rocky is a down and out boxer looking to prove to the world that he’s not a bum. Not surprisingly, his trainer, Mickey, never got a chance to coach a champion so both men have something to prove to the world.

Imagine if Rocky wanted to prove to the world that he’s not a bum and his mentor, Mickey, wanted to find someone to love. Now you’re telling two different stories that don’t support each other, so they create a disjointed story. Imagine trying to watch a movie in a dark theater while the person sitting next to you is talking on a mobile phone, carrying on a conversation about grocery shopping. That would create a disturbance as great as two characters in a movie with different types of goals.

Knowing your theme makes it easy to know what types of characters your story should offer. The hero represents both the opposite of the theme and then changes to represent the theme itself. In “Rocky” that theme might be “Believe in yourself.” Thus in the beginning, Rocky is stuck in a dead end life and by the end, he’s gotten the whole world to believe in him.

Without a single, dominant theme, a screenwriter has no idea how his or her hero needs to change. If the hero doesn’t change, then the story will feel weaker and emotionally unsatisfying. Stories are about watching someone change over time and the only way you can define that change is by knowing your theme.

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