Photo via Go Into the Story.
Theme is the beating heart of the screenplay, the proposition about the human condition that your story explores—the big issues. Love. Faith. Resilience. Trust. Power. Courage. All the goosebumpy things.
The theme, that single, simple thesis that creates clarity and scope and resonance through the arcs of your story, is a gong that should be struck in every scene for maximum impact.
John August calls it genetic. If you cut out any one of your scenes, you should be able to plant it and grow your whole script.
This is accomplished with good scene work.
- The B story is an echo of the A story. Relate them so that the resolution to both confirms the thematic question. Cuts your work in half, doubles the resonance.
- Location, location, location. Make sacred spaces in your story to elevate and amplify important beats. Your breakup scene could take place in a Tunnel of Love, at a bus stop, in an elevator—which setting tells more of the story? It makes a big difference.
- Get out your machete. Little suckers sprout from the main trunk of your story, bits and pieces of genius that pop up spontaneously in the writing process. Kill them. They may be good, but they belong somewhere else if they are not banging your gong.
Consciously choose theme when conceiving all the elements of your scenes. Find a way to make it ring.
Annie is a screenwriter, story consultant, and reader for major screenplay competitions.