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Old 07-08-2011, 08:17 PM   #1
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Default Is 'theme' really everything?

It's something I hear quite a lot. Theme being the single most important aspect of our scripts/stories?

Is it possible to have no 'theme'?

Or is there always a 'theme' whether the writer consciously knows it or not?

Do you, as a writer, always have a 'theme'. A clear understanding of its 'theme'?

What does 'theme' mean to you? Does it have to be present in every single scene?

Can a 'theme' be boiled down to one word, or is it usually a more complicated concept than that?

Can there be more than one 'theme'?

As an audience member watching a film, can you always identify a films 'theme'?

Name some popular movies and tell us what the 'theme' and let's see if others agree with you. I have a feeling it's not going to be as black and white as we may think.

Let me know your thoughts on 'theme'.
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Old 07-08-2011, 08:46 PM   #2
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Default Re: Is 'theme' really everything?

IMHO, the theme should be deduced from your logline.

If you start with your logline and then dive into your story, so long as you keep coming back to the logline, your theme should resonate throughout.
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Old 07-08-2011, 09:29 PM   #3
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Default Re: Is 'theme' really everything?

It's a great idea to have at least one "theme", if not imperative. But how present it is, is really entirely up to you. It doesn't always have to be present in the logline.

For example, I pulled this logline from the IMDB page for The Town

As he plans his next job, a longtime thief tries to balance his feelings for a
bank manager connected to one of his earlier heists, as well as the FBI agent looking to bring him and his crew down.

Yet according to Affleck on the commentary, the "theme" he was really focusing on was the father/son relationship and the impact that our parents have in shaping us... and if that shaping is avoidable or inevitable. As you can see, there's really no obvious connection between the logline and that theme. It's not something you notice until you watch the film.

On the other hand, a film like The Godfather, which has a logline (according to IMDB) of:
The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.

In this one, the theme is quite clear. You know going in it's all about family value and probably regret.

Even comedies have clear themes.

The Hangover

A Las Vegas-set comedy centered around three groomsmen who lose their about-to-be-wed buddy during their drunken misadventures, then must retrace their steps in order to find him.

Again, it's about loyalty and friendship. Of course with all of these examples, I'm sure there's multiple themes.

When I write, I do try to keep a theme in mind. Sometimes I notice it after I've done an outline, sometimes I notice it after I read the first draft, and sometimes I decide what I want the theme to be before I even write a word.

Honestly though, and this is just my opinion, but I think the most important thing you worry about is if what you're writing reflects your logline. That's what you should worry about going off track with. It'd be far easier to add thematic subtext after you've written a draft than it would be to correct a screenplay that veers away from what you've essentially promised the reader.

As a writer, you inherently have an opinion. Just by writing a story from your perspective you're leaving behind traces of your views on things. These views are probably already themes, and if they're not, once you notice them you can certainly heighten them and make them into themes.

Sorry for this long winded post, but it's a fascinating topic that I've thought a lot about before too.
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Old 07-09-2011, 12:03 PM   #4
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Default Re: Is 'theme' really everything?

Theme isn't 100% necessary, but I find that when theme is there, the story is a whole lot better.
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Old 07-09-2011, 12:24 PM   #5
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Default Re: Is 'theme' really everything?

One of the strongest human desires is the need to know "why?".
Theme accomplishes this.

If your story doesn't have a strong theme, even if it's entertaining, it will be treated like a one night stand.
But if people can find meaning, they will bond with it on a deeper level.

Thus the reason why you always hear "stories with theme are better".

Last edited by Ven : 07-09-2011 at 12:35 PM.
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Old 07-09-2011, 01:08 PM   #6
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Default Re: Is 'theme' really everything?

It's odd to hear Affleck say the father/son relationship was the dominant theme. The backstory certainly played a large role, especially the circumstances of his mother's death, but the more central relationship involved loyalty to friends versus his love for innocent Claire (one of his victims). The person he is and the person he wants to be. Well executed as it was, I didn't think the film had a moral center and in the end glorified criminal violence. Even though a lot of people wanted De Niro to escape in HEAT, the ending was appropriate. Nobody got off easy. (In the B-plot, the Val Kilmer character had Affleck's ending, minus a swanky beach house on the Florida coast.) What, nobody cares about this ****? **** you.

Anyway, if nothing else theme matters because it helps you decide what to keep in and what to leave out. This does not necessarily mean you begin with theme and then get your story (although that's possible, see The Dekalog). Here's a snippet of a Paul Schrader interview:

TR: You've said that once you find the theme and the metaphor in your writing, then the plot and the execution are pretty easy. I think that's true of most writers, but I'd never heard it explained like that.

PS: The theme drives right through the metaphor. As soon as the theme hits the metaphor the plot starts to move. It's the interaction of theme and metaphor that gives you story ideas. So in Light Sleeper the theme is mid-life crisis, the metaphor is drug delivery boy.

Obviously many writers begin with a story and later figure out the theme/s. I think I heard this in the commentary track for that vampire flick with Ethan Hawke. One of the writers/directors said they finally realized that the story was about the consumption of a limited resource (which suggests obvious environmental analogs in our world).
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Old 07-09-2011, 01:14 PM   #7
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Default Re: Is 'theme' really everything?

What's the point of writing a story, if you don't have a theme?
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Old 07-09-2011, 02:01 PM   #8
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Default Re: Is 'theme' really everything?

Don't think of it as theme -- think of it as cohesion. Does everything fit together? Most amateur scripts don't fit, don't feel like all the scenes belong to one another, don't feel like the characters are all experiencing similar things.

The easiest way to find cohesion is to figure out what 'thing' the script is really about.

As long as your script is cohesive (narratively as well as emotionally), then you've got theme.
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Old 07-09-2011, 02:32 PM   #9
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Default Re: Is 'theme' really everything?

Originally Posted by Madbandit View Post
What's the point of writing a story, if you don't have a theme?

As far back as the oral tradition, theme is the reason humans seek out stories. It's hardwired into human psychology to make sense of the human condition.

As for writers, one can make a case for every writer incorporating theme in their work, even when they're not conscious of it.
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Old 07-09-2011, 02:34 PM   #10
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Default Re: Is 'theme' really everything?

Hey everyone, some interesting insight into 'theme' here. I'd love to hear more opinions.

What's the point of writing a story, if you don't have a theme?

Well write stories because they jump into my imagination, and then out onto the page. I simply want to write something interesting and exciting, but I don't consciously think of the 'theme' of it.

My most recent script is a contained thriller. I wrote it because I wanted to test myself and write a script set in one location. I was interested in seeing how this female character (a daddy's princess) coped when put into a serious and violent situation. I found that interesting. But never once did I ask myself what the 'theme' of this script was.
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