This is probably the most important topic in all of storytelling, and go figure, it’s one of the things that gets the least attention. When we talk about what makes a story work, we usually hit upon having great characters, or constructing a compelling plot, etc, etc.
But what if I told you theme was every bit as important as those other two things, if not more important.
Theme: the thing you probably had to write a paper on in high school and the thing people bring up when they want to sound smart when talking about a movie. It’s usually treated as something that will magically appear after the story is done, like fermenting kombucha.
And to be even more of a pain in the ass, theme is a hard thing to describe. I mean it’s…like…the ideas in the story…right? Like in Bridesmaids the themes are love, living with integrity, and having diarrhea in a dress shop?
Well, sure, but really, when we talk about theme, we’re talking about the central theme. And there’s only one (or should be only one) in every story.
To give you another college-paper-writing flashback, you could say the theme of your movie or show is your story’s thesis. It’s the thing your story is about, way more than any logline could capture.
And EVERYTHING else is built on that thing.
The underlying sentence
A lot of film critics and film lovers will talk about this, saying things like, “The movie’s message,” or “What the movie is trying to say.” But no one describes it as well as the critic, Film Crit Hulk,in his book Screenwriting 101. It is one of the best books on screenwriting I’ve ever read, and BTW it’s written in all caps. In the book, he points out how that underlying sentence is not just part the movie, it IS the movie.
“IDEALLY, WHATEVER IT IS THAT YOU WANT TO COMMUNICATE TO BOTH THE PEOPLE AROUND YOU AND FUTURE GENERATIONS SHOULD NOT JUST BE WHAT EXISTS IN YOUR STORY. IT SHOULD BE THE VERY POINT OF YOUR STORY. IT SHOULD BE YOUR PURPOSE.” (HULK, 2013)
It’s what ties your story together as a whole and makes it feel like a complete piece. It’s usually a subconscious reaction from the audience, but movies and shows without a central theme usually feel shallow, or just a mess.
But when you have a theme, everything else in the story, from the characters to the individual scenes point back to it.
What is incredibly helpful, much like with a thesis, is to make the sentence as simple as possible. You should be able to describe the theme of your story in one line. THIS is the underlying sentence.
This is true for all the best stories over time. Little Red Riding Hood’s sentence is “Be careful of strangers,” and Romeo and Juliet’s is “Love causes pain.”
The Wizard of Oz explicitly states its thematic statement. As many witches, color-changing horses, and members of the Lollipop Guild that there are, the movie essentially boils down to the phrase “There’s no place like home.” Not only is Dorothy’s journey to get home, but all of the people from her home are the people she is closest to in Oz. And it doesn’t just stop with her. All of the other characters are in search of things that they later learn they had all along (home for them). Dorothy’s home even has the power to vanquish a witch early on.
Star Wars, at least the good Star Wars movies, all say, “You should do good.” As simple as that. And if you pay attention, you’ll notice all characters’ decisions and major plot points in the movie revolve around this theme.
So we know that our story is going to grow from the seed of a sentence. That’s nothing incredibly new (although something not nearly discussed enough); however, one thing I think we can really add to this discussion is to highlight the fact that there are different kinds of sentences.
The type of sentence is determined by the stop, the punctuation mark that ends a sentence (I tell you—we’re never going to escape English class). There are three kinds of stops: periods, question marks, and exclamation points.
And the kind of sentence you have is going to drastically affect the kind of story you tell.
Stories began as moral lessons. But since no one likes being preached to, we added characters and plots and details. And this is something that hasn’t changed. (HULK, 2013)
Some stories still contain these moral lessons and some contain philosophies. It’s a statement that we’re seeing everything else in the story adhere to.
The ending of a movie or show should also greatly represent this statement, much like how in an essay the conclusion wraps up the thesis.
Whiplash’s statement is “The road to being a genius is an ugly one.”
Shaun of the Dead’s statement is “The people we care about are more important than anything else.”
Seinfeld’s statement is “The mundane details in our lives are funny.”
The question mark
Something that doesn’t get nearly enough attention is when a story asks us a question.
Instead of making an outright statement, the story instead challenges the viewer with a more complex theme. The story represents both sides of the question it asks, and makes us think and draw our own conclusions. Its ending doesn’t come down on one side or the other—and if it does, then it’s really just a statement that does a careful examination.
Many of the best movies ask us a question.
Do the Right Thing asks, “Is equality better solved through love or through revolution?” The movie doesn’t come down on a specific side, and offers plenty of evidence for both. In fact, Spike Lee posts two quotes at the end, one from Martin Luther King, affirming the love stance, and one from Malcolm X affirming the revolution perspective.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind takes the phrase “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,” and asks, “Is it worth repeating our mistakes to experience the joy that comes along with them?” Or even more specifically to the story it asks, “Is repeating the patterns of relationships we get into worth the joy that we get from them?”
Inside Llewyn Davis asks, “Can we really change?”
The Hateful Eight asks, “Is there a difference between a truth and a lie if we believe it?”
The show Black Mirror is sometimes criticized for coming down too hard on technology, and is accused of making the statement “Technology is bad,” although I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Even though Charlie Brooker does have a luddite sensibility, he doesn’t always come down on that side, and he seems to be asking more, “What are the consequences of technology?” He asks that question in most episodes, and sometimes he’ll ask the slightly tangential, “Do punishments sometimes make the perpetrator the victim?”
The exclamation point
Exclamation Points, one of the most misused punctuation marks, come only after an expression. And although it may seem less serious or more shallow that a period or a question mark, I think that sort of judgement is unfair. You’re simply trying to do a different thing when you use an exclamation point. You’re trying to get a reaction from the audience.
A horror movie’s exclamation might be as simple as “Aaaaah!” Although some horror films, like The Shining or The Babadook’s, have a deeper core sentence like “Sometimes the biggest terror is within our own family,” and it is individual scenes in the film that fulfill the “Aaaaah!” exclamation.
A pure comedy movie will be trying to get you to say, “Haha!”
Some love stories will try go get you to say, “Awwww!”
A spectacle, like a balls-to-the-wall action movie or a movie that’s trying to put you in awe with visuals, is aiming to get you to say, “Wow!”
Sometimes the exclamation point becomes an interrobang, like with the comedy duo Tim and Eric, who often make the audience say, “What the fuck?!”
I really think there’s nothing wrong with this approach, but if you’re making something to purely affect an audience emotionally, you should still be clear on this intention, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t have scenes within the story that ask questions or make statements. It just has to serve the greater purpose of the exclamation.
Themes within themes
As mentioned, everything within your story should reflect your sentence. All of the scenes and characters in your movie will reflect it in some way, and all of the seasons and plots in your show will do the same. However, it doesn’t mean you can’t say other things within the message. As long as it meets the story’s purpose, you can explore different themes and even use different kinds of sentences.
For instance, The Wire’s overall statement is “America is broken.” Different seasons represent different facets of this. For example, “Education is broken,” or “The middle-class is screwed.” And if we look at the underlying statement for Season 3, “Politics are broken,” we can look at a subplot which asks, “Would legalizing drugs make things better?” This fits under the politics umbrella, which fits under the America one. Within the drugs subplot, we get a scene that says, “Legalized drugs could lead to death for addicts,” (but David Simon gives a lot of evidence for both sides). It shows how layered something can be as long as it’s really serving itself thematically.
Everything comes from theme
And theme isn’t just something you lay beside the other narrative devices, like character and story. It’s where those things come from.
“BECAUSE ULTIMATELY, A TRULY GOOD NARRATIVE IS BORN FROM THE COMBINING OF THE MACRO AND MICRO INTO ONE SINGULAR, COHERENT APPROACH. YOUR CHARACTERS AND THE STORY THEY INHABIT SHOULD BE IN COMPLETE ALIGNMENT WITH THE INTENTION OF YOUR THEMES.“ (HULK, 2013)
Luke Skywalker and the conflicted Darth Vader are birthed out of “You should do good.” All of the events in The Godfather come from “Family is the most important thing.” The diarrhea dress shop scene in Bridesmaids ultimately comes from “We can’t let people and outside events hold us down.”
How much are the great writers thinking about theme as they’re writing? It definitely varies.
Some movies and shows err on being too preachy and explicit about their theme (South Park has even admitted to this flaw in episodes).
Then, some writer's never think about theme at all. These writers often still manage to pull a cohesive piece out by accident because they're so in the zone. They subconsciously know what their story is about and are lucky to have the confidence to organically birth these themes.
But what can happen is, all of a sudden, it's like they forget how to make a cohesive movie. I think it is missing a sense of theme that is the mysterious thing that causes a writer, who was once great, to start making movies that just don’t make sense. Take George Lucas or Tim Burton.
So it’s best to have an idea of what your underlying sentence is. Know that it’s there. Know that your story and your characters stem from this, and then you no longer have the need to be preachy with it. Even if your audience isn’t analyzing the movie, they’ll still get your statement or your question or the feeling you’re creating, and they’ll love the story all the more for it.
HULK, FILM CRIT (2013) [Kindle Edition] Badass Digest