True meaning of a screenplay theme

When selling your screenplay to a movie producer, the dreaded question may crop up: what’s it about? You may have conceived a movie tagline to answer this question. But what do you say when the producer comes back with, ‘OK, so what’s it really about?’ This is where the underlying theme of your screenplay comes in.

Difference between the Story Theme and Movie Tagline

Some screenwriters get confused between the movie tagline (or one-liner) and what the underlying theme of a play is about. Your screenplay might be about a boy born into a mining community who wants to become a ballet dancer (Billy Elliot), but this isn’t really what the movie is about. The underlying meaning describes the pursuit of a dream in the face of shame and ridicule in a parochial community. This deeper message is the theme of the story. Without a strong underlying theme, the screenplay becomes shallow, vapid.

The Message of the Screenplay

Theme is vital to a screenplay. It serves to explore an underlying truth or moral. In essence, theme says something about the screenwriter regarding what he/she wants to say. In my view a well-conveyed theme is borne from a writer who has learned from firsthand experience and feel passionate about this message. However such a message must never become too obvious. Let the characters’ drives and subsequent events make the point. Ideally, the audience should exit the cinema with a feeling that the movie had said something rather than merely entertain.

Screenplay Theme Ideas

There are many themes to explore, some of which have been expressed repeatedly in films, but in different ways. Examples of movie themes are:

  • Revealing our inner truth to those we love will maintain our relationships.
  • It is one thing to possess high intellect, but to be a complete person; we must also have a heart.
  • Money may bring possessions, but it will never fulfill our lives.
  • A meeting of two minds from opposing worlds will always bring an exchange of knowledge that could broaden both minds.
  • Physical strength does not equate to emotional power. To gain people’s trust, a gentler approach is needed.
  • Pretty, glitzy things are not necessarily good for us. Sometimes, it is the things we overlook that benefits us most.
Developing a Theme for a Movie

The screenwriter may not always know what the theme of the story will be at the beginning. He/she simply wants to tell a story. If the story is worth its mettle, the theme will come naturally. If a screenplay ticks all the boxes yet feels vapid and empty, the problems might lie with a lack of, or a confused theme. Ask yourself what message you want to convey. What do you want the audience to feel at the end? Beware of hackneyed themes the writer may not really believe in: love conquers all beauty is on the inside, etc. I have seen many films that are rather ‘samey’ in theme. (Commercial romcoms and action movies basically seem to have the same message). If the screenwriter does not really believe in the theme, it will show through.

Great Theme for a Movie Script

The underlying message or theme for a screenplay is vital. Without it, the movie will lack heart. The secret is to write a screenplay that matters to you, to convey a message your have learned firsthand form life, but to convey this message in an original and unobtrusive way. Let the characters learn this lesson. Remember, the movie theme is not the same as the move tagline, as this merely describes the plot in a nutshell. The movie theme is a deeper message. The audience should come out feeling that an important message has been imparted.
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