The fundamental thing that a script should do is tell a great story. Hopefully, that’s not a contentious point – we go to the movies or turn on the TV because we want to be entertained! Whether it’s an adventure, an emotional drama, or a horror, the story is what keeps people hooked. With that in mind, it’s easy to focus on the things that are always visible: plot points, characters, and dialogue.
But it’s important not to forget that the very best stories have layers. Underneath the surface, they have something more to say about life. If you ignore this second layer – if you ignore themes, and forget to include one (or more!) in your script, you’ll be doing yourself a disservice. They might not be visible or obvious, but they’re extremely important.
At the end of the day, it’s the theme that will most touch an audience and make them remember your film long after they’ve seen it. Anyone can string gunfights, explosions, arguments, and witty dialogue together, but if you can say something unique and profound that no-one else can say, it’ll really make you stand out.
It’s important to note that the theme is not the same as the concept of your script. Your concept or premise is the idea that drives your story; your theme is the message that it is trying to convey through that idea.
So for example, in David Lean’s classic film THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, the concept is that a rule-obsessed British colonel helps his Japanese captors to build a railway bridge, while being unaware of an Allied plan to blow it up. The themes, however, revolve around the absurdity of the idea that there can be rules in warfare and that honor can exist in such a situation.
These themes are never explicitly stated, but they’re clear from very early on, as soon as Colonel Nicholson (Alex Guinness) takes out his copy of the Geneva Conventions and attempts to show it to the uncaring commandant Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) to protest that his officers can’t be put to work because it would be in breach of law. And later on, Nicholson even forbids his men from trying to escape the POW camp because, having been ordered to surrender, escaping would be in breach of their orders!
This theme – of the absurdity of the rules of war – is difficult to express in a single, memorable sentence. It’s always there, though, in every scene of THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. It leads us through the story from start to finish.
Knowing what your theme is before you start writing (or at the very least, during writing) is immensely helpful in this regard. If you don’t know what message you want to express, your story can end up wandering all over the place because it doesn’t have any guidance; a strong theme, on the other hand, can help to keep it on track.
So there are a lot of good reasons to make sure your screenplay’s themes are clear. It will help audiences to remember your work, making you stand out as a writer with something unique to say, and keep your story on track.
It will also help to keep us script analysts engaged. Make us use our brains rather than just dealing with things on a shallow level, and we’ll keep reading – and if you can get people to keep reading your script, page after page, then unsurprisingly you’ll achieve success in this industry!