What it’s about, not what happens

bttf theme

A usual part of my daily routine is helping V with her homework. This week, they’re learning about how to identify the theme of a story.

Nothing like starting with the basics.

After reading the one-page story together, I asked her what she thought the theme was. Her response was more focused on one part of the story, rather than the whole thing, so I tried another approach.

“What’s the message of the story? What is it trying to teach us?”

That made things clearer to her, which made finding the theme of the next day’s story a little easier (with a little guidance from me).

This of course made me think about finding, or at least knowing, the theme of the story of your script.

Some writers start writing and figure out the theme later. I’m the total opposite of that. I don’t think I could even start on the outline if I didn’t at least have an idea of what the theme was.

A lot of the time it’s just a single word or a short phrase, but it still plays a key part in putting my story together.

Knowing the theme of your story is vital; it influences how the story’s told and what it’s about. If you don’t know what your story’s really about, how can you put the rest of it together? That would be like doing a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the final picture is.

A great example of a theme on display is BACK TO THE FUTURE. Look at the dialogue exchange in the picture up top, which takes place just a few minutes in. Jump forward to Act Two, where, after all the setup in Act One, we get to see how history does indeed change, all thanks to Marty. (Just another reason why this is a phenomenally bulletproof script)

So as you work on your latest draft, take a look at each scene, even if it’s just a few lines long. Does it advance the story, the characters and the theme?

If so, great and keep up the good work. If not, take a moment to figure out what could be changed so it does.

Once you learn how to do this, hopefully your writing process will be just a little bit easier.

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