Theme: The Driving Force Behind a Great Screenplay
At a Glance
The opening sequence of Pixar's Up shows both the joy and heartache of Carl and Ellie’s relationship and is one of the most memorable openings in film history. While Carl and Russell’s adventure in South America keeps us entertained it’s the opening that stays with us. This is because it speaks to the theme of the story. Theme is what the story is “about,” it gives meaning to the plot events, hooks us emotionally and is what gives the story lasting resonance. In Up this is reconciling loss.
Theme is one of the most important elements of a successful screenplay but it’s often missing. A script without a clear theme leaves the reader unsatisfied. Your script may be well written with an interesting premise or compelling characters but if it’s not “about” anything, if there isn’t a deeper meaning, it can lead to a pass. Conversely if the theme is too front and center your script can feel messagey and heavy handed.
Finding the balance is key. While plot is the action that drives the story forward theme gives the story events meaning. It’s what we emotionally connect with (like Carl reconciling the loss of his wife or Albert’s triumph at the end of The King’s Speech) and is a vital part of a story that resonates with the audience long after they’ve left the theater. A script with a clear balanced theme stands out from the rest and is far more likely to get attention from an executive.
Weaving theme into your screenplay without being heavy handed or eschewing it all together can be challenging. One very effective tool to use is the protagonist’s arc. Movies are about transformation. We want to see the main character change, grow or learn something over the course of the story. What they learn – their epiphany – is the moment that tells us what the story is about and articulates the theme.
In this live seminar you will learn how to plot your protagonist’s arc and how to use it to establish theme. We will:
- define theme by looking at examples from current films
- analyze the protagonist’s arc in Up and The King’s Speech to see how this defines what the story is about
- break down the plot elements that are key to effectively weaving theme into your story (flaw, midpoint, epiphany and resolution)
This seminar also includes a hands-on workshop with specific feedback from the instructor on the thematic elements of your screenplay. All students are invited to submit a one-page synopsis of their completed script or work in progress. We’ll review the synopsis from the perspective of the protagonist’s arc and discuss the key plot elements in order to ensure that the theme is clearly articulated. By the end of the seminar you will have a solid understanding of how to plot the protagonist’s arc so that it effectively establishes the theme of your screenplay.
- Date available: 07/25/2013
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Meet the Author: Ruth Atkinson
Ruth Atkinson is a Los Angeles-based script consultant and story editor with over 20 years of experience in the film/television business. Ruth has story edited and consulted on many films that have won awards and been distributed internationally including Jonas Chernick’s My Awkward Sexual Adventure, multi-award winning short film Lil Toyko Reporter with Chris Tashima, The Perfect Family starring Kathleen Turner celebrated indie The People I’ve Slept With, Genie-nominated Who Loves the Sun starring Molly Parker and Adam Scott, and the New Zealand hit Predicament with Jemaine Clement. Ruth is also a...