Finding the Theme - It's Easier than You Think

Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need      I don't know any novelist who likes to talk about theme. Lord knows, I don't. Or at least, I didn't used to. 

It's no surprise to anyone who's followed my ramblings here that I'm a huge fan of Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! books. One of the myriad of things STC! taught me is to listen for a movie's theme to be stated in plain terms, usually in the first ten minutes of the movie and usually it will be said to the movie's protagonist. Once I started listening for it, it was usually so easy to spot that I have to wonder if I was stupid or just deaf before. 

Since nothing proves a point better than real-life (or in this case, real-movie) examples, I've listed some below. The first group are examples from STC! Goes to the Movies.

Parker says to Kane: "Anybody ever tell you that you look dead?"
Theme: What is it to be alive -- and human?

Fatal Attraction:
Anne to her daughter: "Ellen, I don't want you messing with my makeup. I told you a million times."
Theme: Trespassing into places we don't belong is the running theme.

What Women Want:
Alan Alda tells Mel: "If we don't evolve and think beyond our natural ability, we're gonna go down."
Theme: Change or die.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind:
Clementine to Jim: "I can't tell from one minute to the next what I'm going to like, but right now I'm glad you're here."
Theme: The battle between the Ideal and the Real.

Sleeping With the EnemySleeping with the Enemy:
Julia's husband says to her (about her fear of water): "We can't conquer our fears by running away."
Theme: We can't conquer our fears by running away--yes, they can be said that clearly.

When Harry Met Sally:
Harry to Sally: "It is impossible for men and women to be friends."
Theme: As with Sleeping with the Enemy, this theme needs no interpretation because it's plainly stated. (Remember, the theme statement isn't necessarily true. It's what the story is going to prove or disprove.)

At dinner, Leo says: "Make each day count."
Theme: Another directly stated theme.

The Lion King (Disney Special Platinum Edition)The Lion King:
Mustafa to Simba: "There's more to being king than getting your way all the time."
Theme: There's more to life than getting your way all the time.

The Matrix:
Neo says: "Do you ever wonder if you're awake or dreaming?"
Theme: What is reality?

So why is knowing your theme important? As writers, knowing our theme helps keep us focused. It's easier to look at the story and find places where we missed opportunities to reinforce our theme. Knowing our theme allows us to strengthen our stories and to do so with confidence.

These are some of the movies I've watched recently (for the umpteenth time) where the theme statement jumped out at me.

P.S. I Love You:
Gerry to Holly: You can't keep waiting for your life to start.
Theme: Live each day.

On Golden Pond:
On Golden Pond (Special Edition)The theme is expressed so many times in this movie because of Norman's obsession with dying that it's difficult to pinpoint just one. If I had to choose one within the first 10 minutes (where the theme is usually found) it would be when Ethel says to Norman: "Your obsession with death is beginning to frazzle my good humor" but the place where I think it's stated most clearly is later when Ethel says to Chelsea, "Life marches by,Chels.I suggest you get on with it."
Theme: Life is short; grab on to it while you can.

Dirty Dancing:
Robby the creep says to Baby: "Some people count; some people don't."
Theme: Just what is says. True or not true: Some people count; some people don't.

Sweet Home Alabama:
10-year old Jake to 8-year-old Melanie: "Lightning never strikes the same place twice."
Theme: Can a broken relationship be resurrected?

The Wedding Date:
Said twice. First from Kat quoting Nick's statement in a magazine article, then from Kat's dad on her sister's wedding day: "Every woman has exactly the love life she wants."
Theme: Does every woman have exactly the love life she wants?

So it turns out that theme isn't as scary or as obscure as we think it is. Neither is it as generic as some writing books seem to want it to be. (Love conquers all? Really?)

Can you put the theme from something you've written into the mouth of one of your characters? What would that character say?


  1. This is a wonderful post, Suzie - thanks so much! I've been struggling with this task; one teacher recently urged me to "identify the central thematic core" of my work, which felt quite overwhelming. Your post takes something I'd viewed as challenging and makes it sound like a fun experiment. Many thanks!

  2. Glad I could help. Theme has always been the piece I shunned because I could never wrap my hands around it with any confidence. That's changed now and I'm delighted to share it.

  3. That was interesting, thanks.

  4. Wow; I'd never thought about it that way. Thank you!

  5. I also think that if you don't *think* you know your theme... you actually do have it somewhere tucked away in your brain. It's picking it out of there that's the problem. And I think, we write with that theme in mind whether we do it consciously or not.

    I discovered my theme through one of my characters. He said (inadvertently paraphrasing Hamlet): "There is no good or bad. There is only what people think."

    The theme is "What is good and evil?".

    It's a story where the "Church" are the enemy and the main characters hold an "evil" power. So what *is* evil, really?

  6. It's amazing, isn't it, Ryan, just how much smarter our characters are than their creators? They know what the theme is. Which of course means our subconscious also knows. We just have to entice it out where we can see it.

  7. I hadn't realized how my own views on the importance of species conservation snuck into my story when I wrote the rough draft, but in later drafts, the heroine said this about an endangered species of dragon:

    “Larger things are happening in our world. It’s time we opened our eyes. He wrote this guide over twenty years ago, yet even then he noted the wyrm’s numbers were in decline. He posits the reduction is because of the mining interrupting their life-cycle. How could such important information escape us, when this animal is so central to the Cochet?”

    The Cochet are threatening war to reclaim the breeding grounds of this dragon, to safeguard the species. Heady stuff!