Screenwriting

How to Embrace Themes to Improve Your Screenplay

By August 25, 2018 No Comments

If you read Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, he spends the entire first third of the book insisting that the most important part of any story is the premise. While Egri was writing about plays and it’s rare to see a play without some sort of moral or premise, it’s not uncommon in film to watch something I like to call “fast food”. These are usually found in action-packed movies like Fast and the Furious where there is a theme, but it takes a back seat to the vehicle carnage and stunts. It also happens in sci-fi where you get a film like Jupiter Ascending which I never grasped much of a theme from it, but enjoyed the science fantasy feel to it. 

The films, like Baby Driver, that have a prominent and important theme that flows throughout the film as well as interest-grabbing action, become critically acclaimed. While action-packed audience-luring films like Atomic Blonde and Thor: The Dark World sacrifice their story for enticing action and intrigue that doesn’t exactly support or move the narrative. A good way to find the perfect balance is to really understand your premise. Here are just a few ways to do that: 

Write What You Know

My playwriting professor could never stress this enough. Since plays usually revolve around premises and emotional conflict, that there is no cool action or special effects to hide a bad script. That’s why it’s important to know what your characters are feeling. What better way to do that than by writing from experience? While your own experience will make the characters more believable, you could even gather stories from friends, family, or strangers to use because they can tell you about their real reactions and emotions in those situations. 

Is this always the case? Of course not. You probably don’t have experience of being a superhero or being a duchess in Victorian England, but there are first-person accounts for most historical knowledge or journal articles. As for sci-fi and fantasy, you can always add a heaping spoonful of imagination with stories from yourself or others. Despite being super, they are human and have emotional problems just like everyone else. Problems to deal with… like a fatherly connection and guidance like in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Same with historical characters, they had similar emotional and social struggles, but in a different time period with different consequences. 

Characters 

Make sure that every character that has a big role contributes to this theme. If not, you may want to rethink it or rephrase it. Absolute power corrupts absolutely is a great premise, but can be one dimensional if we only see it from the main character’s perspective. This theme is the sun and your plot and characters should be tethered to it. It controls the characters and the characters control the plot. If your premise runs the plot, but the characters are unaffected by it, it will seem like they are just running on a track without choice at all. With an emotional stake in the problems at hand, we get more depth in the story and characters. 

By giving your characters this premise to follow, they become more relatable to the audience. Characters that have only been seen as killing machines or highly skilled and flawless beings are less relatable to audiences. When you give your character a flaw they must struggle with and solve by the end of the film, you are giving the audience something to empathize with. This goes back to my thoughts on film “fast food”. They’re films that don’t really fulfill you or teach you something, just something flashy and fun to “ooh” and “ahh” at for an hour. Fleshed out and interesting characters that have clear motives and flaws that guide them throughout the film make them believable and someone audiences can root for.  

Make an Outline

What helps me is to make a map of my scenes. In each scene, make note of how the premise is pushing the characters and plot forward. If a scene is stagnant or missing a tie to the premise, rethink the scene. It is important that the theme isn’t lost. It is the driving force of your story and you may find that those scenes where the premise may lull for a bit is where the audience gets confused or bored. I find this usually happens in action-packed scenes. I get caught up in the fighting or car chase that I lose the character and what started their journey. When that happens, it becomes action for action’s sake. 

Another thing to check is to make sure there are other outlooks on the premise. If it’s something like, the bond of a mother and daughter is unbreakable, then each character should have their own outlook on this theme to give the story depth. If the mother and daughter are the only ones with a view on this theme, then the other characters will lose their ability to drive the plot. 

Is there anything wrong with film “fast food”? Not at all. However, for a fully-immersive movie experience, creating a well thought out theme can mean the difference between a film that someone sees once just to see what the fuss is about and a film that audiences buy to watch again and again because it means something to them. 


Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting graduate from Drexel University. She loves all visual writing mediums and has experience in writing plays, comic books, screenplays, TV sitcoms, and video games. World building is her favorite and she obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her spare time, you may find her trying to get over her fear of heights at a rock wall or adopting yet another plant because she can’t afford an actual pet.


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