What is Theme in Film and TV Screenwriting? (2023)

There are many different ideas, but what is theme in film and TV screenwriting?

Your script theme needs to carry both the weight of the story and a connection to the audience. That's a significant burden to bear. So how can you tell if your theme is coming across, or if you even have one?

I went to Catholic School growing up, and we were ALWAYS writing theme papers. They had to have thesis statements followed by three paragraphs supporting the thesis and a closing paragraph. Flash forward to now and that's basically what I do for a living here. I come up with a thesis, support it, and get torn apart in the comments. But I love it.

I was perusing screenwriting Reddit yesterday (I'm Jasonater2themax, say "hi" any time) and came across a post I enjoyedby ExoticSword. It talked about Craig Mazin's screenwriting theoryand the idea that you should always be writing from the theme.

So what does theme mean? Well, how the hell do I know what the theme is? And when do I find said theme? And how do I write to it?

The theme of this week is writing your script's theme. We'll go over the screenplay theme definition, learn how to find your story's idea, and go over a few examples as well as thematic topics.

So strap in, get ready to write, and if you misbehave, I'll wrap your knuckles with a ruler. Sorry, Catholic School coming back. I don't care if you misbehave as long as you learn something.

Theme Definition in Film and TV

In film studies, a theme is a central message within a narrative of a film or television show. In general, themes fit into two categories: a work's thematic concept is what the audience "think the work is about" and its thematic statement being "what the work says about the subject of the story." As you can imagine, these vary based on the film, characters, director, and writer.

We sometimes call theme the "central message." So what's the central message in your story?

(Video) How To Find The Theme Of A Story - Jeff Kitchen

What is Theme in Film and TV Screenwriting?

The theme of your screenplay refers to the issue at the core of the story itself. This isn't mentioned in the script, but it's the emotional or spiritual driving force behind your movie's message. If you don't have a theme, then your mom will feel like it lacks purpose.

Think of the theme like the thesis statement of a paper. Again, we come back to the central message.John August describes the theme as "what is true and what is real."

So what's true at the center of your story? Maybe you're writing about realizing your parents are flawed humans, or that love conquers all, or that trust and respect are earned.

But maybe you don't know your theme yet. Stephen King thinks it comes after you write the story and emerges in other drafts. Stephen King had this to say in"On Writing:"

"Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme, it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story. The only possible exception to this rule that I can think of are allegories like George Orwell's "Animal Farm". Once you have a basic story on paper, you need to think about what it means and enrich your following drafts with your conclusions. To do less is to rob your work (and eventually your readers) of the vision that makes each tale you write uniquely your own."

Whatever the case may be, once you decide on your theme, you should be writing to that theme. But how do you decide? Determining theme is not an easy task.

What's a Theme in Film Storytelling?

In scanning the internet, a lot of websites talk about theme in When Harry Met Sally. Which is awesome, because I just read the script and rewatched the movie. The idea in that movie is easy..."Can men and women be friends?"

That central message is behind every story decision in the movie. The movie seeks to argue this point back and forth. At times, we see the deep friendship of Harry and Sally, and we think, "Sure, maybe they can be friends." But then we realize that that banter is so cute and all we want is for them to be together and we understand that the sexual tension and romance is way more important than being stupid friends.

Each character and their actions are written from this point of view. And the theme gives people something to talk about as they walk away.

(Video) What is Theme — 5 Ways to Layer Theme into a Screenplay

Well, I know you're not Nora Ephron, so you might be having a bit of trouble finding the theme of your screenplay.

How do Filmmakers Find Themes in Film and TV?

You might know your central message exactly when you start writing, but chances are you will not figure it out until the end. One thing I want you to rethink is why you wrote the story in the first place. For that, I'll do a call back to the Le Menu, an exercise from the beginning of “Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect” by Claudia Hunter Johnson. We've done this from the character's perspective. And it helps here to get your mind working about why you write in the first place.

Write five to ten answers to:

  • What I love
  • What I hate
  • What I fear
  • What I believe
  • What I value
  • What I want
  • What I know about
  • People who made a difference in my life
  • Discoveries that made a difference in my life
  • Decisions that made a difference in my life

What is Theme in Film and TV Screenwriting? (1)
After you do that, you'll be a lot closer to discovering the theme of your work. The theme is closely tied to the internal struggle you want your audience to understand while watching the movie. So you're not really finding and defining as much as building the theme into the story.

Let's look at Theme Examples in Famous Films

What is an example of a theme? Themes just don't show up, you can imply them, with an implied theme or you can just call them out generally. Sometimes it's easier to just look at the themes present in some of our favorite films. Think about a movie like Fargo. The entire story is built around money, and whether or not you need money to be happy. Jerry wants it and is willing to sacrifice his wife to get it. Marge knows it's love that really makes you happy, not money.

The movie is written from both points of view. Marge's encounters are all about love, and Jerry's are all about money. When they finally meet in the end, Jerry learns his lesson and Marge cuddles up next to her husband. Each is able to answer the theme.

Let's look at a few more examples to work theme out in our own scripts.

Jurassic Park Themes

I love the theme music of Jurassic Park and the story's theme too. If technology makes something possible, should we pursue it without moral dilemma?

Jurassic Park does a great job providing us characters who explore this theme. Dr. Grant and Ellie are archeologists, literally living and working in the past and not interested in the technology of the future. Hammond and his team are only interested in taking the past and making it part of the future because they're able to do that.

(Video) About theme in screenwriting - Story analyst - Billy Mernit

Malcolm becomes the voice of reason, delivering our theme."Just because we can, doesn't mean we should."

Over the course of the movie's two hours, we see characters debate this complex issue. Technology saves Dr. Grant's life a few times, but the sheer act of bringing the dinosaurs back to life refutes that we should wantonly wield technological advances.

Hammond and many members of his park fall victim to their hubris.

The movie leaves us with a complex answer to the question. Technology should be used to help humanity but not to play god.

Pulp Fiction Themes

Pulp Fictionis a movie that's thematically about fate. Are we in control or are there larger forces at work? You can read the Pulp Fiction screenplay here for extra analysis.

If we are fated to do certain things, then what is our purpose?

(Video) Theme Comes Last In The Writing Process - Pat Verducci

Jules's breakdown is at the center of this thematic struggle. Is he supposed to be an evil man or should be doing good? In Pulp Fiction, the people who choose to do good generally survive. The people who don't, like Vincent, are the ones who chose to continue to do wrong even after fate gave them a sign to save themselves.

This theme of fate lends itself exceptionally well to a movie about people running into each other all over Los Angeles. It allows us to suspend disbelief when people show up in crosswalks or accidentally run into sadomasochistic rednecks.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. II Themes

What about something a little sweeter?

Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. IIhas a great theme. "Can your friends become your family?"

We see Quill, Rocket, Groot, and Yondu debate this fact over and over. The central question of the story is "Who is your daddy?" Quill learns that your biological heritage doesn't matter. What matters are the people who are willing to die for you. Those people, no matter if they are human, alien, god, or raccoon can become your family.

The choices, stakes, and set pieces in the movie all are written from the family dynamic and make this sequel special.

Summing up the Definition of Theme in Film and TV

As you can see the primary theme of most stories relies on the goals of the filmmaker. If the whole cast and crew know about the theme, it can make writing and directing all that much easier. Especially for the actors, who now will know how to play the characters' arcs.

What's next?Coincidences in Movies and Television are a Disaster...Unless...

Coincidences in movies and television can take you out of the story or leave you questioning the internal logic of events. So how can you use these random story beats to your advantage?

(Video) Discover the Use of Theme for Better Screenplays

Click to learn more!


What is a theme in filmmaking? ›

A theme is the film's central, unifying concept. A theme evokes a universal human experience and can be stated in one word or short phrase (for example, “love,” “death,” or “coming of age”).

What is a theme in a TV series? ›

Theme is what your story is about, deep down, at its core. It's what resonates with your audience members on a personal level; the universal truth they understand implicitly that makes them relate to a story.

What is the importance of theme in screenwriting? ›

Theme is especially essential to give your characters and events meaning, a meaning that often leads to great spiritual or emotional involvement and release by an audience. Great themes create great drama.

What is theme in writing? ›

A theme is a central, unifying idea. It's the bigger issue that emerges as the characters pursue their goals.

What is theme in screenwriting? ›

The theme is your point of view that you wish to express about a specific aspect of a specific subject, whether it's love, money, greed. When Harry Met Sally isn't just about 'love' but the question of whether men and women can be just friends. Theme is often referred to as the moral message of the story.

What is an example of theme? ›

The most common contemporary understanding of theme is an idea or point that is central to a story, which can often be summed in a single word (for example, love, death, betrayal).

How do you identify theme? ›

the idea the writer wishes to convey about the subject—the writer's view of the world or a revelation about human nature. To identify the theme, be sure that you've first identified the story's plot, the way the story uses characterization, and the primary conflict in the story.

What are the 5 elements of theme? ›

This song covers the five main elements of a story: setting, plot, characters, conflict and theme. Whether you're studying a short story, a novel, an epic poem, a play or a film, if you don't find these five elements, you're not looking hard enough.

What is the main purpose of theme? ›

The term theme can be defined as the underlying meaning of a story. It is the message the writer is trying to convey through the story. Often the theme of a story is a broad message about life. The theme of a story is important because a story's theme is part of the reason why the author wrote the story.

What is the purpose of themes? ›

What Is Theme and Why is it Important? A theme is a dominant thought, a unifying vision, a moral. It is the central idea behind your story. Kirk Polking, editor of Writing A to Z, defines theme as “the point a writer wishes to make.

Whats is a theme? ›

A theme is an idea, concept, or lesson that conveys a moral message in a text and explores it through characters, setting, dialogue, plot, or elements. Themes come in two different categories. They are: Thematic concept deals with how the readers perceive the concept in your text.

What is a simple definition of theme? ›

1. : the main subject that is being discussed or described in a piece of writing, a movie, etc. The quest for power is the underlying theme of the film. A constant theme in his novels is religion.

What is theme vs main idea? ›

The main idea is what the book is mostly about. The theme is the message, lesson, or moral of a book. By asking crucial questions at before you read, while you read, and after you read a book, you can determine the main idea and theme of any book you are reading!

What are the elements of theme? ›

Plot, Setting, Character, Conflict, Symbol, and Point of View are the main elements which fiction writers use to develop a story and its Theme.

What are 5 themes examples? ›

What are some common themes?
  • Beauty.
  • Good vs. evil.
  • Coming-of-age.
  • Loyalty.
  • Betrayal.
  • Life and Death.
  • Justice.
  • Family.
Jun 29, 2022

What are the 12 common themes? ›

  • Power.
  • Family.
  • Identity.
  • Loneliness.
  • Friendship.
  • Free will vs. Fate.
  • Hope.
  • Love.
Jun 30, 2021

How do you write a theme? ›

How to write a theme statement
  1. Read the work thoroughly. Before writing your theme statement, it's important that you read and fully understand the material. ...
  2. Identify conflicts and central ideas. ...
  3. Consider the author's perspective. ...
  4. State the theme. ...
  5. Edit for clarification. ...
  6. Keep it general. ...
  7. Avoid cliches.
Jun 15, 2021

How do you identify a theme in content analysis? ›

To analyze your data, follow the steps to analyze your research results to identify themes in your data:
  1. Familiarize yourself with your data. ...
  2. Generate initial codes to your data to describe the content. ...
  3. Search for patterns or themes in your codes across the different interviews. ...
  4. Review and refine the themes.
Jun 5, 2020

What are 2 key features of a theme? ›

The theme or central idea statement can help you interpret and write about literature/text in two main ways: (1) it forces you to decide on a clear, simple interpretation before you begin writing, and (2) it provides your reader with a summary of your interpretation.

What are 3 common themes? ›

6 Common Themes in Literature
  • Good vs. evil.
  • Love.
  • Redemption.
  • Courage and perseverance.
  • Coming of age.
  • Revenge.
Aug 20, 2021

What is the difference between theme and genre? ›

A genre is the term for any category of literature based on a distinctive stylistic criteria. A theme is what a specific story is about. There is a theme or even multiple themes in a genre. For Coraline, the genre would be dark fantasy and horror.

How many elements are there in theme? ›

There are eight elements of a story: theme, plot, characters, setting, conflict, point-of-view, tone and style.

What is the importance of themes in movies? ›

Theme is the most important element of a good screenplay. It's the driving intention behind the film. It's the message that the writer is trying to get across to the audience which, when effectively communicated, satisfies them, emotionally and analytically, and makes them feel they've just watched a good film.

Which sentence best defines theme? ›

The statement that best defines theme is the main idea or concept displayed throughout any written work.

What is topic and theme examples? ›

Understand that a theme topic is NOT a theme statement. Examples of Theme Topics: Love, Justice/Injustice, Family, Struggle, the American Dream, Wealth, Inhumanity Examples of Themes: People risk their own identity to find love; Power corrupts humanity; Without empathy, there can be no justice. 2.

How many types of themes are there? ›

This is because there are two types of themes: major and minor themes.

Is theme The controlling idea? ›

Controlling idea: the thoughts and beliefs the storyteller has about the topic that they're trying to convey to the audience. If you think about a story as an argument, your controlling idea is your hypothesis. It's what you're setting out to prove through your story. Theme: the emotional core of your controlling idea.

What is topic vs theme? ›

The theme is the underlying meaning or the point on which the entire work is based that the author wants to convey to the readers. Topic refers to the word or sentence, which states the main subject of the work, i.e. the one with which the entire work is related.

What's a theme meaning? ›

: a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation.

Can a theme be a topic? ›

Theme and topic within a piece of writing can get easily confused. And many people think that they can be used interchangeably. However, theme and topic are connected but distinctly different in a piece of literature. To truly see the difference between topic and theme, just look at their definitions.

Can a theme be one word? ›

A theme is not ONE WORD. That is a topic. Bad example 1: The theme was love.

What is the best definition of theme *? ›

/ (θiːm) / noun. an idea or topic expanded in a discourse, discussion, etc. (in literature, music, art, etc) a unifying idea, image, or motif, repeated or developed throughout a work.

What is a theme and its purpose? ›

A literary theme is the main idea or underlying meaning a writer explores in a novel, short story, or other literary work. The theme of a story can be conveyed using characters, setting, dialogue, plot, or a combination of all of these elements.

What is the purpose of a theme? ›

The term theme can be defined as the underlying meaning of a story. It is the message the writer is trying to convey through the story. Often the theme of a story is a broad message about life. The theme of a story is important because a story's theme is part of the reason why the author wrote the story.

What are three examples of a theme? ›

What are some common themes?
  • Beauty.
  • Good vs. evil.
  • Coming-of-age.
  • Loyalty.
  • Betrayal.
  • Life and Death.
  • Justice.
  • Family.
Jun 29, 2022

Is theme the main idea? ›

Theme is the main or central idea in a literary work. It is the unifying element of a story. A theme is not a summary of characters or events. Rather, it is the controlling idea or central insight of the story.

What is theme vs genre? ›

A genre is the term for any category of literature based on a distinctive stylistic criteria. A theme is what a specific story is about. There is a theme or even multiple themes in a genre. For Coraline, the genre would be dark fantasy and horror.


1. How to Choose a THEME and TITLE for a Movie - SCREENWRITING LESSONS from Parasite
(Outstanding Screenplays)
2. How to Write a TV Show Treatment (with Examples) — TV Writing & Development: Ep1
3. Is It Important For A Writer To Know A Story’s Theme Before Writing? by Karl Iglesias
(Film Courage)
4. How theme is structured into a story #filmmaking #videoessay #screenwriting
5. Writing: Characters, Theme and Making It Simple
(Film Riot)
6. Learn Theme Using Movie and TV Clips
(ELA Through Film)
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