Donald L. Vasicek
What is theme? What does it mean? How does it apply to the screenplay? According to Merriam Webster dictionary, theme is: “A subject or topic of discourse or artistic representation.” In the screenplay, the theme must be introduced as early as possible. It should be introduced, as a visual, if at all possible, by page 3 of the screenplay or minute 3 of the film.
Since film is a visual medium, the screenwriter must strive to visually write. So, showing should take the place of telling in screenwriting. This is vital if you want to sell and get your screenplay produced.
How does one do that? Well, in “Born to Win”, one of my produced and award-winning screenplays, Justin, the main character in the film, has shown on Page 1, through a metaphor, that trust is the theme in the movie. This was visually accomplished in minute 1 of the movie by showing a butterfly fluttering away from Justin’s mother’s headstone. Justin won’t let go of his deceased mother, a problem he exhibits throughout the movie. The butterfly shows, “letting go”, by flying away, as a means for having trust.
On page 3, the theme for the movie is exhibited:
“Callie smiles. She tends the graves. Justin lingers. He notices Charlie’s shadow lengthen over him.
Charlie places his hand on Justin’s shoulder. He guides him towards the car. Justin slips his arm around Charlie’s waist.”
Can you identify the theme of trust in this scene? What visual shows that?
“Justin lingers”? It would work to show trust, with the exception that Justin lingers. It shows that Justin is giving Callie some consideration as someone he can trust. The key to utilizing “Justin lingers” as the theme is identified in the verb, “lingers.” “Lingers” exhibits the possibility of trust, but it does not exhibit trust. So, “Justin lingers”, is not the theme in the movie.
How about “Charlie places his hand on Justin’s shoulder.” There is an indication of trust here. Remember Justin is the main character, so everything should be written and seen from his point-of-view. Here, Justin allows Charlie to place his hand on his shoulder. So, this visual allows the first peek into the theme for the movie, trust, but it is not the theme.
Utilizing the visual approach to screenwriting and movie-making empowers the characters and it empowers the story. Without, the screenplay and/or the movie, falls flat and theaters will not want to exhibit it, let alone distributors picking it to put in theaters.
So, the more visuals the screenwriter can write and the filmmaker can film, the more powerful the screenplay and the movie will be. This, in turn, will create revenue. This, in turn, will create more work for the screenwriter and the filmmaker. That’s the way it works in the movie business.
So, instead of giving examples of screenplays and movies that back up what I am writing here, I will leave that up to you. Look at movies. Study them for the theme, particularly early on in the movie.
And, instead of telling you what visual in my example, “Born to Win”, depicts the theme of the movie, “trust”, you tell me. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.
Your choices are: “He guides him towards the car.” Again another element of trust, or is this the visual that identifies the theme, “trust.”
Or, is it: “Justin slips his arm around Charlie’s waist.”
You tell me. And remember, the theme, once exhibited in the screenplay and movie, must be visually shown in every scene from page 3 of the screenplay and minute 3 of the movie through to the end. If the screenwriter fails to execute the theme this way, then, the screenplay and the movie will fall flat.
And the screenwriter and filmmaker can show opposing views of the theme. For example, in “Born to Win”, Justin learns that the bad guy in the movie is one he should not trust, while the bad guy shows that he doesn’t trust law enforcement, and even his cohort.
Donald L. Vasicek
Olympus Films+, LLC
The Zen of Writing/Filmmaking/Consulting