“The Anatomy of Theme in the Screenplay and Movie”

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 dvasicek@earthlink.net. 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

John Wayne's birthplace.  Winterset, Iowa
John Wayne's birthplace. Award-Winning Writer/FIlmmaker Donald L. Vasicek/Winterset, Iowa

“How To Establish the Dramatic Premise of your Screenplay and Beyond”

by Donald L. Vasicek

So, you began your screenplay with a visual metaphor. You’ve
introduced your main character, the setting, the time, the theme, and
you’re introducing other major and periphery characters. You’re
getting to like your story pretty well, when all of sudden you hit a
block. What is your story about?

This question is asked many times over each day in the film business.
So, you’d better be prepared for it. Your story is about a character
who reacts to something that causes him (I’m using the male gender
because I honestly don’t know what is correct when writing articles.
Someone please tell me how to deal with this so I can be
grammatically and politically correct.) to begin acting instead of
reacting to what is going on around him. The first step in your main
character’s transformation (you’d better have one if you want to sell
and get your screenplays produced)is when he reacts to the
introduction of the dramatic premise. Until this time in your
screenplay, you should have established your main character who
should be in a setting and time interacting with other characters who
should all be showing (I emphasize “showing” instead of “telling”
since all great writing “shows” instead of “tells”) different aspects
of your theme. You should have established all of these elements by
about page 10 of your screenplay.

On or about page 10 in your screenplay, you show something that
occurs that is out of context of what you have set up so far. This
turning point in your screenplay is when you have your main character
react to something that establishes the dramatic premise of your
screenplay. This dramatic premise will be the plot of your
screenplay. Something happens to your main character that begins his
transformation arc because he is forced to react to something he has
been avoiding, but he must react to it until he overcomes it, or it
his life will never change for the better.

In the $56 million MGM screenplay I was a writer/consultant for,
“Warriors of Virtue”, Ryan, the main character is shown in school,
with his friends, with his family and how he reacts to these people
and this setting. Problem is, Ryan wears a leg brace, a defect in his
leg he inherited with birth. Kids push him around. He can’t play on
the football team. He argues with his parents. His dog barks at him.

He has a lot of problems until he’s challenged to leap over this

rushing water to show other kids that he’s not a wimp. Then,
his real problems begin.He leaps and falls into the water. He is
swept into an alternate universe where he has to change or he’ll
never be able to return to his home. The evil Komodo and his army,
a village of “people” and five Kung Fu Kangaroos who need his
help stand in his way. This is where his transformation arc begins.
This is where the dramatic premise for the movie is established. From
From this point on, Ryan begins to change, and to never be the same again.

This alternate universe (no different than what your main character
should be experiencing at this point in your screenplay)”attacks” Ryan.
He survives the plunge, but now he’s being threatened by the evil
Komodo’s soldiers in a forest. When some Kung Fu kangaroos rescue him, he
begins to see that someone cares about him, and he doesn’t even know
why. And miraculously, he discovers that his leg is healed.

Fearful of the village, which is made up of a loving community of people,
at about page 45, Ryan foreshadows he is going to be at the end of the
movie. He meets a girl, Princess Anne and he isn’t afraid of her. At midpoint, the village
is attacked by Komodo and his soldiers. Though fighting valiantly, the Kung
Fu Kangaroos are outnumbered. They manage to drive the invaders
away, but, they know, that unless they come up with some kind of
miraculous idea, Komodo is going to take over the village and kill
everyone. And now, Ryan has a stake in the outcome. Where before, he
cared little about himself, now, he not only cares about himself, but he
cares about Princess Anne as well. But, Komodo has kidnapped her to hold her for ransom
in order to force the village leaders to give in to his demands and give up
the village (Komodo desires the village because of its love and its peace
because this kind of behavior terrorizes him).

At about page 75, Ryan tells the village leaders and the Kangaroos that
he believes he can talk Komodo in releasing Princess Anne. Interested,
he tells them how.

At about page 90, Ryan, under the protection of the hidden Kangaroos,
Ryan confronts Komodo about releasing Princess Anne. Komodo, struck by Ryan’s
audacity, challenges him to a duel with swords. Only Komodo knows his soldiers
are near to back him up, but unaware of the hidden Kung Fu Kangaroos.

Komodo, by far the superior warrior to Ryan, is about to take Ryan’s head with
his sword, when some of the soldiers show their faces. At that point, the Kangaroos
show themselves. An all out battle ensues.

Ryan races to rescue Princess Anne. The battle is so fierce, the out-numbered Kangaroos,
are exhausted and about ready to admit defeat, when Ryan, grabs a sword and disarms
Komodo. The Kangaroos take over and defeat Komodo’s soldiers. Ryan rescues Princess
Anne and saves the village.

In the closing scene, the village priest creates a mystical and spiritual avenue for Ryan
to travel so that he can return to his parents and other life. After a tearful goodbye to
everyone, Ryan leaves.

Upon his return to the town where he lives, his parents, friends, and the kids in school,
see that his leg is healed, and so is Ryan. Even his dog accepts him.

So, you need to take your character on a journey, by establishing the dramatic premise,
then roughly timing turning points in the story and in your main character. Page 1, a visual
metaphor that defines the theme of the story. Page 3, a line of dialogue, or an action
that directly pinpoints the theme of your story. About Page 10, establish the dramatic
premise. At about Page 30, something extraordinary should happen that spins your
character and story around 360 degrees and sends it off in another direction. At
about page 45, foreshadow how your main character is going to be at the end of
your story. Just a small action, something your character does to reveal this, like when
Ryan meets Princess Anne and he is unfraid of her. From this point forward, you must
have your main character creating all of the action. In other words, he/she must be
pro-active in all events. At about Page 60, midpoint, you must show that about all is lost
for your main character regardless of the new strength he/she is showing. By about Page 75,
have your main character change the way he/she is trying to accomplish his/her goal. At
about Page 90 of your screenplay, your main character should have a direct confrontation
with the villain (villain represents evil in fiction) or antagonist (doesn’t necessarily
represent evil so much as representing the opposing force to your main character’s goal).
This confrontation results in your main character winning and sets up how the story
is going to end. For the next several pages, your story should build to a climax where
your main character goes nose-to-nose with the villain or antagonist. Here, your
main character should have an epiphany. For Ryan, it was his discovery that he
must overcome Komodo in order return home to his family and friends. It is here where
your main character’s fatal flaw (the flaw that has caused your main character to
pursue a solution to it because it is more overpowering than any other flaw)comes to
the surface and must be overcome by your main character. With Ryan, it was his fear,
and he overcomes it.

After the climax, wrap up all loose ends and end the screenplay as soon as possible.

And there you have it. Nine easy to steps to writing a screenplay.

“Hollywood Openings”


Donald L. Vasicek
Olympus Films+, LLC

In order to write, sell, and get your screenplays produced
in Hollywood, you need to write openings that Hollywood
utilizes to attract audiences. When you watch movies
produced by studios and mainstream production companies
and producers, what do you usually see in the opening?
If you’re stumped, the first thing you usually see is

This could be movement across a body of water with the
POV of the camera aimed at a skyline of a city, or someone
walking, someone running, a moving vehicle, etc. Images of
movement help pull the audience into the movie in order to
get them into the movie, like they’re really in the movie, to
make them feel like they’re part of what is going on in the

Openings also include a metaphor that defines what
the main theme of the movie is going to be, introduces the
main character, defines the character’s main problem to solve
in the movie, of his/her goal, and the setting. And this should
all be accomplished on page one of the screenplay.

In my produced screenplay, “Born to Win”, the opening shows
a butterfly fluttering away from a headstone. A boy cleans
the headstone. He weeps. He rubs the headstone with a cloth
beyond that of cleaning it. The movement is the butterfly
moving away. It shows the defining theme of the movie, which
is “letting go.” The main character, the boy, is holding onto his
dead mother. The setting of scene, a cemetery, exacerbates the
theme of letting go. This movement also shows the metaphor
for the movie of letting go.

The boy must let go before he can move on with his life
regarding his mother’s untimely death and he does
it by driving his mother’s race car in a race to win $25,000 for
an operation to save his Gramps’ life. In the end, it’s either
let go of his Gramps, or continuing his fatal flaw of holding
onto to something that he should no longer hold onto.

When you write screenplays that you want to sell and get
produced, study openings of movies that Hollywood produces.
You will see that the most successful of these movies (box
office, DVD and rental sales, Internet streaming, etc.) contain
elements which include movement, metaphor, defining theme,
main character, and setting. Craft these elements into your
screenplays, and you’re off to a great start with writing
screenplays that you sell and get produced.

Donald L. Vasicek
Olympus Films+, LLC