It may be that you have a plot that suggests a theme, or a theme you need to find a plot for, but choosing a compelling theme is very useful when developing your screenplay.
Some people see screenplays as arguments on a given theme. All the characters take positions on the theme. Minor characters’ single lines state a position on the theme. Subplots explore unintended consequences of the theme. Major characters can debate the theme directly. Some can even present the argument in monologues. If you need a subject for minor characters to be talking about, turn to the theme.
The better themes can be argued more than one way. If everyone can agree on the point of the story, there’s not much point in debating it. In most cases you’ll be able to guess at the majority opinion, but great debating comes from being able to present the opposite point of view from what you believe yourself.
Themes can usually be presented as questions as well as statements:
Ambition leads to destruction OR Does ambition lead to destruction?
Themes can be presented as opposites
Ambition leads to destruction OR Indolence leads to destruction
In the first act the protagonist is unaware of the theme – their actions illustrate the negative aspects of disagreeing with the theme. In the second act the antagonist’s plans force the protagonist to react by acting as if they agreed with the theme without realising or agreeing with the statement of the theme. At the start of the third act the protagonist realises what lessons they have learned, come to an understanding of the theme and then make a choice to act in such a way that demonstrates the statement of the theme is correct.
If your cop movie’s theme is “Ambition leads to destruction”, the protagonist acts according to the theme throughout the story. In the first act we are introduced to a cop whose ambition leads her into many frustrations: she’s come to believe that whatever she does, the entrenched system will stop her from getting the position that she deserves in the force. We are also introduced to the antagonist: a corrupt cop who believes that no rules should stop them from getting to the top – ambition works for him.
In the second act, the antagonist’s plans come up against the protagonist. During a series of dilemmas, the protagonist has to choose to act as if ambition is the wrong choice – for example, she takes the blame for the antagonist’s corrupt action. In the second act the actions of the antagonist seem to demonstrate that “ambition leads to success.”
In the end of the second act, the protagonist sees the results of actions she has taken. They have led her to the darkest possible place, but she realises that she has been making the right choices (possibly for the wrong reasons – she discovers that what she wanted wasn’t enough, she realises what she needs). In the third act, she uses the tools and ‘anti-theme’ against the antagonist to demonstrate that she is in agreement with the theme and to illustrate the perils in disagreeing.
Here are some debates that you might find fun in debating:
Integrity is rewarded
Free will is possible
Know your place
Love survives beyond death
Forgiveness is weakness
You can never lose at a game you don’t play
Dedication leads to success
Technology solves all problems
There is not fate but what we make
Faith leads to conflict
Tradition is more important than love
Freedom is more important than responsibility
Greed is good!
Have a look at some of the ideas you’ve been coming up with recently. If you look for the debates within the stories, you might see the themes that you want to debate at this point in your life. If you write a journal, the topic that you are most unsure of is the theme you need to write about.
Even if your target market is far from your personal ‘demographic’ you’ll be most comfortable writing about something that matters to you. The important thing to do is to make your theme so universal that the debate is relevant to your audience, even if you aren’t a member of that audience. This is how women in their fifties write comedies for teenagers…