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  • Writer's pictureSajeev Varghese

The Profound Role of Theme in Storytelling - Part 2

Updated: 3 days ago


Welcome back to our exploration of the profound role of theme in storytelling. In Part 1, we unpacked what the theme truly is and why it's often misunderstood. Now, in Part 2, we'll dive into how to use the theme to craft your story, ensuring it resonates deeply with audiences and stands out as a cohesive and compelling narrative.


A theme is a slice of who we are and how we see things, manifesting in our stories. The movie itself becomes the fullest representation of that theme, acting as a vessel for the artist’s thoughts and feelings. Compelling stories are always extensions of who the artists are, and the theme arises when these thoughts, feelings, and ideas are organized around a subject, guiding the story's development.


Crafting Theme into Your Story


When we talk about theme, it usually comes down to a single word cliché like “resilience” or “family,” or a dumb one-liner like “the power of friendship” or “overcoming fear.” It's no wonder most storytellers avoid coming up with one. It sounds and feels superficial, and it doesn’t do justice to the story we're actually trying to tell. For the longest time, I thought theme was another useless term that could only be observed when analyzing existing works of art, but had no practical value in the initial stages of creating one. I couldn’t have been more wrong.





Take James Cameron's "Avatar" movies. With the mainstream understanding of the theme, most people could easily identify themes like family, colonialism, and environmentalism. While these themes are present, reducing "Avatar" to just “environmentalism” feels like an awful reduction of the artists’ intent and a complete disservice to the movie. Cameron wasn’t trying to project a simple message but to create an entire worldview for the audience to experience. The true theme encompasses myriad ideas about future technologies, corporate greed, identity, perspective, growth, indigenous rights, and imperialism. Theme is not just a single message but a collection of ideas cultivated over the years. That’s why boiling a movie down to a one-liner wisdom feels like a disservice.


The Theme as the Heart of Your Story


Theme is a reflection of the storyteller's worldview, beliefs, and experiences. It’s a slice of who they are and how they see the world, manifested into a movie. Think of it this way: as you navigate life, you accumulate experiences, learn new things, and develop a unique personality. Storytellers channel these thoughts and feelings into their stories. Theme arises when this artist organizes the collection of thoughts, feelings, and ideas around a loose subject, becoming the guiding principle of story development.





This can be as simple as Michael Bay finding giant robots cool. The first "Transformers" movie felt special because the audience resonated with Bay's genuine expression of his likes and dislikes. He loves cars, girls, flags, sunsets, the U.S. military, and giant robots hashing it out on the streets of major cities. Regardless of personal opinions on these subjects, Bay’s honest, almost unapologetic, projection of his worldview formed a strong theme that permeated every element of the movie. However, as the sequels rolled out, the theme shifted from Bay’s childhood fantasies to a passion for getting a paycheck, and that came through as well.


Be Conscious of Your Theme


The nature of storytelling is that the audience assumes the artist has a reason to tell a story. So, they actively look for the ideas and feelings that the artist might want to convey. Even if the artist has no conscious intent in conveying anything meaningful beyond making a series of scenes, a theme will always arise for the audience. Both fictional stories and real life provoke the same question from us: we seek reason and meaning, looking for signs of intelligent design.





Some artists embrace this game with the audience. David Lynch, for example, uses a unique approach to storytelliing: “If you want to make a feature film, you get ideas for 70 scenes. Put them on 3-by-5 cards. As soon as you have 70, you have a feature film.” His movie "Mulholland Drive" feels like a collection of random scenes, yet critics and audiences found it thematically complex and gut-wrenching, highlighting ambition's destructive nature in Hollywood. Lynch understands that connecting seemingly random scenes will always add up to something more than the sum of their parts, allowing the audience to tell a story to themselves.





A different example is James Wan's "Saw" series. The first film in the series revolves around two strangers who awaken chained in a room and must amputate their legs to escape a notorious serial killer’s trap. The story’s goal was not to focus on gore but to explore the appreciation of life. The serial killer, an old man with terminal cancer, aimed to teach his captives to appreciate life through suffering. This strong and deliberate theme served as a powerful guiding principle throughout the story development, making every scene resonate with the central idea.


So How to Use Theme?


When developing a story, start by asking two key questions: What is the story you want to tell? And why do you want to tell it? If your motivation is genuine, this forms the foundation of your theme. For example, if you want to create a heist story because you envision an epic chase scene, explore why the protagonist desires this thrill. Delve into their motivations and beliefs, creating a character arc that challenges and evolves these ideas.


Every story element and character should either express or explore the theme. This thematic integration ensures that your narrative is cohesive, with interconnected and interdependent story elements. When stuck on a plot point or character moment, ask how it can best serve the exploration of the theme. This approach makes your storytelling process more intuitive and seamless.


Make Theme Contribute to a Cohesive and Compelling Story


While audiences may not consciously seek out themes, they subconsciously absorb them, developing a sense of what the story means. Theme acts as the story's organizing principle, connecting every element and creating a unified narrative. Ignoring theme can lead to a disjointed story, where elements clash and confuse the audience. Aim for a cohesive narrative where all parts contribute to a single conversation about the theme.


To effectively integrate theme, focus on three key areas:


The Major Decision Your Protagonist Has to Make: This decision often encapsulates the story's theme, showing the protagonist's journey and the lesson they learn. For example, in "Hell or High Water," Toby’s choice at the end of Act 2 encapsulates the theme of life's struggle and survival as a zero-sum game.


The Main Philosophical Difference Between Two Important Characters: Opposing values dramatized through characters highlight the theme. In "Little Miss Sunshine," the philosophical stakes are represented by Richard’s winner-loser worldview and Grandpa’s philosophy of defining life on one’s own terms.


The Protagonist’s Character Arc: The change the protagonist undergoes demonstrates the thematic lesson. In "Bridesmaids," Annie’s transformation from denial to embracing change encapsulates the thematic lesson that change is inevitable and necessary for personal happiness.





Conclusion


Integrating themes into every facet of your story creates a unified narrative that resonates deeply with audiences. The theme-driven approach to character development, plot progression, and audience engagement ensures that every element of the story contributes to a cohesive and compelling narrative. This not only fulfills the structural needs of a well-crafted story but also achieves the emotional and intellectual depth that makes a story memorable.


Ultimately, the profound role of theme in storytelling is to provide a consistent thread that ties together the narrative, character development, and audience experience, creating a holistic and meaningful exploration that resonates well beyond the confines of the story itself. This thematic integrity is what elevates a story from mere entertainment to a poignant and impactful piece of literature.

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