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In other words: What is the movie ABOUT? The point or meaning?

This is rocky territory, and there are many ways to approach this subject, but it is important to understand. In studying screenplays, you will find yourself in one of two camps:

  • Those who believe Theme is the concise understanding of the plot (Premise)
  • Those who don’t

Camp One follows Lajos Egri’s Art of Dramatic Writing, and structure their themes as:

Blind ambition → LEADS TO → it’s own destruction (King Lear)

Many people and script gurus use this form or varied forms like it. However, many others believe that confusing the Premise for the Theme only makes your screenwriting preachy and dramatically weak.

Camp Two says find your story first, the characters, conflicts, leading to an ending, then find the moral/ethical significance. This allows you to be free to explore the meaning of your story, and discover what you REALLY believe, once you have something compelling for your audience.

Robert McKee prefers the term “controlling idea” instead of “theme,” and defines it as… “An irreducible idea, “expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition at the beginning to another at the end.” To find your controlling idea:

  • Look at your ending and ask, “What is the value (pos/neg) the protagonist brought into his world?”
  • Then trace back from the climax, “What is the chief cause, force or means by which this value was brought?”

An example then would be “Crime doesn’t pay because the cop is more violent than the criminals” (Dirty Harry). “Love overcomes because it is stronger than death” (Ghost).

As some may disagree how to implement it, you must have something to say. Introduce your theme:

  • At the inciting incident!
    Why not right here because the inciting incident, page 10 or so, is the introduction of the conflict, the point at which your story takes off. (see Amadeus quote at right).
  • Throughout the story!
    It must pervade the story, and exist in every scene. McKee (Story) says that each scene shifts on a particular VALUE (e.g. “crime pays” or “crime doesn’t pay”), building “by moving dynamically between positive and negative charges of the values at stake in the story.”
  • At the end.
    “How your protagonist resolves the conflict expresses the theme” (Jeff Kitchen). Clear and simple.Or if you prefer complicated: David Mamet wrote: The nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail. To do the work of a nail, it has to LOOK like a nail. On Directing

We’ll have more ideas about theme when we look at character.

No matter who you read, however, they are in agreement that you must have only ONE THEME. Multiple themes make your story convoluted, so find your one, make it concise, clear and understandable, and stick to it.


  • Tootsie – “Becoming a woman made a man out of Michael”
  • The Godfather -“What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

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