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Transformational Character Arcs: Part 8 - Theme

By The Unknown Screenwriter

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Theme... What a concept.

If I ask you what the theme of your screenplay is; CAN YOU TELL ME? Believe it or not, most newbie screenwriters cannot.

That must mean theme isn't important, right?

And, if you were to read "certain" screenwriting books out there, they too might SEEM to tread in this direction but in reality, I think most just want YOU to discover or find the theme of your story without FORCING IT. Ah... There's another concept... Don't FORCE your theme on us. Why? Because if you do that and you yourself do not believe in your own theme, we can sense it from a mile away.

Character bios are outstanding.

Backstory is outstanding.

These elements can certainly add to the reality and believability of your characters and especially your protagonist but these elements in and of themselves do not create a theme for your story; they are simply part of your character's launching pad.

Sure, you can start out with a theme that you want to arrive at by the end of your story but what if your characters -- especially your Protagonist doesn't agree with you?

Ah... When they don't agree with you, they seem flat, unbelievable, and simply reactionary instead of having an emotional reaction to action that essentially reveals bits and pieces of their character/inner/fatal flaw and then eventually OVERCOMING their character/inner/fatal flaw. This is another reason why first drafts are so important. First and successive drafts allow you to get to know your Protagonist even better than you knew him or her after you created them on paper or in your head depending on how you work.

Pulling a theme out of a hat and then sticking it at the end of your screenplay so your Protagonist can smell his or her way toward it is fine as long as YOU'RE on board with that theme i.e., YOU believe in the truth of that theme yourself. If you don't, we'll know it because your characters and especially your Protagonist won't believe in it either.

Ah... So TRUTH is THEME. Theme is the INNER LIGHT at the end of your Protagonist's tunnel. Theme is the pot of gold at the end of the INNER RAINBOW of character. YOUR TRUTH -- not MY truth. Not your mother's truth. Just don't force it. Sure... Go ahead and PICK a theme if that's what YOU NEED to get you started.

Everybody's different. Some will know without a doubt what their theme is before even typing FADE IN while others will have their theme change over and over and over again as their Protagonist smells their way to the end of their story.

There is no right way.

Okay, there IS A RIGHT WAY. The right way is whatever works for YOU.

Sometimes a writer doesn't even know what he or she really truly believes in until they are finished with their screenplay... Not a problem. Writing a screenplay can be just as much a road to your own self-discovery as it is for your Protagonist.

Let it happen.

Just don't force it.

We can tell.

When you pull a rabbit theme out of a hat and force your story through to the end, you may just find yourself writing by the numbers but don't we really already have enough of that crap in the theaters?

Rather, consider starting out with the "rabbit theme out of the hat" just to get you moving. Just to get you writing and then, as you and your characters move through your story, you should all experience emotional reactions to action together. You should all experience new revelations and epiphanies as a TEAM.

Your characters ARE PART OF YOUR TEAM, aren't they? If not, why not? As you and your team move through your story, thematic elements will certainly pop up along the way. This is a good thing because as they pop up, you can weigh the pros and cons of these thematic elements as they relate to your Protagonist and supporting characters. Thematic elements will help tweak your Protagonist's tunnel so that by the time he or she gets to the end of it, your story not only entertains us but reveals a reason and a purpose for your Protagonist's tunnel in the first place i.e., we walk away caring about your movie instead of telling our family, friends, and associates NOT TO BOTHER.

If you're perceptive about your characters and story, you'll see these thematic elements pop up and maybe even explore them. Some may lead nowhere, others may carve your way through to your overall theme.

Overall theme?

Yup. What your story and screenplay is REALLY about. YOUR TRUTH. It really helps to KNOW what the theme of your story is. Once you know your theme, you and your team can huddle up, regroup, and reconnoiter the plot of your story. The plot and the plot points of your story should simply be a guideline. A road map if you will. A road map that guides your Protagonist and the rest of your team through your story...

Act 1, 2, 3…

Plot points 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.

It's not that these elements can't be written in stone, they can. And it's certainly okay to plan all these out ahead of time -- in fact, it's recommended but these acts and plot points are simply the OUTER MARKERS of your story. Part of your structure. A way for your team to get from POINT A to POINT B and then on to POINT C, etc.

Thematic elements are the INNER MARKERS of your story. As your team follows your road map via the outer markers, they go up against the obstacles you've laid in front of them but remember, your team is made up of HYPER-REAL characters. They don't simply bump into an obstacle and get pushed into another direction. They go through the process of EMOTIONAL REACTION TO ACTION each time they bump into one of these obstacles.

However, in the beginning of your story, your team's (and especially your Protagonist's) emotional reaction to action(s) is/are based on his or her character/inner/fatal flaw and the decisions made by your Protagonist, based on their character/inner/fatal flaw serves to peel back those layers of your Protagonist's personality.

So once you KNOW YOUR THEME, you can now begin to tweak those series of decisions so that by the end of your story, your Protagonist's transformational character arc is complete.

Let's visit the old take on the 3 Act Structure where they say:

Act 1: Get your Protagonist up a tree.
Act 2: Throw rocks at your Protagonist.
Act 3: Get your Protagonist down out of the tree.

If you use the 3 Act Structure (I don't actually use it but apparently most do), your Protagonist's transformational character arc could be something along the lines of...

Act 1:

Your Protagonist's emotional reaction to action is what's been keeping him or her from growing as a human being. They are stuck in their own muck. They always do things the hard way which is THEIR way. Their way never really works and often causes a lot more trouble than it's worth. When the inciting incident comes along, their emotional reaction to action is to do things the same old way they've always done them before but it doesn't work out the way they want and actually causes them even more grief... More conflict. More tension and hence, they are now UP A TREE.

Act 2:

Now that your Protagonist is up the tree, he or she has to figure out a way to get down. If he or she keeps doing things the same old screwed-up way they've been doing things for so long, they AIN'T gettin' down outta that tree, are they? Hell no! Yet, he or she keeps making the SAME KIND of decisions to get outta that tree and eventually... about halfway through Act 2, he or she finally realizes IT AIN'T WORKIN'! Of course, each decision or emotional reaction to action PRIOR to this epiphany has slowly but surely led the Protagonist to learn that he or she is missing something.

He or she is now beginning to realize that maybe the way they've been doing things (living life) really isn't working after all i.e., their character/inner/fatal flaw keeps them from getting down outta the tree. This is where YOUR TRUTH begins to light up the end of your Protagonist's tunnel and they start to see the glimmer of that light and just like we all tend to do, your Protagonist decides to struggle TOWARD the LIGHT. He or she now has a PURPOSE that should reveal itself by the end of the movie.

Act 3:

Your Protagonist has finally figured out that he or she needs to adopt a new strategy for LIFE. He or she has more or less figured out that in order to get outta that tree, they have to do something that they've never done before. Something new... Something different. Let's say they used to JUMP outta the tree before and every time he or she did that, they broke some bones (metaphorically speaking). So now, your Protagonist has finally figured out that JUMPING just makes matters worse... i.e., there's gotta be a better way and now's the time to figure out what that better way is.

They make a new plan and try to work the plan as they struggle toward the light and if the plan works, they will make it to the end of the tunnel. Of course, this is where you throw in the worst of the obstacles but NOW, because your Protagonist is becoming a new person, has gained newfound strength, he or she is able to thwart the obstacles (barely) to eventually climb down outta that tree... TRANSFORMED.

In other words, the obstacles that you throw in your Protagonist's way should play on his or her character/inner/fatal flaw(s). Your Protagonist should eventually achieve not only their OUTER, PHYSICAL, TANGIBLE GOAL but overcome his or her INNER OBSTACLES to complete their transformation AND achieve their outer goal.

These are the kinds of stories that resonate with an audience. Meaning that your Protagonist achieves more and more internal strength as he or she overcomes the external obstacles that you throw in their way. One should not exist without the other and it's this parallel struggle and eventual achievement of BOTH that the audience ABSORBS and walks away happy and ready to recommend the movie to others.

Coming up with your THEME, either before, during, or after your first draft, allows you to go back to your characters, action, and dialogue and flesh in more SUBSTANCE that supports your theme every step of the way throughout your story.

Theme can be complex or simple... Again, there are no rules but keep in mind the audience you're writing your screenplay for. Will they understand a complex theme? Will they absorb it? Will they GET IT? The simpler the theme, the wider the audience, the better the absorption and understanding.

The theme is the meaning of your Protagonist's journey and generally speaking, to make things just a little easier -- NOT FORMULAIC -- NOT BY THE NUMBERS -- consider beginning your Protagonist's journey 180 degrees or as opposite as you can make it from their ultimate ending and transformation.

For instance, if the theme of your story is that PEOPLE SHOULD FACE THEIR FEARS, why not start off with your Protagonist always running away from his fears and problems. You know that the transformational character arc you want for your Protagonist is for him or her to be able to face their worst fears by the end of the story so start them off by running away from just about everything because that's what they've always done. Make them run away in their emotional reaction to action and dialogue and slowly but surely steer them toward your overall theme.

You may find a new theme by the time you get to the end or you might just wind up with a great story that needs nothing added but use THEME as your guiding light. If you do come up with a new theme, that's what rewrites are for… i.e., fleshing in substance that supports your theme.

Next Article in series.

About The Unknown Screenwriter

A working screenwriter and producer, The Unknown Screenwriter makes his home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California and somewhere in the state of New Mexico with just a little bit of Los Angeles thrown in when he feels he can breathe the air.

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