Themes come in two flavours

  • Emotional subtext. Perhaps your film expresses wonder at what science can accomplish, or fear for our future, or human triumph over adversity. This is always good. Emotional depth can only enhance your film.
  • Subject area or category. Perhaps your film is about the science of tsunamis, or animals that live above the snow line, or people in residential care. This is good too. Theme, in this ‘category’ sense, gives you an organizing principle.

Both flavours come with a subtle problem attached.

People often mistake theme for Story.

This is a shame, because they’re not the same thing at all.

Theme-As-Story fails on two aspects of the three-part definition of Story. It doesn’t give you (1) a mission the audience can associate with, or (3) a series of set-backs / unexpected changes of direction.

Theme doesn’t work as a mission because the ‘answer’ – the ‘mission accomplished’ – is a list. Say the theme is ‘animals that live above the snow line’. It’s tempting to turn that into a ‘mission’ by rephrasing it as a question: “What animals can we find above the snow-line?” This doesn’t set up a Story because the answer is, “Well, there’s this, and this, and this…”

You can tell this is a list because if you change the order of the sequences, the meaning of your film remains exactly the same. The running order is irrelevant. It’s not part of the film. Imagine a story that goes:

A scientist went up mountains on various continents, to see what he could see. He saw: a snow leopard, a copperhead snake, a herd of yaks, an unusual species of weta, some ptarmigan. All the animals were interesting, each for a different reason. Then the scientist came back from the mountains. The End.

It reads like a children’s book. The theme is there – but there’s no Story. That’s because the ‘mission’ isn’t really a mission. It doesn’t allow there to be a story (in other words, it’s not really a mission in the Story-telling sense). Worse, we’re missing those set-backs and changes of direction. There can’t be any changes of direction because there wasn’t a set direction in the first place.

If you use this kind of physical ‘theme’ as your organising principle, you will always end up with a list. And it doesn’t matter whether your film has 6 such ‘themes’ or one, whether the series has one or thirteen. You will end up with a magazine show, a list, because you have left no scope for one idea to lead to another, and no scope for unanticipated changes of overall direction.

(Surprises within individual sequences don’t count; they make that sequence a good mini-story, but they don’t give you an overarching story for the film.)

Story-telling is about:

  1. setting off with a question,
  2. and with a plan for how to answer it…
  3. and then discovering that the plan needs adjusting…
  4. then that your new plan needs adjusting…
  5. and the one after that…
  6. Only after all those surprise revisions of the mission can you arrive at a conclusion and be satisfied by it.

A story-journey isn’t linear – it’s a series of sequences where we expect things to be linear – and then discover that they are not.

So, if your theme is animals that live above the snow line, you might choose as your mission: “Why do animals live above the snow line, and how do they survive?” (Notice that ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions are open-ended but still offer the prospect of arriving at a complete answer, a general principle rather than a list.)

Now you have the possibility of creating a film full of set-backs and surprises. You could set out by looking at animals in the transition zone:

  • Are they evolving towardslife in the snow, or awayfrom it? Why even attempt to live in such a hostile environment?
  • Excellent: now we have a new question we need to answer. So we head upwards – and discover a rich food source.
  • But that raises a new question… The food is also a lure to predators. So, how will our transitional creatures survive?
  • Now we can start to look at adaptations to life in permanent snow cover…

…and so on. At each stage, we pose a new question or challenge – and discover that the answer raises a new question or challenge, taking us in a new and unexpected direction… All in order to arrive at a conclusion that addresses the question we started out with – but in an unexpected way.

This is the essence of Story.