Developing Themes In Films
In Chapter 1, we already looked at several ways to develop themes in your films. The following is a list of techniques you may want to start thinking about when incorporating themes into your script. Each theme and story is different and will require a unique approach on how to integrate it carefully. Many of the following ideas use metaphors and symbols, which will be covered more in-depth in the next section. A deeper discussion of ways to show themes using different types of metaphors is continued at the end of this chapter.
Controlling idea. Show how the story events are being controlled by one idea, such as the synchronisity theme example from Chapter 1.
List positive and negative manifestations of theme in plot and character. If you are working with the theme of how love heals all, you may want to list situations where there is an abundance of love, a total lack of love, and a medium amount of love, then show how healing is affected in each situation. You could list characters the same way, then put them in strong relationships together. One character may personify great love, one may seem devoid of any love, and a few may demonstrate the middle of the emotional theme spectrum.
Show main characters changing in respect to theme. Pick a negative and positive manifestation for a thematic character. Have the character start out in the negative theme state and then change to the positive one you are showing. A film about freedom may start with a character who is very upset about the constraints of their freedom, and by the end of the story is completely free and happy, after going through a big ordeal for change. Showing characters that change will be covered more in Chapter 3.
Use metaphorical characters. Use your digital tools to show things like animal characters playing human roles, such as the ones in Aesop's fables.
Assign characters metaphorical occupations that relate to theme. What occupations best relate to the essence of your theme? A detective in a crime thriller looking for the meaning of life (theme)? A boxer throwing a fight that ruins his career or for a gangster to show struggles with loyalty (theme)?
Pick a theme color. Use a neutral or limited palette for your scenes, then pick a contrasting color, such as red, to use only for thematic symbolic objects so that they stand out. In Transit, red is used to show the theme seduction of an innocent, with blood stained aprons, bright sensual strawberries smeared on the characters' skin, and hot red hair for the leading man.
Dialogue. Characters can make remarks about the theme such as "No one has any values anymore" in a story about the disintegration of values in modern life.
Create an original tag line in the dialogue. "Keep swimming" is used in Finding Nemo to drive home the theme of don't give up.
Character tells a story or fable. What existing fables or new stories could you have characters tell each other that show theme? In The Crying Game, The Frog and The Scorpion fable is told over and over again to show the theme at key points.
Use metaphorical locations. In the movie The African Queen, the theme has to do with moving from an institutional experience of spirituality to a direct one in nature. The film opens with a church scene in the middle of the jungle and then quickly moves to a boat on the river.
Character actions. How could the characters act and react in your film to show theme? In Finding Nemo, the main characters never give up, which is the theme.
Metaphoric scene activities. If your theme is how people struggle to be perfect, you could list several scene activities that would illustrate this point. A character getting ready for a blind date tries a new hair gel that makes them look like a scarecrow.
Symbolic nature shots. Nature is full of metaphors and symbols that people relate to on a very deep level. If your theme is redemption, you could show shots of an old tree everyone thought was dead coming back to life in the spring as a subplot.
Sound. The way you set up your soundtracks can also communicate theme, which will be covered more in Chapter 7. The sounds of laughter might be heard in the background during positive theme moments and the sound of people wailing may be used during negative theme scenes. Characters may also sing songs or be at places where thematic songs are being played.
Lightening and staging. The way you plan your shots can communicate theme visually, and will be covered more in Chapter 6. A film dealing with trust may show two opposing characters having a tense conversation while walking between sharp objects. The lighting around the positive theme character may be brighter than the one around the negative manifestation.
Use metaphors and symbols. The following section will help you to better use different types of metaphors and symbols to explore your themes and tell your stories in deeper ways visually.
Think of five visual ideas on how to develop the theme of your film using some of these techniques.