Skip to content

Lesson: Theme and Symbols

Table of Contents

The theme is a statement that attempts to express a universal notion, feeling, or affirmation. Be careful not to approach it simply as a topic, but be aware that it includes some form of an opinion or statement.

Whether you like it or not, topics will naturally attach themselves to an opinion or statement, so you are making statements whether you are trying to or not.

Writer Chuck Wendig calls theme your "FEELINGS and OPINIONS...[the] hidden arguments going on behind the walls of the story...Every story is an argument."

The theme often reveals choice:

  1. The choices you make for your story reflect these beliefs and opinions.
  2. And the choices your characters take reflect the theme...especially their final ones.

You may or may not have already started to implement themes into your scripts.

It embeds itself into the structure and storyline, through the actions, dialogue, and images or sounds of your script.

Never worry or force the theme. It will happen naturally, whether you choose it or not.

The theme should be developed alongside the plot and character.

Shape your theme

So when thinking about thematic arguments, approach them in a similar that you'd approach a thesis for an essay.

  1. What is the topic?
  2. Assert something about that topic.

Think about the thematic argument as:

(Topic) is (value) because (cause).

For example, "Crime doesn’t pay because justice prevails."

Tactics to approach theme

Show theme through + / - values

This is the simplest form of argument, formed by moving back and forth between points of positive and negative values.


For example:

  1. Crime pays because it’s easy to steal.
  2. Crime doesn’t pay because the cops will find you.
  3. Crime pays as long as you are willing to do whatever it takes.
  4. Crime doesn’t pay because cops are willing to be corrupt to catch you.

Notice how you can see story structure, as well as an escalation of action.


WOARO is the reason why the theme appears whether you try or not. As your character works through their problem, they’ll eventually make value judgments. Being aware of it helps you shape your argument.

This is your number one tool for considering this dynamic. Just as an argument is about weighing both sides, WOARO visualizes the struggle of a theme.

The topic will often be defined by your Want and Obstacle

  • Inner and Outer Wants: power, money, happiness
  • Inner and Outer Obstacles: prejudice, grief, depression

+ / - values = Action and Responses:

This is your pathway, moving back and forth across the +/- values (Crime vs. law-abiding). These actions can be either physical or dialogue.

Dialogue can express a theme, but remember it’s better to show the struggle of a theme than to tell us outright.

Final value/cause = Outcomes:

These define your final ruling on the theme. Does your character find happiness or are they doomed to suffer? How do they overcome grief? Or maybe crime does not pay because the cops are corrupt.

Other Patterns of Development

  • Increasing importance - could be attached to raising the stakes (which is increasing the likelihood of a negative outcome)
  • Increasing complexity - showing the intricacy of a complex topic
  • Illustration or support - showing all aspects
  • Division and classification - break the problem into pieces
  • Comparison and Contrast - the positives and negatives of two things (through action)
  • Analogy - comparison to another thing
  • Cause-and-effect analysis - a breakdown of cause and effect
  • Process analysis - how is a thing made

Create multiple storylines, each juxtaposing different aspects of the theme.


Each character can be a reflection of that theme, considering different aspects, which can then be played against each other to reveal meaning.

Alternative Story Structures

Different story structures can be used to consider the theme or be a representation of the theme:

  • Causality vs. Coincidence
  • Active vs. Passive protagonists
  • Linear vs. Non-linear time
  • Closed vs. Open endings
  • Consistent vs. Inconsistent reality
  • Change vs. Stasis

How to Actually Build a Theme

The two main approaches are:

  1. Write the story and then unpack the theme afterwards. What do you think your story is saying? And then how can you refine it to draw out those elements further?
  2. Begin with a theme that interests you and build it out. For example: If it is jealousy, then consider it as an obstacle (or want) and then figure out where you want to end up (outcome and final value judgement).

Important: always refine the draft afterward to draw out the theme as best as possible. Look for ways to consider this further.

Also, when working with either option, be sure to dig a little bit. Use the method of "five whys" to continually unpack the meaning of your story.

Imagery, Symbols, and Motifs

Imagery can add depth to your writing, but it can't carry the theme on its own.

Objects, gestures, and sounds can act as symbols that represent or signify ideas, characters, or relationships. Again, they cannot carry the theme alone but act as reflections of that theme.

Motifs are the reoccurring or repeated elements throughout a story. They can be through images and sound, but also structural components, language, and other parts of the script.

And of course, much of this may be added by your crew and cast.

Metaphor Trees

When you are constructing your story, try to keep all your symbols and metaphors connected within the same field.

For example, space is related to rocks and astronauts, but it's different from birds, flowers, and air.

They can also be placed at odds with each other (i.e. fire and water, etc...) But keeping them connected in some way can bring unity to your story.


Final thoughts:

Show the theme through:

  • Thesis/Antithesis/Synthesis
    • Thesis is the initial approach and thematic argument (crime pays).
    • Antithesis is the new approach and opposing thematic argument (crime doesn't pay).
    • Synthesis is a combination of the two. (crime pays when the cops are corrupt).
  • Structure and Storylines
  • Image or Sound

But remember that theme will come naturally through the choices you make.

Lastly, don't lose your theme in the editing. As you are working on your writing, sometimes story choices will remove elements of your theme. Be constantly aware as you do the work.


Write a 2-3 page script of any type, that considers a theme through one aspect of WOARO. Be conscious of the thematic argument (the topic, value, and cause) that you are making within your script.

You are not allowed to use alternative story structures or non-fiction patterns of development for this exercise.

Marking Criteria:

  • Written in the active, present tense.
  • Proper screenplay format (including sluglines; parenthesis, and ALL CAPS on the introduction of characters).
  • Proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
  • Proper use of descriptions.
  • Includes a title page that uses the proper format.
  • Only 5 errors are allowed per script.

❗ Since we are heading into a reading week, this assignment is due: Sunday, November 13 at midnight. ( Saskatchewan time ).