How Do You Create a Strong Theme?
Your theme is the connective tissue between the internal and external needs of your protagonist. Allow me to translate.
Your protagonist wants something. That’s the character’s external need. Indiana Jones wanted to find the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark. If your protagonist doesn’t want something, you have a profound problem with your character and should hang your head, stop reading and go fix that. We’ll wait…
We’re not gonna wait.
Your protagonist also has an internal need. Something’s missing or broken in the character’s life that needs to be repaired by the end of the movie. Usually, the internal need is a physical or mental wound the protagonist suffered in the past. This need is sometimes less obvious than the external need, but a great protagonist needs one just the same. Indiana Jones needs to believe there’s more to life than science. Indy repeatedly tells us he doesn’t believe in “all this mumbo-jumbo.”
So, your protagonist must have both an internal and an external need. The movie isn’t over until both are resolved. And this is how it all circles back to theme…
Let’s continue using Raiders of the Lost Ark as our guide. The connective tissue between Indiana Jones’ need for the Ark and his need to believe in something more than science reveals the theme: respect for a greater power.
You can see the theme integrated into almost every scene. It ties both of Indy’s needs together. And even more telling, the antagonist and protagonist have opposing views on the theme. Rene Belloq has no respect for the power of the Ark. At the end of the movie, Indiana Jones tells Marion, “… don’t look at it.” Because who would dare stare into the face of God?
In your story, what ties the internal and external needs together? That’s where you find a powerful theme. It’s the central dramatic argument your characters will continue to bump up against throughout the story. And it’s what forces the protagonist to arc by the end of the story.
Incorporating a theme into your story is how a strong writer produces an emotional ending. Your story can work on every level, but without a satisfying ending you’ll never have a great story. No one ever walked out of a film and said, “Wow, that ending really made sense.”