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Topics Are Not Themes: Part I


There are topics, and then there are themes. The following is a list of topics:

  • Compassion

  • Courage

  • Death and dying

  • Honesty

  • Loyalty

  • Love

  • Perseverance

  • Importance of family

  • Good vs. evil

  • Reason vs. faith

  • Man vs. nature

  • Humanity vs. technology

  • Change vs. tradition

  • Chaos vs. order

  • Individual vs. society

  • Beating the odds

  • Class struggles

  • Survival

  • Hypocrisy

  • Greed

  • Pride

  • Acceptance

  • Loss of innocence

  • Self-awareness

  • Escape

  • Coming of age

  • Benefits of hard work

  • Power and corruption

  • Justice

  • Prejudice

  • Friendship

  • Revenge

  • Redemption

Topics are not themes – themes are derived from topics. This might clarify…

On the topic of “love,” you might write this theme: Heartbreak is a debt owed to true love. Notice how the subject of love is more developed?

Every great story is a great statement about the topic. And you’re gonna need a theme. It ties every aspect of the story together, and if you don’t have an identifiable theme… someone will create one for you. Typically this will be a director, the actors or even the production designer.

Because the theme is the strategy. And a production team can’t interpret the work until they have one. And that’s how movies go wrong: They start out being about one thing, and become about something completely different in production. So as a writer, you need a theme, because they need a theme. And this is how you do it.

Great themes involve topics most of humanity faces: love, death, sacrifice, triumph. See the list above. The writer should have something to say about the topic. Quick: Describe what you’re trying to say, in one sentence. There’s your theme. Think of it this way: Your theme is an attempt to make the audience consider another view. What are you trying to tell us?

In the neo-Western No Country for Old Men, the rugged self-determinism concept of a typical Western is turned on its head. Fatalism is replaced with randomness. Ed Tom Bell, the protagonist, is a man out of time, overmatched by the world of today. It’s easy to spot the theme through the antagonist, Anton Chigurh. He flips a coin to determine someone’s fate. The theme is something deeper than a struggle between good and evil in Cormac McCarthy’s book and the Coen brothers’ movie.

Don’t have anything profound to say about the topic you have in mind? Don’t worry. Next week we’ll explore more tips for how to forge topics into themes. Find Part II here.