Theme: The Soul of Story

There exists no other element of a story that so embodies its reason for existence than theme. Theme is why a story, a good story, is told in the first place.

A story without theme, as evinced in so many films made these days, is not really a story at all, but simply a recitation of sequential events. Without theme, a story is empty of meaning, of deeper truth. So many films fail to move audiences because they are the mere simulacra of real movies — beneath their skin lies nothing but the cogs and wires of Hollywood formula, not the flesh and bone of a living story.

Themes touch upon the values of human lives and human living, the dilemmas, moral struggles, and emotional battlefields of being alive on planet earth. Themes ask, and sometimes attempt to answer, the big questions of existence: Who are we? Why are we here? Why do we want what we want? If you haven’t touched upon these issues at some point in your latest story, then you’ve failed to address the reason for writing it in the first place.

To illustrate theme, I’m going to go over a work extremely conscious of theme, Blade Runner. The script was written by Hampton Fancher, then rewritten by David Peoples (for details read my lengthy interview with Fancher, in which he discusses the manic tribulations of writing the original screenplay and getting it made).

Following my analysis, I’ll show you how to create theme in your own scripts.

Humanity and Its Discontents

For a film that was critically panned upon its first release, Blade Runner has had a life more far-reaching and influential than anyone could have predicted in the time since. I consider it to be one of the great films of the 20th century. It examines so many facets of our existence, that watching it at times feels like reading a weighty symbolic fairy tale of existential humanism.

Indeed, the film is full of intentional contradictions and insightful metaphors. It reveals new secrets upon repeated viewing, and hits deep philosophical nerves. And its cinematic, visionary beauty is a high point in film history.

Based upon Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the film, like the book, reasserts many of Dick’s recurring theses, the central one of which has haunted philosophers since the dawn of conscious thought: What does it mean to be human?

We are given several paradoxical characters to illustrate this theme. The protagonist, Deckard, is a tired, burnt-out, sanctioned killer who seems more machine than human. The love interest, Rachael, is a replicant, a form of bioengineered humanoid. Yet she is the first of a new type, and has implanted memories that allow her to feel. The antagonists are several renegade Nexus 6 replicants, who have been manufactured with greater strength and agility than humans, and in the case of their leader Roy, also greater intelligence. The fugitives, like all of their kind, have a four-year life span, and seek the means to extend their existence. Although seemingly cold, ruthless killers, they also possess a childlike, wide-eyed innocence of a world they barely understand.

The look of the film is pure film noir homage, with smoky rooms, faces half-hidden in shadow, and dark, forbidding spaces. Indeed, the entire city of Los Angeles is covered with a pall of permanent night, presumably due to choking air pollution.

Though the story is a composite of noir tropes and characters, all are startlingly turned on their head. The detective, supposedly the hero, is really just a legal assassin, and thus might actually be the villain. The tough talking dame with a soft heart is actually artificial, and ironically the only “person” whom Deckard is able to love. The “psychotic killers” on the lam have the noblest of goals, and flee an unfair, fear-filled existence as slaves. The wealthy industrialist, Tyrell, literally has the power of a god to create life, yet is so morally bereft that he views such an act as a simple business transaction.

Throughout the film is a rich tapestry of images that also illustrate and deepen its themes. One of the best examples is the recurring theme of the eye, referring both to its function as organ of vision, and as a symbolic indicator of humanity and life. The film’s opening shot is of an eye, and as we watch it, it also watches us, and suggests a connection between viewer and viewed. The Voight-Kampff machine is a device used by Blade Runners to discern replicants from humans. In conjunction with a series of questions designed to test empathic response (which replicants lack), the device monitors pupil fluctuations, as if to reiterate the archetypal idea of the eye as the mirror of the soul. Huge TV screens cover the sides of buildings, or hover on the underbellies of slow dirigibles, so that gargantuan advertising saturates the city, beckoning us to watch. Replicants Roy and Leon seek answers at a lab called Eye World, run by a small Chinese man named Chew, who specializes in the manufacture of eyes for replicants. When Roy confronts his creator, Tyrell, and doesn’t get the answers he wants, in helpless rage he gouges out Tyrell’s eyes with his thumbs –- both an Oedipal image, and the metaphorical destruction of Tyrell’s soul.

Replicants do not merely lack emotion; more importantly, what the Voight-Kampff test purports to detect is lack of empathy. Thus, the idea here is that a human being is a person who can imagine himself in another’s shoes. Empathy is learned through life experience, which naturally equals memory –- in replicants a built-in lack. It is precisely this lack of empathy that allows replicants to kill without qualm. Their state of mind is thus a fusion of two distinct world views: 1) That of a child, because of their lack of experience. 2) That of a psychopath, because of their lack of empathy. It is interesting to note, that lack of empathy is also often seen in schizophrenics and the autistic, two classes of people which fascinated author Philip K. Dick.

In his thought-provoking novel Martian Time-Slip, Dick wrote:

“…schizophrenia was a major illness which touched sooner or later every family. It meant, simply, a person who could not live out the drives implanted in him by society. The reality which the schizophrenic fell away from — or never incorporated in the first place — was the reality of interpersonal living, of life in a given culture with given values; it was not biological life, or any form of inherited life, but life which was learned. It had to be picked up bit by bit from those around one, parents and teachers, authority figures in general…from everyone a person came in contact with during his formative years.”

This sounds remarkably like the replicants’ need to collect photographs in effort to create memory where none existed. Replicants cannot be members of “a given culture with given values,” because they are never given time to learn those values. Because they lack the “authority figures” (specifically parents) to teach or “implant” in them the necessary societal drives that Dick mentions, they have neither culture nor values beyond the ones they create themselves.

Morality is also a learned trait, taught by both culture and these same authority figures. Yet Blade Runner suggests that a society which plays God by creating beings in man’s image is also amoral, especially if it does not allow such beings the same rights and experiences as humans are allowed. In this light, the replicants’ actions seem no worse than those of the humans, and are even to a degree more justified.

When Roy Batty confronts his maker Tyrell, he has questions about his own morality, and brings up the subject as if to ask Tyrell for fatherly advice.

              BATTY
  I've done some questionable things.

              TYRELL
  Also extraordinary things.

              BATTY
  Nothing the God of biomechanics
  wouldn't let you in heaven for.

As you can see by the dialogue at left, Tyrell is unconcerned as to Roy’s actions, and thus in one sentence proves himself a poor arbiter of morality. Roy immediately realizes this, and his response is sarcastically right to the point. Roy, under the guise of kissing Tyrell (a kiss of death, the inverse of the “kiss of life” given to him by Tyrell), kills his maker. In doing so, this action mirrors man’s own symbolic murder of God (the oft-quoted Nietzschian “God is dead.”); the death of father-God represents the act of mankind taking responsibility for their own morality and actions — in other words, man now internalizes morality instead of placing it outside of themselves, and takes upon himself the mantle of “free will.” This also mirrors the idea of a child who needs to symbolically kill their parent in order to take responsibility for their own life. What a loaded set of symbols!

During the cat-and-mouse scene between Roy and Deckard, Roy’s monologue is an out-loud philosophical debate with himself about the nature of life and morality. At one point Roy taunts Deckard with the line, “Aren’t you supposed to be the good man?”

The final proof that Roy has indeed accepted responsibility for his actions, and in fact refuses to be a mere puppet of destiny, comes when he saves Deckard’s life instead of letting him fall to his death. In doing so, Roy breaks the pattern set out for him by fate — he goes against his nature to demonstrate that he is capable of shattering the narrow behavioral mold set forth by his maker. And although he accepts the unavoidable fact of his impending death, he thwarts the inevitability of Deckard’s death by saving his life — which has the side effect of renewing Deckard’s reason to live.

All of these powerful symbols and moments point to layers of depth and substance which comprise the real story behind Blade Runner: It’s not about a man sent to track down synthetic humans, but about a man who rediscovers his humanity. The hunt for the replicants is the framework, not the message.

Creating Theme

In confusing physical action with a story’s meaning, or by simply ignoring any deeper purpose than to entertain, is why so many films these days feel hollow. Your task as a writer is to incorporate theme from the beginning of the writing process, and not to merely insert it as frosting on the cake; theme is the cake.

Themes relate to the inner goals of characters, their psychological and/or emotional needs which are often explored via subplots. Therefore, a solid approach toward creating theme could be taken through the following series of steps:

Frame your story’s central idea either as a question or a premise.
EXAMPLES

Questions:

  • What is love?
  • What is identity?
  • What makes a person evil?
  • What is morality?
  • What is madness?

Premises:

  • Greed creates its own downfall.
  • Unrequited love leads to life-threatening despair.
  • The “insane” merely have a different point of view.
  • War turns all men into savages.
Identify the main argument of the issue.
EXAMPLES

  • Life vs. Death
  • Greed vs. Charity
  • Hope vs. Hopelessness
  • Idealism vs. Cynicism
  • Sanity vs. Insanity
  • Reality vs. Illusion
Create characters that embody these arguments.
Working Example: Idealistic cop vs. a cynical gangster.
Frame the story’s structure in terms of the argument.
Example: As the cop battles the gangster in pursuit of his pure ideal of justice (idealism), he is lured by the sweet temptations of crime. The cop sees that all of society is corrupt, that every member of the police force is on the take and enjoys the good life because they all know the dirty score. He sees that if people have enough money, they go unpunished through bribery, or beat their raps with high-priced lawyers. He begins to become disillusioned — and now moves towards cynicism.
Personalize this argument for the main character in the form of a subplot or subplots that tear the character between the two extremes.
Example: The cop is in financial straights, and his family is housed in a cheap apartment in a bad neighborhood. His kid needs braces and gets beaten up on the way home from school, the wife is harassed on the mean streets and longs for a better life as she has sacrificed her dreams for the cop’s career, etc. The very gangster the cop pursues offers him cash to drop his chase, and cop knows that simply to begin taking bribes would be a way out for himself and his suffering family.

The above example’s idea of a moral main character’s struggle to avoid temptation has worked for many films, the easy example being the Star Wars Trilogy, in which Darth Vader tempts Luke with the power of the Dark Side. Han Solo’s arc goes the other way — he moves from cynicism to idealism, just like Bogart’s character in Casablanca.

In Blade Runner, its “story argument” of humanity vs. inhumanity perfectly delineates the transformational arcs of both Deckard and Roy. It also connects the idea of humanity with morality. (For further info on how to create a workable story premise, and for a great discussion of the dialectic approach to storytelling — i.e. two warring points of view — see the important and influential book The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri.)

Note that you can cover more than one theme in a story (if you’re brave!), but that they should ideally be related and intertwined with your other themes, and each theme typically demands its own subplot.

If you think about theme from the beginning of your writing process, you’ll imbue your work with the necessary depth that will allow you to take your storytelling to the next level.

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