What do audiences respond to most when it comes to story themes within movies?
Theme is an often debated subject that has multiple definitions depending on who you talk to.
- It’s the underlying message, philosophy, or perspective that forces the characters to react to the conflict as they do within the story.
- It’s the big idea of the screenplay.
- It’s the DNA of the story, underneath the plot.
- It’s the philosophical question posed to the audience.
- It’s the emotional catharsis felt by the audience by the end of the story.
Whatever definition you respond to most — there’s no right or wrong answer — story themes clearly play an essential role in the impact that a film makes with the reader or audience.
Story themes can be broad, defined by a simple word or phrase — usually later defined as genres and subgenres — or they can be found deeper within those broad definitions.
Here we feature seven of the most intriguing — and successful — story themes that all screenwriters should consider when developing their next screenplays.
1. Good vs. Evil
The oldest and perhaps most successful story theme.
Whether it’s Light vs. Dark (Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings), White Hat Heroes vs. Black Hat Villains (Westerns of the 40s, 50s, and 60s), Innocence vs. Evil (It, Poltergeist, The Exorcist), or Superheroes vs. Supervillains (The Marvel Cinematic Universe, Batman movies, Superman movies), good versus evil is the most easily defined story theme in the history of cinema.
It’s easy to know which side to root for. And despite the conflict that ensues, the good side usually, but not always (No Country for Old Men), prevails.
On par with Good vs. Evil, the story theme of Love is intriguing because every human being craves it — which makes the plight of the characters within love-themed stories relatable to audiences.
Romantic Comedies (Pretty Woman, Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, Love Actually), Historical Romances (Titanic, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca), Romance Epics (Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans), Romance Tragedies (Romeo and Juliet, A Walk to Remember, Brokeback Mountain), and so many more subgenres of the Love Story Theme have captured the hearts of audiences since the early days of cinema.
Everyone knows what it’s like to love someone, win someone over, lose someone you love, etc.
Perseverance Movies can be better defined in these contemporary times as Underdog Movies because when a protagonist is forced to persevere through conflict, trials, and tribulations, they are clearly the underdog in the situation or scenario.
Audiences love to be moved and inspired. In a world where a majority of the population doesn’t get a chance to chase their ultimate dreams, it’s intriguing to experience a story theme through the eyes of a protagonist that does.
It could be Sports Underdog stories (Rocky, Rudy, Major League, Bad News Bears, Hoosiers), Inspiring Dramas (The Pursuit of Happiness, The Karate Kid), or even Uplifting Courtroom Dramas (The Verdict, A Few Good Men, Erin Brockovich).
Whatever the Perseverance or Underdog Story theme is, readers and audiences respond to them.
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4. Coming of Age
Every generation has their go-to Coming of Age movie. It’s such a relatable theme because, at one point or another, everyone has that coming of age moment in their lives — and more likely a culmination of those types of moments and events throughout their lives.
So these types of story themes stir nostalgia up for audiences.
Even though Stand By Me was set in the 1950s, children of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s can relate.
You don’t have to be into drugs and have grown up in the seventies to feel nostalgic about high school while watching Dazed and Confused.
You may have never been sent to weekend detention, but you’ll relate to the different social dynamics of the characters in The Breakfast Club.
You may not directly relate to the angst of Lady Bird, but you’ll remember what it was like caught in between the eras of life as a teenager and impending adulthood living in the real world.
What is it like to realize that the real world, beyond the protection of youth (void of responsibility), can be quite scary and intimidating? This is the story theme that coming of age movies explore. And this is what everyone can relate it and feel nostalgic about.
For decades, we’ve lived in a world where the rich and powerful exploit the weak, whether it’s through corrupt politics, criminal underbellies of society, or corporate schemes and corruption.
Most of society just deals with it, knowing that not much can be done and hoping that justice will somehow prevail in the end.
The story themes of justice in movies are powerful because audiences want to see the hero prevail. And it’s interesting because a hero often has to become an outlaw to see justice served.
How many Robin Hood movies have we seen over the years? The iconic character of legend and lore lives on because he robs from the rich and corrupt, and gives it to the poor.
Courtroom Dramas like A Time to Kill, Philadelphia, Amistad, and the ones mentioned above, give us a sense of justice in our lives, if not for just a couple of hours in the movie theater.
Gladiator gave us a protagonist that was a good and honorable man, sentenced to death by an Emperor that murdered his own father (who the protagonist was loyal to). But he survived and managed to attain some justice for himself and the family that he longed to return to, but were found murdered by that very same Emperor.
The story theme of justice is often attributed to Revenge story themes in that respect.
Whether it’s John Wick avenging the death of a puppy given to him by his dead wife, Mad Max avenging the death of his wife and child, or Django Unchained going to find enslaved love, the Revenge story theme of Justice intrigues us.
6. Human vs. Nature
There is no more ancient story theme than this. Since the dawn of humans, man and woman have been battling the elements.
And this story theme can branch out into additional story themes of survival and philosophical quandaries.
A castaway battling the elements.
A man tasked with a horrific inevitable decision.
Passengers of a crashed airplane facing a religious and ethical quandary to survive.
A family separated due to a great force of nature.
The human vs. nature story is as old a story theme as they come. And these stories are especially intriguing because, on the surface, they are tales of physical threats that protagonists face. But, like any great story theme, there lies an emotional and philosophical message underneath that physical surface.
And that is what gives these story themes even more depth for readers and audiences to enjoy.
7. Human vs. Machine
While this may seem just like another science fiction subgenre, it’s actually one of the most compelling story themes in movies — the best of which offer an initial physical threat, underlined with a thematic philosophical question that men and women have pondered since the dawn of technology.
2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, The Terminator, Blade Runner, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and almost every episode of Black Mirror. These human vs. machine storylines open up intriguing story themes about whether or not we will push technology to the point when technology takes over. Is playing God worth that sacrifice? Is creating artificial intelligence going to spiral out of control?
The science fiction genre is one of the most popular genres in Hollywood because it explores where science and technology could take us as a human race — and where it could possibly leave us in ashes if we’re not too careful.
Humans are curious by nature, so these thematic questions bring audiences to the movie theaters by showcasing answers to some of the best “What If…” questions we have about the future and the technology we’re so obsessed with studying and manufacturing.
These are the seven most intriguing story themes that audiences are attracted to in neverending fashion — undying trends that screenwriters can always chase.
Forget zombie movies, vampire movies, contained action, horror flicks, and any other trend that will come and go. Instead of trend-chasing, screenwriters should be theme-chasing.
And if you want to increase your odds of reaching an audience (which includes scripts readers, producers, development executives, agents, and managers), look no further than the everlasting themes of Good vs. Evil, Love, Perseverance (Underdogs), Come of Age, Justice (and Revenge), Human vs. Nature, and Human vs. Machine.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies