Theme and Throughlines in Screenwriting

Many thanks to Stuart Innes for this very entertaining and informative guest post.

‘Theme’ is a tricky beast.  It’s the sturdy packhorse that guides us – the writer – away from the sleepy hamlet of our opening chapters, through the thick forest of dead trees, to the shiny citadel of our cathartic finale.  Where we probably go and kill an evil wizard or something.

But writing stories takes time.  And if you’re not in control of your theme, you’ll get tired and bored, and all those little side paths full of exotic-looking flowers will start looking like an interesting place to take a wee wander.  And before you know it, you and your theme are frolicking in the foliage, while your audience twiddles its thumbs, wondering when the heck you’re going to get back that whole evil wizard thing.

So yeah, a strong, solid theme/horse.  How do you get one?  Recently I attended a meeting of the Edinburgh Screenwriters Group, where guest speaker Hyan Thiboutot – a very intelligent man (possibly a wizard) with 17-years of experience writing and script doctoring for North American studios – had some thoughts on the subject.

Hyan’s first advice is to identify your story’s theme.  Some folk will tell you just to start writing and let the theme find you, but Hyan disagrees.  The sooner you nail your theme, the quicker you can get down to writing the bits that are important.

Okay, you’ve got your theme.  Hooray!  Now go out and find some variations on it.  And then, make sure that each of your characters inhabits one of those variations.

To illustrate this, Hyan used the Frank Darabont movie, The Shawshank Redemption.  The theme of Shawshank is “Institutionalisation”, and so each character in the story represents an aspect of it.  Like this:

  • Warden Norton (Head of Prison): Embodiment of the institution.
  • Captain Hadley (Head Guard): The Warden’s apprentice; his likely successor.
  • Bogs (Creepy Guy): Oppressed by those above him, an oppressor of those below.
  • Brooks (Old Guy): Institutionalised.  Can’t hack life outside of prison.
  • Red (Morgan Freeman): Borderline.  On the verge of being institutionalised.
  • Andy (Tim Robbins): Refuses to be institutionalised.

Note how the protagonist and main antagonist are at opposite ends of the scale, so as to create maximum amount of conflict.  Pretty cool, huh?

Some films are content to have just one theme – an outer conflict if you will.  That’s fine, but if you’re writing something that requires a lot of depth, you can go and add a second theme – an inner conflict.  In Shawshank, it’s “Hope”, and it goes like this:

  • Warden Norton (Head of Prison): Manipulates people’s hopes, crushes them.
  • Captain Hadley (Head Guard): The Warden’s apprentice; his likely successor.
  • Bogs (Creepy Guy): No hope for himself, and destroys hope in others.
  • Brooks (Old Guy):  No hope.  Suicidal.
  • Red (Morgan Freeman): Borderline.  Not sure he can believe in hope.
  • Andy (Tim Robbins): Embodiment of hope.

So, Shawshank’s outer conflict vs. inner conflict is “Institutionalisation vs. Hope”, and because those themes are rooted in every character, the story never loses sight of what it’s about.

Wow!  Now how do we actually write this thing?  Hyan says that, on average, a 90-minute film will have about a dozen ‘throughlines’… but it varies wildly (Batman Begins has 25 of them!!).  A ‘throughline’ is screenwriter speak for a plot thread, and it traditionally comes in five parts (or ‘beats’):

  1. Introduction of Character
  2. Conflict arises
  3. Conflict gets worse
  4. Conflict comes to a head
  5. Character exits

The Andy/Bogs conflict is a throughline, but so too is the sub-plot of Red’s parole.  You don’t have to involve the protagonist in every throughline.

Most throughlines are dealt with in the mid-section of the story.  While your Opening sets the scene, and the End narrows the focus to one or two central conflicts (the biggest ones), the mid-section is where you can set the other, lesser variations into conflict with one another.

There are a few different ways you can handle this:

  • Broad: Jump from throughline to throughline, until they all converge on a single point that wraps them all up.
  • Sequential: Deal with each throughline one by one, start to finish, start to finish.
  • Multi: Each throughline is completely independent; different stories that never converge (think Paul Haggis’ “Crash” – separate stories on a single theme).
  • Mix: Some throughlines are dealt with in their entirety, others advanced in jumps.

Whew!  It’s a lot to take in, but it’s fascinating stuff, and makes me want to make sure I’m well prepared before I saddle up for my next piece of writing.



[For more information on the monthly meetings of the Edinburgh or Glasgow Screenwriters Groups, check out Scottish Screenwriters]


12 thoughts on “Theme and Throughlines in Screenwriting

  1. Glad you liked the post, Talli. It was reallygreat of Stuart to write up his notes on theme for us. Although it’s from the perspective of a screenwriter, I think the content of this post is very relevant to fiction writers too. I found the idea of having each character inhabit a different variation of the theme particularly interesting. It’s someting I’m going to think about in future when I’m writing stories.

  2. Very interesting post.

    I like the idea that each character should embody a part of the theme. It reminds me of the idea that each character should reflect a trait or hidden side of the main character, which I also like! (‘Classic’ example of that being Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda reflecting different aspects of Carrie’s personality in Sex and the City.)

  3. Good point, SF. That’s something else to consider when writing characters. I’ve noticed before that Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha all seem to have extreme personalities whereas Carrie is more rounded. Now I know why. Thank goodness my friend has the Sex and the City box set. I feel some research coming on!

  4. Pingback: A Lyrical Death Match « My Writing Life

    • Seems odd the post is still here. Calling a charlatan ” avery intelligent man – possibly a wizard” when he’s pulled the wool over all of your eyes. Check his credentials at source – like a good writer would. Thanks.

    • Hello A Concerned Writer and Another Concerned Writer
      From the very similar fictional e-mail addresses you have used when leaving your comments I have deduced that you are one and the same person.
      A bit hypocritical then that you accuse Hyan Thiboutot of pulling the wool over our eyes.
      The fact is, I ignored your first comment because I’m not willing to entertain accusations from anonymous people. If you really stand by your claim that Thiboutot is a charlatan then put your name to it. It’s the only way to convince me that you are serious about what you say and that it is worth following up.
      As it stands, I believe this to be an entertaining and informative post regardless of Thiboutot’s credentials and I have no intention of deleting it.

  5. It wasn’t an accusation — it was a friendly nod. If you’re comfortable with giving credibility to nonsense such as “17-years of experience writing and script doctoring for North American studios” just because its “entertaining” then there’s not much I can do to alter your moral code. I can only hope that the people who pay good money for his services are just as unconcerned.

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