Character, Plot and Theme: The Components That Drive Your Screenplay Story

What’s “driving” your screenplay? And why do you need to know?  

Understanding what drives your script helps you determine the essential foundation of your story (or throughline) and allows you to strengthen the script by incorporating elements (scenes, sequences, and characters) that “serve” your story.

There are three-types of stories:

  1. Character-Driven
  2. Plot-Driven (also called Premise-Driven)
  3. Theme-Driven

Story Type 1: Character-Driven Stories

Character-Driven stories are essentially about the transformation of a character or a group of characters. The natural throughline (or organizing principle) is the character arc of one or more of your characters. Juno is a character-driven film.  There’s a theme and a premise, but the engine of the movie is Juno’s realization (transformation) that she’s not as mature as she thought, adults aren’t necessarily any more mature than teenagers, her parents are pretty wise and cool after all and, she’s actually in love with her best friend, her baby’s daddy, Paulie Bleeker. If your script is character-driven your protagonist needs to have a compelling transformation.

Story Type 2: Plot-Driven Stories (Premise-Driven Stories)

Most action-adventure films are all about the premise. Sometimes they have a vague underlining theme but few action protagonists experience any type of character transformation. If your script is plot-driven, you’ll need to have an exceptional premise - think Aliens, Ocean’s Eleven, Terminator, Jurassic Park, and Die Hard. An amusement park with dinosaurs– that start killing the tourists!  The most incredible Las Vegas casino heist ever – with escalating obstacles, complications, and life or death stakes!

Story Type 3: Theme-Driven Stories

Theme-driven stories are the most challenging to pull-off successfully without sounding like you’re giving a lecture. In a theme-driven film, the premise and characters are secondary to the message the screenwriter wants to convey. If your script is primarily thematic, you must select elements that best illustrate your message but that also work on their own terms. One such successful story is the Oscar-winning western, Unforgiven.

The film Unforgiven has wonderful characters and a compelling plot, but every element in the script serves its central theme, which is: violence doesn’t solve anything and actually makes things worse (in other words, violence begets violence). All of the elements in the film are carefully chosen to illustrate that point - the sheriff whose methods of “keeping the peace” are often more vicious than the crimes he prevents, the “eye-for-an-eye” vengeance that leads to suffering rather than justice, and the horror of a wanna-be gunslinger when he’s faced with the reality of actually killing a man.

Every good screenplay incorporates all three of these elements: character, plot and theme - but one element will always dominate the script to “drive” the story forward. What is driving your story, and how will you use that knowledge to enhance and serve your screenplay?