Theme and character arc

Theme and character arc

David Steinhoff - Head of Development

The reviews of Sentient were critical of our failure to address theme and character arc.

I remember back in Film and TV school asking my lecturers, ‘What is theme?’ Nobody knew. No one would even speculate. They just said, ‘It’s about, whatever it’s about.’

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How do you address the theme of your work?

I’ve met both Truby and McKee.

I consider them to be masters of the craft yet neither could nail theme and character arc for me. 

Dan Calvisi’s ‘Story Map’ makes a fuss about theme but doesn’t tell you how to do it.  Dan does insist we see the theme front and centre, featured in the Teaser and or First Act, without fail.

The best exploration of theme I’ve ever read is K. M. Weiland’s ‘Writing your story’s theme.’

Weiland is very prescriptive, and I don’t necessarily recommend that, but she has some very important things to say;

  • Theme should be summarised in a short, sharp sentence.
  • Theme is best expressed as a question. For example; The Crown’s theme is, ‘How shall a monarch rule?’
  • From the Teaser Act on, everything in your story is about exploring that theme.
  • The story of the protagonist is the story of the theme.
  • The protagonist represents one side of that theme and the antagonist, the other as if they are two sides of the same coin.
  • Every character in your story is about somehow exploring that theme.

What is character arc?

The best exploration of character arc I’ve ever read is K. M. Weiland’s ‘Creating Character Arcs’

I highly recommend you read K. M.  Weiland’s ‘Creating Character Arcs’ as it represents the best guide for this but there is one standout thing I will share with you from the book, Character arc is structure.

Yes, you read that right. Forget three acts or five acts or McKee’s guide or Save the cat. Character arc is your work’s structure and something that will shape the structure of each episode, each season and the entire series.


Our focus for the rewrite of Sentient will be based on a clear statement about the theme of the work in the Teaser and First Act and a thorough exploration of theme throughout the series.

Character arc will shape our structure. 

Expect our new and hopefully final draft of the Pilot in 2021.

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3 Responses

  1. More on THEME.
    Let your theme be your story Sherpa.
    Theme should be expressed as a QUESTION or a PROVOCATIVE STATEMENT that provokes a clear OPPOSITION that allows us to explore that theme from every angle possible leading to the MESSAGE and resolve.

    • The protagonist’s character arc = theme.
    • The protagonist and the nemesis = Two halves of the same coin.
    • Theme has many faces to explore to fully explore it
    * Each character in the story will help to explore some facet or degree of the theme.


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