The foundation of a meaningful script is your theme. Theme is the soul of your story.
It can be s.th. like: love, freedom, growth, loyalty, revenge, and/or it can take on shape in the form of a question: Can marriage survive misconduct? or: Is vigilantism justified?
So the first thing you want to get down is this: How are you going to show the theme in your story? This is the part where you make sure you get “deep“, because without a proper theme, there won’t be a meaningful lesson.
Have you ever wondered why some movies just leave you untouched, even though they have a lot going for them, like a great outer goal, like saving the world? It is because the inner goal of your hero, which is equal to the theme, is missing. There is no transformation, no learning curve, no real character arc, the movie stays on one layer and doesn’t cut deep.
But how do you incorporate theme/meaningfulness into your screenplay?
By letting the characters talk about it? Wrong!!! (even though there are examples where this worked too, see down below)
You need to show your theme, don’t tell it. There are a trillion ways to do so, but one that always works is: Show the opposite.
For instance, if your story is about freedom, show your hero being trapped emotionally, mentally, spiritually, or physically (prison).
You don’t necessary have to put him/her into a prison, this could feel a little blunt, but it sure can work. See, “The Swashank Redemption“, as proof. Maybe a more interesting way would be, if the “prison” is s.th. like daily life, or just the daily routine of things.
For instance: Take a family man. A husband/father who is struggling with the responsibility he has to handle towards his family and the kids. Show him being angry at the kids all the time, even to the point where it is unfair. If you established the hero right, for instance, by showing him and how very supportive he was when the kids were born, then we can relate to his struggle of every day life and we know indirectly, that it is all about freedom. Add trouble at work and/or financial difficulties and you have the readers attention.
Or you could make it about the freedom of choice. Show the opposite and people will immediately understand what you are aiming at. Or show the lack of choices.
Now that you laid the basis for your theme, let’s get to your final question: How do you keep it light and entertaining?
How to keep it entertaining is simple. For it to be entertaining it needn’t be light. It can be dark as hell, as long as it is emotional. Going back to the above example: The father could even betray his wife, run away and leave the kids and you’d still be fine, as long as we are emotionally invested. (Have a look at the TV Show Californication) So make sure the reader understands the reasons why the husband/father behaves a certain way.
But how do you keep it light?
By adding contrast. Show different sides of the story. There are always two sides to every story. One can be the light one, one can be the dark one. Show both. Present different ways to see one and the same incident. In order to achieve this, you must add supporting characters, that represent „lightness“ or better, that represent a contrasting part to the hero and the hero’s inner goal. If your hero is dark, have him have a light friend, who doesn’t take life too seriously altogether. In case of the absent husband, this could mean, mirroring him in the relationship with his wife. Let her be the light one, who found her freedom, because she isn’t to worried about everything all the time. Look at dark comedies to get a feeling for these contrasts.
A wonderful example of adding a certain „lightness“ to a heavy theme is the animated movie „Up“. Turn to animation movies in general to get inspired.
A completely different take on adding lightness to a heavy theme could be achieved by placing the heavy setting into a more lighter setting. A very good example of this is the Netflix series „Bloodline“. A dark family tragedy, set in the light and sunny landscape of the Florida keys. But this approach is more cosmetic and won’t hold for long without what I described above.
But what can work is, if, for instance, you want to make a movie about the theme „death“, why not incorporate it into s.th. completely unexpected: Let it take place in the afterlife. This could be a world similar to ours, but with the exception, that everyone living in this town, is already dead. It doesn’t need to be heaven nor hell, just present a “normal“ town/village, where things are not what they seem. Make your hero a stand up comedian, who died, because he was constantly worrying to much, to a degree that made it impossible for him, to enjoy life anymore. His inability to enjoy life, was part of his success as a stand up comedian, but now that he is dead, he has gone out of jokes…. see, how it becomes a fun reflection on life and death in general. Again, the key here is contrast.
Of course, there are other ways to sort of gloss over such a dark theme . Take for instance, the theme “capitalism“. You simply present your story in an entertaining genre, such as a thriller. Add a murder to your story and people will stay invested and might even be entertained by the „darkness“. Look at “The Fall“ (TV Show) for an example of this. This show is actually a great example and touches on many of the aspects I covered above. Especially the contrast part, by showing two sides/two perspectives to a story.
And you might want to check out “True Detective“ Season 1. There is a murder story, but the theme cuts much deeper. This is also a show that got away with telling, rather than showing. The two detectives keep rambling on about the theme the whole time, but it is greatly covered up by the murder mystery, as well as by the question, about what happened to their friendship. And as far as darkness is concerned, True Detective is pretty dark, but also quite entertaining.
Please share if you care, to help other writers and spread the word. Thank you in advance.
Feel free to ask me any further questions, either in the comments below or drop me an email.