In fact, you may have to allow the meaning of your story to change as you write it. You can’t force your characters to do things that they refuse to do. In the end, their actions may make a different point than you thought they were going to make. Whatever you do, don’t force them to act a certain way because you want to prove a point.
As you write the first draft, simply assume that, if the thematic question is linked to the dramatic question, and everything is sufficiently ironic, then meaning will accrue. As a result, however, when it’s time to tackle your later drafts, you may find that your theme is so indistinct that it’s barely detectable.
But wait, you say, isn’t that good? After all, you want your theme to resonate in the audience’s bones, not rattle around in their skulls, so shouldn’t you pitch it just below the frequency of human hearing? Well, yes, but if that’s the case then, like any good sub-audible hum, it has to be persistent.
Now that your story and characters are set, you should go back and second-guess every minor choice you made and change many of them to subtly reinforce your theme. When we write, we inevitably make a lot of choices at random, just to keep writing: What job does the hero’s spouse have, where are the heroes when they get the big news, which blunt object is used for the killing, etc.
I’ve discussed before the way that a masterpiece like High and Low finds all sorts of ways to weave the the idea of high vs. low into every fiber of the story, but this is something that less ambitious movies should do as well. Enemy of the State is a fun little thriller about a labor lawyer who receives damning evidence about the NSA from an old friend, then has to go on the run for his life. The movie has the “good vs. good” theme of security vs. privacy. This theme is explicitly stated by the hero’s wife, who works for the ACLU, but it’s also reinforced throughout in subtler ways...
- In the beginning, he’s trying to win a labor law case by using a secret videotape against some gangsters. It’s not admissible in court, but the gangsters don’t want it exposed.
- Who got the lawyer the tape? A young woman he once had an affair with. The affair is over, but he now he must hide the fact from his wife that he’s still working with her.
- Where is he when he runs into his friend? A lingerie store, shopping for his wife, but because of his past affair, he’s afraid that she would assume he’s buying for someone else.
- Why is he there? It’s Christmastime, which means that they’re hiding presents from their son, and he’s hiding the fact he’s raided their gift stash, which complicates things later on.
I suspect that none of these details were in the first draft, since they aren’t essential to the story, but once the plot had been worked out, screenwriter David Marconi went back and replaced whatever random choices he had originally made with new details that subtly tied into the theme. I’ve heard this referred to a making a “theme tree”, yoking every detail together into a vast system of root and branch that all feeds into an organic whole. Every choice is a chance to multiply the meaning.
Next: Strengthening the relationships...