We employ discrete dislocation dynamics to establish a continuum-based model for the evolution of the dislocation structure in polycrystalline thin films. The Taylor equation is evaluated and expressions are developed for the density of active dislocation sources, as well as dislocation nucleation and annihilation rates. We demonstrate how the size effect naturally enters the evolution equation. Very good agreement between the simulation and the model results is obtained. The current approach is based on a two-dimensional discrete dislocation dynamics model, but can be extended to three-dimensional models.