by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Few elements used in storytelling have a longer legacy than water. Every early mythic tradition tells of a great flood and humankind’s battle to overcome those uncontrollable forces of nature. People for millennia crafted stories to explain why water fell from the sky, from cliffs, and from their own eyes. Water is said to symbolize the subconscious in everything from dreams to filmmaking. It can be a literal underworld that we continue to try to explore and understand. Dating back to times when tales were told around fires, storytellers have understood that there is something universal in using natural elements such as earth, fire, wind, and water in their narratives. Today’s stories are no different. Water remains an element with unlimited uses in holding the attention of an audience. Here are eight ways to use water to improve your storytelling.
It’s no secret that having a scene take place in the rain makes it more dramatic. Even seeing a character soaking wet paints a picture of the conflict the character is experiencing – think Brando’s famous “Stella!” scene from A Streetcar Named Desire. Toby Maguire and Kirsten Dunst shared a memorable kiss in Spiderman. The rain that pours down in this scene is an unmistakable symbol of the complex conflict Peter Parker experiences in that moment. Rain is often used in competitive sports movies to increase the clash as well as action films and thrillers like the Jurassic Park series.
Rain is not exclusively used to represent conflict, however. It can also be used to symbolize hope. Andy Dufresne claims to crawl through “a river of shit” to escape in The Shawshank Redemption. When he finally exits the sewer pipe, which was his salvation, He stands and raises both hands into the sky while the rain pours down on him. The sky unleashes a cleansing mix of redemption and hope for the life that now awaits him. On Golden Pond uses water to symbolize the unifying hope that the Thayer family so desperately needs. Having drifted apart through distance and strife, the unchanging water that surrounds them becomes a symbol of the future that awaits them at the end of the story.
Horror films feature an inordinate number of scenes that take place in showers and bathtubs. Besides being an expected trope, and perhaps an excuse to feature some nudity, showers and tubs represent an oft-used theme of the horror genre: cleansing. The idea of washing away the dirt that has been collected through our actions has appealed to storytellers throughout the ages. Scenes in showers are often followed by moments where the vulnerable are punished, suggesting that there will be no redemption for the sin committed by the character. The shower scene is Psycho has become a cultural icon but even films at the opposite end of the spectrum use the same device. Pretty Woman offers a moment where the two lead characters bathe together, cleansing themselves of the past faults they both have indulged. However, the scene is also a pre-cursor to the deep valley their relationship is about to enter.
Occasionally, the cleansing a character experiences is a literal baptism, meant to offer a new life. Just as is symbolized in the baptism, the character is submerged in water and dies a death to their old self, then emerges a new creation. Karl Childers experiences this in Sling Blade as does Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother, Where Art Thou? In other films, such as The Matrix, there is a figurative resurrection, as when Neo emerges from a water-like liquid.
Water also can serve as a severe punishment in a story. The Dude experiences a comic yet horrific “swirlie” in his own toilet in The Big Lebowski. In Castaway, Chuck Noland feels punished by the unforgiving water that surrounds the island that has become his home. And in Les Misrables, Javert casts himself into the Seine River as his own punishment, unable to accept the grace of Jean Valjean.
While water can represent many things in a story, it can also serve as a major location for where the story takes place – which may or may not include symbolism. The Finest Hours and In The Heart of the Sea both take place mainly in ocean waters. Finding Nemo, Titanic, The Perfect Storm, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea greatly share this location as well. And while they don’t necessarily take place inthe water, On the Waterfront, Pirates of the Caribbean and Jaws all certainly take place around the water. Other films such as Everest take place on and in snow and ice.
We must also remember that water is a basic necessity for our survival. Most of us share a negative quality with characters we see on the screen – we don’t drink enough water. We are reminded of this fluid necessity when we see Finn share a watering hole with a creature in Star Wars: The Force Awakens or the desperation for the control of water in Mad Max: Fury Road and Chinatown. Water makes multiple appearances in The Goonies, perhaps most memorably when the Goonies are offered water by Mama Fratelli. The Revenant also uses water as a story device as is seen with a certain drinking canteen, not too mention a flowing river in the final scene of the story.
One of the most heart-breaking ways water can be used in storytelling is to keep people apart. Families seem to know no greater pain than when separated by large expanses of water. We feel Ellis’s pain in Brooklyn, knowing how detached she senses she is from her family back in Ireland. Cinque voices the cry of separation all enslaved Africans feel by the ocean that lies between them and their home in Amistad. The more vast and unsurmountable the body of water is, the greater the separation a character will experience.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.