by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
It’s summertime. Perhaps not officially until June 20 at 6:34 AM, but for all intents and purposes, the warmest season is upon us. Most schools have let out. The temperature has started to rise, and movie studios have begun unleashing their most high-budget, high concept projects. There are many calendars in the world of filmmaking, but storytelling seems to have ways of using a calendar all its own. Here are four ways to use the seasons to create a story any time of the year.
Summer is often associated with a time when people vacation, both physically and mentally. If we are going to take a chance or do something risky, chances are we will do it in the summer so we can “put things back together” in the more respectable fall season. In films that take place in school settings, summer represents the deadline of all deadlines. Characters must tell their crushes how they feel before they don’t see them again until autumn. In many high school stories, summertime can be a season for reinvention. Grease is a perfect example of a story where characters are grappling with all that took place over the summer. Films where a protagonist will reinvent themselves often begin with a physical graduation at the end of the school year and then end with a metaphoric graduation in their life. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants takes place over a summer. The Great Gatsby, To Kill A Mockingbird, and A Walk to Remember, and Jaws do as well. Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing takes place on a single day during the hottest summer on record in New York. The heat we experience during this season can play as a metaphor for the tension a character experiences, the passion they feel, or thawing that occurs in their soul.
Autumn is perhaps the most ignored season. Summer has faded and winter has yet to arrive. However, autumn doesn’t carry the hope that spring does and therefore often gets left out of seasonal discussions. Like the leaves that change their color, autumn can be a time when a character “goes to the underworld” or experiences a death of some sort. Difficult transitions are what autumn is all about. Most horror films take place in the fall, likely because of the proximity to Halloween. Stories about football often take place in this season, as well. E.T., Dead Poets Society, Stepmom, Rushmore, and St. Elmo’s Fire all mostly take place in the fall. Good Will Hunting, Garden State, and American Beauty do as well.
Just because a story takes place in autumn doesn’t mean it has to end unhappily, however. The Straight Story and Dan in Real Life place in this season. If your story is about great transition, fall might be a perfect setting for the journey your characters are undertaking.
Winter stories can serve a wide variety of purposes. The bitter cold can symbolize the isolation one feels after a death or break up. The snow can represent the worst of obstacles or the beauty of life. Ice can be a challenge to overcome or the setting for romance when frozen lakes and ice skates are involved. Of course, Christmas movies are set in the winter — when a character might experience the beautiful reflection of family or the humor of odd relatives. The season is romantic in A Winter’s Tale. It’s adventurous in The Call of the Wild. It’s hilarious in Christmas Vacation. It jerks tears in Love Actually. And it’s horrifying in Misery and The Shining. You might call winter the Swiss Army Knife of storytelling.
Spring stories are usually about rebirth. Flowers bloom. Trees blossom. Animals mate. Love is in the air. The death of winter is behind us and it’s time to begin again. It’s enough to make one want to sing. Which could be why musicals like State Fair, Meet Me in St. Louis and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers are all set in spring. Baseball films like Moneyball usually take place in this season. We mustn’t forget that spring break is also in the spring, which lends a moment of hedonism to some characters, as in Spring Breakers and Where the Boys Are. Emma and The Secret Garden celebrate the carefree aspects of the season. Some stories take advantage of the logistics of spring, such as Rear Window, where everyone has their windows open, allowing for the plot to move forward.
Spring-themed stories also play well outside the United States. Check out The Adventures of Reinette and Mirablle and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring for examples. Using springtime as an element in your story takes advantage of a part of your audience’s psyche they bring with them into the theater. They understand the metaphors and tropes associated with this season without you ever having to explain them, which makes for the most effective sort of storytelling.
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 Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. 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 site, tellingabetterstory.com.