by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
For many people, this week is about endings and new beginnings. The long days of summer are over and it’s time to go back to school. Institutions of education have long been settings of interest to writers. They work as controlled, confined metaphors for the rest of life in “the real world.” Franchises ranging from Harry Potter to the Police Academy films have explored themes within the context of school. If we dig deeper, we can see the reasons why school settings work so well for stories, reasons that have nothing at all to do with teachers, learning, or cafeteria food. Here are four ways that stories set in schools take advantage of the principles of good storytelling.
1. SCHOOLS FORCE PEOPLE INTO A CONFINED SPACE FOR A CONFINED AMOUNT OF TIME
One of the most common notes writers receive is that their story lacks enough conflict to keep the narrative interesting. Increasing conflict can be a challenging task but there are a few tried and true methods for accomplishing this effect within a story. Perhaps the most reliable is to force characters into a confined space for a confined amount of time. While we see this idea powerfully executed in films like Panic Room, Room, and Green Room, (notice a theme there?) we see the same method used in Fame and The Breakfast Club. The characters in both films are forced to go through a difficult experience together. There is a confined space they must accomplish their tasks within and a ticking clock they all have their eyes on.
2. SCHOOLS OFFER AN EXTERNAL GOAL FOR EVERYONE THERE
Within the social structure of a school, there are a variety of other activities and groups that exist, each with their own goals and functions. However, everyone who participates in these smaller sub-cultures also shares the goal of the larger group – to graduate. Ultimately, everyone shares the same goal, and it’s one that we can take a picture of. A photographable external goal is necessary for constructing a story world that is cinematic. Friday Night Lights, Hoosiers, Bring It On, Pitch Perfect, and The Karate Kid all present sub-cultures with their own external goals within the larger scholastic society.
3. SCHOOLS OFFER A SET SOCIAL HIERARCHY WITH MENTORS, LEADERS, AND EVEN VILLAINS
Few settings for storytelling offer a clearer social order and hierarchy than school. Archetypes take on a greater role within schools. While students often fill the roles of these archetypes, teachers get in on the action playing wise sages, as with Dead Poets Society and Mr. Holland’s Opus, as well as comical arch-nemeses, as with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Rushmore. While the lines in life can be more ambiguous between heroes and villains, in school settings we fully buy into black and white ideas about who people are. There are good people and bad people. There are rich people and poor people. There are nice people and mean people. There are cool people and losers. There are smart people and dumb people. There are teachers and mentors. There are politician-like principles and lowly janitors. There are those who rely on brains and those who rely on their bodies. The flowchart of life is never more obvious than in school. Grease, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Napoleon Dynamite, Mean Girls and Superbad all offer insights into the dynamics of group behavior and the roles we see ourselves playing in life.
4. SCHOOLS OFFER RITUALS THAT SOCIETY CELEBRATES, REPEATS, AND RECREATES
Besides graduation, the context of school offers a number of time-honored traditions and rituals that society never tires of discussing or exploring. American Pie explores the ritual of losing one’s virginity; Carrie explores the ritual of homecoming and crowning royalty; Election explores the rituals around politics, government, and how leaders are chosen. Footloose and Clueless present two opposing views of the ritual of teen rebellion. Rituals of unmasking and self-discovery are explored in She’s The Man, Just One Of The Guys, and Never Been Kissed. Archetypal rituals around taboo relationships are presented within the school context in the Oedipus-like Back to the Future and the subtle prostitution presented in Can’t Buy Me Love and Easy A.
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.