by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
There are an unlimited number of premises that a story can be based on. Some stories are character-driven. Others are concept-driven. Still others combine elements of both approaches. Regardless of which approach you begin your story with, you’ll eventually have to deal with the other. If you begin with a concept, you’ll eventually have to work your way through developing the characters that will make the concept breathe. If you begin with a character, you’ll have to bring that persona through a journey at some point.
Wherever your process begins, here are three frameworks for building a strong story around your character and the journey they will undertake.
1. AN ORDINARY CHARACTER THRUST INTO AN EXTRAORDINARY WORLD
At some point in their career, most writers will tell the story of the “everyman.” While humanity’s earliest stories like The Epic of Gilgamesh told tales of extraordinary men, storytelling would eventually deliver to us a different sort of narrative called fairy tales. In these stories, we began to relate to the protagonists in ways we never had before. We could see ourselves in these characters. Fairy tale books were like mirrors we held before our own eyes. The characters in these stories often weren’t even given proper names but instead were referred to as the huntsman in the woods, the mother, or the evil witch. They were archetypes we couldn’t help but relate to.
Literature has used this method time and again. Countless stories are based on the situation that arises when an ordinary Alice is thrust into another world, passing through the looking glass. This method of drawing the audience in by telling the story of someone with a seemingly ordinary life – like theirs — still works today. We like to believe that our lives could hold adventure, just like the characters on the screen. We hold on to hope that in the midst of our mundane day, the unexpected could happen. We are enchanted by the idea that an exciting world might be just around the corner for us as well. Stories about ordinary characters thrust into extraordinary worlds remind us of why we should keep our dreams alive.
In Ex Machina, an ordinary computer programmer named Caleb wins a mysterious contest and is invited into the strange but exciting world of a futuristic mad scientist driven to redefine what it means to be human. In many ways, it shares the same premise as other fabled tales of cinema where ordinary people are brought to a new world full of danger and eccentric characters. The Wizard of Oz, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and even Star Wars: A New Hope are all part of the family of films that share this framework.
2. AN EXTRAORDINARY CHARACTER THRUST INTO AN ORDINARY WORLD
Our culture has always had a fascination with extraordinary people. We’ve made heroes, celebrities, and even sideshow acts out of those among us with characteristics or talents that reach outside the norm. Numerous stories are built around the idea of how these extraordinary people function in our ordinary world. Audiences have flocked to watch geniuses such as John Nash (A Beautiful Mind) and Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) overcome their struggles with the very ordinary world around them. We wonder how Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Amadeus) and Mark Zuckerberg (The Social Network) will deal with the jealousy surrounding them in our all too ordinary world.
Perhaps the genre that most clearly presents this framework is the superhero film. How can a man others call “super” have a life when thrust into our “less than super” world? What will be the outcome when the extraordinary Tony Stark tries to breathe new life into a dead peacekeeping program, only to have it go awry, entangling him with an extraordinary villain called Ultron? (Avengers: Age of Ultron)
While many stories of the extraordinary leave a trail of broken hearts, damaged egos, and exploding buildings, this is not always the case. This framework has also served as the basis for films like Forrest Gump, The Waterboy, and the journey Will Ferrell’s Buddy takes in the holiday classic, Elf. The key to this framework is the arc that the audience experiences while watching the story. We come to recognize that these extraordinary people are much more like us than we first realized.
3. AN ORDINARY CHARACTER TRYING TO COPE WITH AN ORDINARY WORLD
This is the most difficult of the frameworks to execute. We risk boring the audience. Usually now reserved for the independent film market, stories featuring an ordinary character trying to cope with their life in an ordinary world must be driven by fascinating personas exploring an internal journey more significant than their external one. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood mastered this delicate balance. The television classic, Seinfeld, brilliantly made comedy gold out of this framework. The premise has served multiple Oscar winners including American Beauty, Ordinary People, and Kramer vs. Kramer.
The key to this framework is quality writing and extremely gifted actors that can execute complex emotional movement over time. This is a framework that should only be attempted by the experienced, developed writer. Many who lack the skill to orchestrate this sort of advanced storytelling have left audiences yawning, zoning out, or worse – leaving the theater.
Have an idea for a story? Currently working on a script? Is yours the story of an ordinary character thrust into extraordinary circumstances? Or is it the story of an extraordinary character thrust into an ordinary world? Perhaps you feel comfortable enough to attempt the story of an ordinary character coping with their ordinary world. Regardless of which framework best suits your situation, seek out the family of films that have used that same premise. Watch them closely. Notice what worked and what didn’t. Do certain rules or patterns emerge across the films? Learning as we follow the paths of those who’ve come before us can prevent weeks of frustration and wasted time.
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.