by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
The end of the year is quickly approaching and more than one writer made a goal to complete that story idea that has been sitting on their desktop since January. Sometimes, stories need a significant shift in approach in order to relight the spark that gave them their start. Here are four changes you can make to your story in order to help it take flight.
1. CHANGE THE TIME PERIOD
The romantic comedy you’ve been working on is fun but needs that extra something. Have you thought about setting it in the Wild West? Medieval London? The year 2099? The Nice Guys took an average buddy cop concept and gave it the style of the 1970s. The Diary of A Teenage Girl and Everybody Wants Some utilized the same time period but to much different effect. Sing Street would have worked fine as a modern tale, but setting the film in the 1980s allowed the audience to bring their own nostalgia to the story. Setting The Lobster in the future allowed the storytellers to remove any objections from our mind that we might have about the premise of the story.
Loving and Rules Don’t Apply both are set in earlier decades as they are loosely based on historical events. However, both stories use the time period as a pseudo-character in the film, helping the audience to better understand the internal journeys of their protagonists.
2. CHANGE THE LOCALE
Do stories set in New York differ from those set in Texas? Do stories in the mountains differ from those set in the desert? Do stories set in the woods differ from those set in a submarine? The answer is, of course, a resounding yes. The setting and locale of a story affects everything from the narrative tone to the way that characters relate to the environments around them.
Green Room could have been set in a seedy punk club in East Greenwich Village, but setting it in an underground venue deep in the forest of the Pacific Northwest adds a level of mystery to the story that might not be there otherwise. Moonlight could take place most anywhere. However, setting it near the ocean provided literal and metaphoric waves and beaches that added additional layers to the character development and unfolding narrative.
3. CHANGE THE PROTAGONIST’S AGE, RACE, OR GENDER
When developing a story, one of the simplest changes you can make involves changing the protagonist’s most basic identity. That story of a young woman dating outside her race becomes radically different when her character shifts to an octogenarian in a nursing home. The story of a middle-aged man trying to win a karate championship is nice, but becomes more interesting when the story shifts around a middle-aged woman. The story of young Irish men who came to America to make their way is not uncommon, but Brooklyn gave a new lens to see the story through the eyes of a young woman. Raging Bull and Rocky opened up the world of Italian boxers, but Creed told the story of a character we had not often seen before. Sherlock Holmes allowed us to see a young and virile Robert Downey Jr. in great action, but Mr. Holmes gives us deeper insight into who the character really is by showing us life reflected in his later years.
4. CHANGE THE GENRE
Few writers know that Good Will Hunting actually began as a sci-fi thriller. Among other things, the shift in genre made it an Oscar winner. Changing the genre of your story changes the structural rules. It changes what can be done with the characters and the possibilities with their external goals. For some time, seeing a woman struggle in the workplace made for serious dramas. The Devil Wears Prada and Trainwreck opened up new avenues for the story trope by moving the narrative to the comedy genre.
Shaft and other stories from African American cinema in the 1970s told us stories of revenge and race, but Django Unchained moved the familiar tale to the western genre, and gained an entirely new audience. Shifting the genre should fundamentally shift the story, not necessarily the external goal of the main character, but instead what the audience feels and experiences in it.
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.