by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Some seasons in our life are more exciting than others. Many days come and go without a single notable event. The times that do stand out may be full of joy, great sadness, anxiety-inducing drama, or simple gratitude. When telling stories, we generally want to include a day or term of the protagonist’s life that is unusual or noteworthy. While our story may begin on an ordinary day, life’s circumstances should bring about something that is out of the norm, or the main character’s reaction to the norm should change. Finding seasons of life that are rich in opportunity for your script can mean the difference between a page-turner and the narrative doldrums. Here are four seasons of life to consider drawing your story out of.
Seasons of Change
Change is one of the only certainties we have in life. It is the instigator of both great hope and crippling dread. Passing through thresholds and rites of initiation are universal experiences that people relate to, regardless of time and geography. Marriage, divorce, births, and deaths are times of change that hold moments ripe for story. Coming of age tales set in schools lend themselves to narrative elements, as there is always conflict, a ticking clock, and ceremonial rites of passage such as graduation, prom, dances, and moving to the next grade.
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade exemplifies the seasons of change one experiences in moving from middle school to high school. Physical changes, social changes, and changes in relationships are all at play during this period of life. While you may or may not have ever had the life experiences of a teen girl in middle school, the universal seasons of change she walks through apply to the particulars of many experiences.
Seasons of Pain
Difficulties are nearly as universal as change. The degree of difficulty we experience may vary from person to person. However, few of us get through life without overcoming some obstacles. Whether we’ve ever experienced the specific pain we see a character undergo on screen rarely matters. We resonate with most all complications. Seeing characters traverse seasons of pain can also work across genres. We don’t necessarily have to see the protagonist escape the pain they are experiencing, as long as they find some resolution within themselves to go on.
Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot explores the life of a character whose journey is full of pain and sadness. But it’s the tenacity of the character throughout the season of pain we come to celebrate by the time the credits roll.
Seasons of Insight
We’ve all had the moment where the cartoonish lightbulb appears above our head and we come to realize something that had never occurred to us before. While impossible to manufacture in our lives, we recognize the value of these moments when they do happen. Sometimes, we experience entire seasons of life where new insights seem to constantly be coming our way. Many times, these insights are the product of change, but other times there seems to be no clear catalyst for their appearance. Still other times, we reach internal milestones within ourselves where wisdom has been earned, achieved, and fully realized. Seasons of insight often come as a result of old age or retirement. Others come as a result of having a child or losing a job. The most common season of insight comes after we’ve made a huge mistake in life. Perhaps we’ve foolishly left a relationship or put our trust in someone who let us down. The lessons we learn are valuable and precious as we pick ourselves up and walk forward. We often must choose between bitterness and stagnation or risking our pride to try again.
In Brad Bird’s Incredibles 2, Mr. Incredible experiences a season of insight when he mistakenly feels he has less worth while staying home to care for the kids while his wife is out saving the world. His journey with this experience teaches him a valuable lesson – one that we all enjoy being reminded of.
Seasons of the Unexpected
Some days we wake up and have no idea what awaits us before we go to bed again. It could be the opportunity of a lifetime or an event we’ve long feared. Painful moments and difficult change sometimes give us plenty of opportunity to prepare. A relative’s long illness may offer the chance to say goodbye before they die. A family move that will force the kids to change schools may be impending until the end of the school year. However, some challenges strike completely out of the blue. We have no way to prepare for the unexpected. Characters in these situations are rich and intriguing to audiences. We are curious to see how they handle the unexpected, closely comparing their choices to the ones we would make.
In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, June Osborne is constantly challenged because she is in a season of her life that she never saw coming. It descended on her quickly and without warning.
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.