Can you believe that the holidays are now the stuff of memories (not to mention a gazillion Facebook posts, Instagram pics, and iPhone videos)?
Maybe part of that memory is yet another screening of It’s a Wonderful Life. So, while it’s fresh in your mind (and sheesh, if not, it’s not too late to watch it now), let’s revel in the things that were right there in front of us that, like George Bailey, we might have missed. No, I’m not talking about life lessons, but the writing lessons, the story lessons.
Here are a few that leapt out at me this Christmas Eve (yes, watching it in the wee hours of December 24th is family tradition).
1. Did you notice that we know the Plot Question right up front? George Bailey is going to have his moment of crisis at precisely 10:45 p.m. on Christmas Eve: will he end it all because he’s discouraged? As we’ll soon see, however, that is not what the movie is about. I mean, seriously, did anyone ever think doing himself in for the insurance money was even a possibility? The more intriguing question – the one we’re really curious about -- is the internal question: why is he so discouraged that the thought would even cross his mind?
2. Did you notice when Joseph then summoned wing-less angel Clarence to the rescue, Clarence, kind soul that he is, wanted to get to work helping George right away. After all, it was already 9:45 p.m.! But Joseph stopped him and made him sit down. “If you’re going to help a man,” he said, “you want to know something about him, don’t you?”
Like Clarence, your plot will help your protagonist come to grips with a defining misbelief. And just like Clarence, in order to create a plot that helps open your protagonist’s eyes to what’s right there in front of him, you need to know something about your protagonist first, don’t you?
But what exactly?
3. Did you notice that when Clarence wonders why Joseph is showing him a scene from George’s childhood instead of something more current, Joseph explains that, “Something happens here you have to remember later on”? Meaning that it’s a defining moment in George’s history that Clarence needs to know, not only to make sense of who George is now, but to decide what action to take. After all, as Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.”
From that point on the movie doesn’t tell us anything about George that wasn’t specifically designed to help us understand why he’s considering ending it all.
4. That brings us to what the movie is really about. Another way to think about this is to ask, What is the story question?
On the surface, every single event that Joseph shows Clarence revolves around one question: Whether or not George Bailey will follow his dream, leave his hometown of Bedford Falls and build Big Things. Each scene either gives us the reason he wanted to go, or the reason he stayed instead.
But that’s NOT the real story question, because we already know the answer: George never leaves Bedford Falls. We knew that the instant the movie started, before Clarence and Joseph got involved.
The actual story question – the real question – the one that has us hooked, isn’t an external one. The real question is internal, it’s: Why didn’t George leave?
The answer? It was his integrity, and being there for others who depended on him, that kept him in Bedford Falls. That is what gave him meaning, and it was ultimately more important than “following his dream.” In other words, it cost him a lot to stay true to what really mattered.
In the end George wanted to go back to his life not for him, but for those whose lives would have been so much the worse had he not been born. And so he overcame his misbelief that by staying in Bedford Falls he’d failed to live a meaningful life. And he took pleasure in the bliss of others.
5. Joseph Campbell is oft credited with saying, “Follow your bliss,” a catch phrase that has been adopted by everyone from yogis to career coaches. But the appropriation of the phrase did not make Campbell happy. What he meant, he’s said to have grumbled later in life, was “Follow your blisters.” As in, yes, having a dream is good, but once there, making it come true takes a whole lot of hard, purposeful, sometimes frustrating, sometimes painful work.
George Baily did achieve his dream, even if it took a dark night of the soul for him to realize it.
And that, my friends, is always where the story is.
If you are wondering what your story is really about, and you want to know how to hook a reader the way It’s a Wonderful Life has hooked millions of weeping fans, you’re going to love my upcoming Story Genius course.