I hope all of you had a wonderful Christmas and have plenty of leftover Christmas cookies for the rest of the week! Last weekend, I had the incredible opportunity to see It's a Wonderful Life in a beautiful old theater. Wow, what an incredible experience! I always tear up at the end of the movie when Harry says, "To my brother George, the richest man in town," but I usually do that sneaky wipe-the-corner-of-your-eye-with-your-knuckle trick, hoping no one sees how emotional I'm getting. Well, let me tell you, after seeing it on the big screen, all bets were off! I and my best friend were setting there, all-out crying through the last scene.
What makes It's A Wonderful Life such a classic, and why does it pull on the heartstrings? In addition to brilliant acting, the story itself is so well-written. Today I'm going to break down several components of the movie that we can implement into our own writing to leave readers with that "feel good" effect we get after seeing this movie.
- George's motives are very clear, and they are conflicting. Conflicting motivations and values are always a recipe for good writing. On the one hand, George wants nothing more than to be an architect and to see the world. But on the other hand, he loves his family dearly. So what happens when loving his family means giving up his own dreams? Well, that's the magic of the movie. How can you shape the characters in your own story so that they have competing values they must choose between? How can you use that choice to affect the plot?
- The characters are relatable. George and his family represent universal values and struggles with which almost all viewers can identify. Maybe not on the specific level, but on the moral level. Perhaps you've never dreamed of being an architect, but I've bet you've had to make a choice between two things that both matter very much to you. If we train ourselves to be more conscious of these predicaments in everyday life, our writing will be come much more convincing and will have a stronger emotional pull over readers as they come to see themselves in our stories.
- The characters are likable. Even when George Bailey yells at his wife and kids just before his total meltdown, we like him. Why? Because we know what he's been through. We know who he is deep down. How does the movie show us these things? Not by telling, and not even by the words of other characters. Instead, it allows us to see George Bailey in action. We see when he saves Harry's life and refuses to deliver the poison capsules. We see the pain on his face when his father has the heart attack and he must leave Mary. We see the disappointment in his eyes when Harry gets married, taking away George's opportunity to go to college. So even whenever George melts down and considers suicide, we're with him 100% because we are feeling what he's feeling, and we're rooting from him on a very deep level. We're interested in the story because we're invested in the characters on an emotional level.
- The challenges are real. George's father dies. George has to give up his honeymoon money to save the bank. George can't go to college because Harry's getting married. Yet George overcomes each of these things. But when his uncle loses the money, it's just too much to handle. George's spirit is broken. And we get that. We believe it. We understand why George would feel like there's no other option in his life than to commit suicide, and we see why he would think this is ultimately a selfless act to preserve his family. So while we're saying to ourselves, "Don't do it, George!" we're also saying, "But we understand why you want to." This is key. Too often, we shortchange our characters by giving them weak obstacles to overcome. If the obstacles are weak, our characters' success over the obstacles will seem likewise. Worse yet are challenges that are unbelievable. Really work to make sure your stories play off the characters' struggles and fears, just as George's finds that even after giving up his dream to be an architect, his back-up plan also brings failure. What other options does he have left?
- A bigger-than-we-expect ending. I absolutely love the ending of this movie. As a storyteller, I expect George to get his happily-ever-after moment. I expect that he'll get to be an architect, that he'll finally go to college. Thing is, George does get a happily-ever-after moment, but in a different way than we expect. See, somewhere along the way, George's dreams change because his perspective changes. And that's really what makes this movie worth watching again and again. How easy would it have been for the writers to give George a chance to design a bridge, especially since it's a bridge he jumps off of during his black moment? But instead, the ending defies our expectations because it takes the story and puts it into an even greater context. George doesn't get to be an architect. No, what's much more powerful is the fact he no longer needs to. George's realization is that his life has been wonderful all along. Can you take a step back from your story to give it a bigger-picture framework? Instead of giving your characters all they want and seem to need, could you change their needs somewhere within the story, even as George's change in the movie?
I've heard that It's a Wonderful Life was created to restore morale after the war. It's easy to see why the movie accomplished this task. The moral is so much bigger than the typical "reach for the stars" theme we often see. Instead, this movie gives us something we can use in everyday life. Wherever you are and whatever you're doing, you're alive. And that's a reason for rejoicing.
Do you have a favorite Christmas movie? Why does the story appeal to you?
Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blog, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.