The "fish out of water" trope is one of the most valuable storytelling techniques. Here's why.
While there is no real magic formula to writing a screenplay, the "fish out of water" trope is an excellent crutch or trope that can help writers new and experienced layout a story that's engaging for the audience and easy for the writer to outline and write.
Let's explain the trope, go over its use in film and TV, and talk about why it's an excellent formula for screenplay success.
The "fish out of water" idiom refers to a character who is removed from their normal day to day and has to catch up with their new outlook on the world. This writing trope is very popular in TV pilot episodes, action movies, and across almost any genre.
If the character adapts fast to the new environment, it's said they are like "a duck takes to water."
Ways to use the "fish out of water"
As storytellers, we spend so much time working on ways to get audiences to engage with the story. We have to build the world, meet characters, and do it all seamlessly, while still being entertaining.
The "fish out of water" strategy works two different ways:
1. Subjective Uses
You can make the protagonist of your story a fish out of water. The benefit of doing that is that it eases the audience into the story. All the questions they'll ask, we'll answer through the character. We get a natural window into a world and can build through their eyes. This works in any genre and story because there are plentiful reasons for a new person to be in any environment.
Examples: Kingsmen, New Girl, The Matrix, and Mean Girls
2. Objective Uses
You can make the audience the fish out of water that has to learn and play catchup. This makes the audience have to pay attention right away. They're behind the eight ball and turning pages to get involved in the story and up to speed. This works especially well in documentary-style movies and TV shows because we get specific scenes dropping us into the world.
Examples:The Office, Modern Family, and Waiting for Guffman
3. Partial fish out of water
Some movies and television shows use this technique not as their total driving force, but as a launchpad. Oftentimes, pilots will do this but abandon it moving forward.
Shows like Mad Men get us into the world in the first episode, but once we're accustomed to the world the show unfolds naturally. The same goes for some movies, who use side characters to open the door to the world, but don't rely on it as a driving narrative force. There's a new guy in the movie Waiting, but he's journey is not the crux of our story. It's just played for funny asides to educate the audience.
Examples: Breaking Bad, Beverly Hills Cop, and Finding Nemo.
Here's why this trope is so important
All drama is conflict. and there's nothing more conflict-inducing than being in a world where you don't know anyone and are not sure of the rules. The fish is always going to build on conflict. The trope is even named after a conflicting experience...
If a fish has no water it will die! But it's not just about that.
Exposition is one of the hardest parts of writing. You want the audience to know your character and world, but you have to tell them so much, especially if the world is foreign to people.
Screenwriters try to hide exposition in action and set pieces, and by having two characters deliver it via an argument, but at the end of the day, sometimes you need someone to just say things to the camera that gets us up to speed. That's where the fish out of water really succeeds.
It's a trope and device that begs us to give exposition. Tell us about this special school for wizards, how a newsroom works, and the way to cook meth.
This specific trope also lends itself to so many different subgenres.
These are the specific variants as compiled by TV tropes:
- Alien Among Us
- Blithe Spirit
- Changeling Fantasy
- City Mouse
- Country Mouse
- Escaped from the Lab
- Fish out of Temporal Water
- Foreign Exchange Student
- "Freaky Friday" Flip
- Genre Refugee
- Human Raised By Fairies
- Lots of Luggage
- Mage in Manhattan
- Naïve Newcomer
- New Transfer Student
- New Life in Another World Bonus
- Penny Among Diamonds
- A Pet Into The Wild
- Raised by Dudes
- Raised by Wolves
- Raised In Captivity
- Rags to Riches
- Riches to Rags
- Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense
- Scholarship Student
- Slept Through the Apocalypse
- Stranger in a Familiar Land
- Stranger in a Strange School
- Strange Cop in a Strange Land
- Trapped in Another World
- Your Magic's No Good Here
- War from Another World
While all these subgenres appear intimidating they all follow a similar list of story beats.
Let's take a look.
Your Checklist for Using Fish Out of Water
Let's look at several beats that almost every fish out of water story uses. Again, what I love about this narrative device is that it's so consistent. While that can lead to predictable stories, it's up to you to subvert these expectations.
To do that, let's take into account the five expected beats within the fish out of water.
1. A whole new world
The first act of every fish out of water story starts with a character being introduced to a new way to see their surroundings. Whether it's The Matrix or Mean Girls, we have someone seeing things for the first time.
Like Aladdin does when he becomes a Prince.
2. The adjustment period
Like any person in a new place, there need to be adjustments. This is when we see our character fall on their face. We see them make mistakes over and over. These mistakes should allow us for more exposition, and give us the opportunity to plant and payoff things later.
Think about how Bruce Wayne deals with his Batman gadgets breaking and how he assembles his costume in Batman Begins.
3. Success and respect go a long way.
Once our protagonist enters the world, it's time to see them succeed. This is where they get good at their new job or gig. They gain respect from the people around them and they actually start to fit in with the crew that recruited them.
In the New Girl pilot, it's when Jess gets along with the guys and they see the benefit of her presence.
4. A supreme failure to adapt
Like any character arc, there has to be moments of incredible failure. This is where people don't adhere to the lessons provided along the way and is commonly their lowest moment.
It's where they decide they don't fit in in this new arena and can't hack it.
This happens in The Blind Side when Michael runs away.
5. Sink or swim
The final beat usually coincides with the end of the movie, pilot, or episode. Does this character make it? Can they hack it in the new world they've been given. Or did this experience give them a lesson that will carry on later in their life?
In a movie like The Sandlot, we sense that the experience that summer helped craft the personality of the lead later in life. In Breaking Bad, we understand that it has changed the lead and we're on a new path now.
Sum up the beats for this trope
These bests are a guideline, not a mandate. Writing is about hoe you riff on what's next. So put your personal spin on this trope and see where it takes your story. Let's take a look at some examples from these kinds of movies and tv shows to diagram what I mean about personal spin.
Fish out of water used in movies
One of my favorite movies of all time is North by Northwest. In it, Roger Thornhill accidentally becomes a fish out of water when he's mistaken as a spy. While the movie delivers a ton of iconic scenes and characters, what stands out is how it uses Thornhill as the audience's POV as both he and the audience learn about the movie's intricate plot.
We're rarely ahead of Thornhill, but when we are, the story manages to keep us on the edge of our seat as Thornhill catches up with us -- and the bad guys.
Another great example that riffs on the subgenres is Finding Forrester.
It offers a two-hander: both main characters are a fish out of water.
Our lead is an African-American kid going to a prep school that's largely white. He sticks out and uses basketball and writing to try to get accolades and fit in. The second is a famous recluse living in a largely segregated neighborhood. He's old, white, agoraphobic, and cantankerous.
Together, they learn a ton about themselves, and this allows them to not only fit in at the end but to break the mold for how people think they should fit in. This movie relatively works to dispel the very notion that a fish needs water.
We make our own water.
Fish out of water in television
The fish out of water is ever-present in so many tv pilots. We know this is because it's one of the easiest ways to introduce an audience to the world of the show. And it works incredibly well in lots of obvious ways.
But I wanted to look at a few random ones as well.
First up, Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23 uses this trope in the traditional sense. It's about a country girl in the city, a girl who needs someone streetwise to be her roommate and steep her in the ways of the world.
This idea actually can sustain a series since it allows you to have lessons every week.
But what about using the first out of water as a jumping-off point? One of the greatest shows of all time, Game of Thrones, sneaks a fish out of water story into the first season. The Starks are forced to move to King's Landing where they have to adapt to new rules and a new way of life.
We don't usually think about fantasy in this realm, but this show does it in a subtle way. The world is just different enough to keep the characters in a series of conflicts.
The Starks head to King's Landing and then all hell breaks loose.
What's next? Start writing your screenplay!
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