Written by JJ Barnes
When you ask people how their time at school went, you’re likely to get one of two answers. Either they loved it and it was the best days of their life, or it was a Hellscape or teenage torture and misery. There’s very rarely a response in between. And, in my experience, the artier and more creative the person you ask, the more likely it is they’ll respond that it was hell. Given this, you might wonder why so writers will choose schools as their story setting.
Schools Offer Natural Conflict
The main conflict of your story is the story goal between your Protagonist and Antagonist. That can be set in any location. However, your story needs conflict outside that main story goal. All your surrounding characters, the support cast, need to be motivated as well. There needs to be disagreements, conversations, and friendships. People who are attracted to one another, people who hate each other. If all your support cast are the Protagonist of their own stories, your story will feel alive.
Schools are filled with natural conflict. Cliques form, flirtations happen, feuds are forged. People are motivated to do well in exams, perform on stages, or fit in with the cool kids. Teachers apply pressure, bullies bump emotional bruises.
Clueless And The Natural Conflict in School
Clueless follows teenager Cher on a quest to find love, both for herself, and for those around her. She wants to set her friend Tai up with popular boy Elton. She wants to set her teachers Mr Hall and Miss Geist up together. And she wants to find a mature boyfriend for herself. Her story follows her as she moves between working on her own relationships, and trying to maintain the relationships of those around her.
The school setting means every moment is riddled with multiple layers of conflict. Whether it’s trying to impress her father with her grades, or dealing with rivalries between other classmates. Cher is constantly dealing with teachers, pupils, and challenges because she’s trying to accomplish all these different goals within an American high school.
The story itself has little to do with the school. But the school contributes to why Clueless is an entertaining story. The pressure and obstacles Cher must overcome are layered by the requirements of being a pupil. And each person in the supporting cast is also trying to overcome their own challenges based around surviving high school.
The Conflict Of Being In School Itself
Whilst your story might use the school conflict as backdrop to an external storyline, it doesn’t have to. Actually existing in a school environment is riddled with conflict enough to maintain a story. Whether it’s the conflict between your Protagonist and a school bully, or the need to succeed in an exam, school can provide enough motivation to carry your story.
To use a school as the motivation alone, your Protagonist must be motivated by something school has to offer. It could be a date to the school dance, or a scholarship to a prestigious university. As long as there is something in that school that your Protagonist wants, send them after it. Then work out their Antagonist. It could be a teacher who doesn’t believe in them or a bully who hates them. Alternatively, your Protagonist could be their own Antagonist. Perhaps they just need to stop self sabotaging and believe in themselves.
The Worst Witch and The Conflict Of Being In School
Mildred Hubble’s life at Miss Cackle’s Academy is riddled with conflict. She is not a naturally gifted witch and struggles to complete the tasks set by her teachers. Miss Hardbroom applies constant pressure and challenges for Mildred to overcome. Her best friend, Maud, offers both conflict within their friendship and a person to talk to. Her enemy, Ethel, throws further obstacles in Mildred’s way.
In The Worst Witch stories, all Mildred really wants is to get through the school year without any disasters. It’s an entirely school related goal. It’s the people and situations in the school that apply pressure to Mildred. This makes the stories full of conflict and entertainment as we watch her efforts to overcome each challenge.
Schools Apply A Natural Time-Lock
A time-lock is a way of telling your audience, and your characters, that pressure is applied. The end point is coming, and there is nothing you can do about it.
A school year is a perfect natural time-lock. When you send your characters into a school setting, you know the end of the school year is coming. That’s when the exams happen, when any competitions have their finals. That’s when the pupils are going to go their separate ways for the Summer, or leave entirely to go to University or work.
This feeling of pressure means as the end of the school year approaches, the pressure mounts. There’s no way of dragging it out. The pressure means the story will be more exciting. It’s now or never.
Harry Potter And The Time-Lock
Each book in the Harry Potter series is set over a year at school. In Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire, the third and final task is taking place at the end of school.
Your natural understanding of how long is left, punctuated by events like Christmas, means you feel the tension as it approaches. You know there is no way out. The end of the school year is coming. Therefore the final task is coming.
Schools Are A Safe Space To Protect
When you’re writing an urban fantasy story, you will likely need a safe space to send your magical characters. A magical school offers the perfect place. It’s somewhere they have mentors, people they can learn from. And it’s a place they can be true to themselves, using their powers freely.
When you have somewhere safe and special, it’s natural you’ll want to protect it. And a place that holds a lot of powerful people is at risk of attack from outsiders. If your school is under attack, your characters have an immediate story goal that is understandable to your audience. Your Protagonist becomes motivated when the school space is threatened. They are then locked in conflict with the Antagonist. This is resolved when the school is either saved, or the Antagonist wins.
Nature-Girl Vs Worst Nightmare And Protecting Schools
In Nature-Girl Vs Worst Nightmare, Nature-Girl attends Miss Sparkle’s Academy. This is a school where magical children are trained to be super-heroes. They learn to use their powers for good, under the guidance of their teachers. It’s a safe space for them to learn.
When Worst Nightmare sends his army of Bad Dreams ahead to attack the school, he is moving for his goal of taking it over. This sets Nature-Girl and her friends in immediate conflict with Worst Nightmare. They have a goal to save their school and the audience knows what they’re in for, and why it matters.
Other School Based Stories and What We Can Learn
The majority of Grease is set in and around a high school. Here we see all the usual school based conflicts including romances and rivalries. However, the coming of age element is what makes Grease a great example. High school is a place where we truly start to learn who we are in the transition from childhood into adulthood. This makes school age characters really interesting to follow and explore as people.
In the Malory Towers books by Enid Blyton, the children are living in a boarding school. Boarding schools are a fantastic way of overcoming the parent problems in stories. When your children have the safety of parents to both protect, and stifle, them, there stories cannot happen. Children free of parental control, be it by boarding schools or death, can experience adventure. As they’re not mature enough to really make good choices, you can put them in precarious and dangerous situations that adults might be too sensible to experience.
The Breakfast Club uses the pushing together of conflicting personalities perfectly. In schools you’re forced to co-exist with personalities you don’t naturally enjoy in a way like no other. As an adult, even in an office, you’re afforded more privacy than school children. Whether it’s being forced to do group projects, join the same sports team, or attend detention. Pushing people together who would naturally avoid one another is a great source of story conflict.
In Mean Girls, you see a power struggle. In a confined space, such as a school, it’s natural that sub-cultures form. And, as with any culture, there will people drawn to the opportunity for power. Regina George acts as the figurehead of their high school, guiding fashions and choices, and dominating decision making. Cady challenges that role, and the power struggle begins.
I’d love to hear about your favourite stories set in schools. What draws you to them and why do they work so well?
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose