Life Isn’t Like the Movies

I don’t know about you, but I love movies.

For 2 hours or so, you forget about your own troubles and immerse yourself into another world. You get a glimpse of how life could have been, had you been born into another family, or during another era, or in another universe.

You journey with the protagonists, and watch nail-bitingly as they inevitably face some setback. You cheer them on as they struggle to overcome the conflict.

You celebrate with them, when they finally win (and they nearly always do).

Then as the credits start to roll, as you shuffle out of the cinema or close your laptop, you smile and think to yourself, “What an awesome show!”

The exhilaration starts to fade, and your thoughts turn back to the happenings in your own life.

But as you relive this emotional roller-coaster with every movie you watch, you may begin to think your life follows the same path as the movie protagonist’s:

  • A new encounter.
  • Problems start to crop up.
  • A bitter struggle.
  • Then a happy ending!
  • The End.

But no, life isn’t that simple.

Life Doesn’t Follow the Three-Act Structure

As you watch movies, you may start to realise that most of them follow a certain story structure. Broadly speaking, it goes like this:

  • Set up — An intro to all the main characters in the movie (both good and bad), and the relationships among them. Quickly though, some obstacles will crop up to make the protagonist’s life difficult. These obstacles are known as inciting incidents, which mark turning points in the protagonist’s life and have to be resolved.
  • Confrontation — The protagonist will then start to work on resolving the conflict(s). Towards the end, something may happen to make it seem as if the protagonist has lost, and no hope is left.
  • Resolution — Despite all the difficulty, the protagonist will defeat the antagonist(s). This is often during the most intense part of the story, known as the climax. The protagonist then proceeds to live happily ever after. The end!

For obvious reasons, this 3-part story structure is known as the three-act structure. There are many diagrams depicting the three-act structure out there, but here’s my representation of it in terms of how happy/unhappy a protagonist could be over the 3 acts:

Think back to the last few movies you’ve watched. You’ve probably seen this structure play out in at least one of them.

Unlike movies however, life doesn’t follow the three-act structure. Sure, our lives will have their own inciting incidents which we can only overcome if we take action.

Sometimes, our efforts fail. However let’s say they succeed.

We celebrate, high-five everyone, throw confetti everywhere.

But what happens next?

Movies end quickly after the conflict has been resolved. Fade to black, credits roll.

But as for us, even after we’ve overcome one conflict…

…our life goes on.

Our story doesn’t end there. It continues to go on, and on, where we face even more challenges, and struggle to overcome them, and we succeed/fail, and then we continue to face yet more challenges. And so on, and so forth.

Our lives don’t follow the three-act structure. There are many, many more acts to our story. So actually, our happiness levels over the course of our lives could look like this instead:

(Hopefully, your happiness should be trending upwards over time. But that’s a story for another day.)

Life Doesn’t Come with Background Music

Another thing about movies — as you watch them, it’s very easy to have an idea of what’s going to happen next.

I’m not talking about plot hints, although these can sometimes be painfully obvious. Rather, I’m talking about listening to the music.

To quote American film director David Lynch:

“Films are 50% visual and 50% sound. Sometimes sound even overplays the visual.”

Music does a great job of establishing the mood of the movie. Check out the following 3-min video for example. It sets the same scene from a Pirates of the Caribbean movie against 4 music tracks which sound (1) triumphant and victorious, (2) scary and foreboding, (3) comical and (4) sad and thoughtful respectively. Make sure you have the sound on.

Even though the scene’s visuals never change, the emotions it invokes are very different, depending on the mood of the music it is set to.

So if for example, you start to hear ominous-sounding music, you can expect something bad to happen within the next few minutes of the movie.

Or if you hear epic adventure music, you know that what’s going to happen next won’t be lame but likely, well, epic.

(On that note: just for kicks, try watching a horror flick with the sound on mute. Without all the tense music in the background, you probably wouldn’t find the movie half as scary.)

Coming back to our own lives. I don’t know about you, but my life definitely isn’t accompanied by a soundtrack which cues me as to what’s going to happen next.

I’m not deaf, I can hear. But the sounds I hear largely don’t give me a clue on what’s going to happen next.

For example, let’s say I’m swimming in the ocean with some friends. The sun is out and shining so brightly that I’m slowly but steadily getting a sunburn. The wind is whipping my hair into my face, but I don’t give a damn as my friends and I splash water at each other. Everything appears to be well.

I don’t know it, but a shark is coming towards me. But I won’t start to hear, say, the creepily-tense Jaws (1975) theme song start to play from some hidden speakers.

What I’m hearing are probably just the sounds of the rising and falling tide, ships honking in the distance, and my friends’ laughter.

Which are normal sounds to hear. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Based on what I can hear alone, I would therefore have no idea that I’m just about to suffer a bloody death.

Final Thoughts

Life isn’t like the movies. Managing to overcome one conflict now doesn’t mean we will live happily ever after for the rest of our lives. Life has many more challenges in store for us. Which, sadly, we may not be given much heads-up.

At the risk of sounding clichéd here, our best bet in such a situation is to just live life to the fullest. The curtains will close on us someday, but don’t let yourself have any regrets when that happens.

Do you think life is like the movies? Leave a comment!

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