First, school settings are familiar. As readers, it’s quite simple to wrap our minds around the idea of a school, simply because we’ve all been in school before. We know what to expect—homework, exams, classes, nice teachers and nasty ones. Even if we haven’t gone to boarding school (or homeschooled), it takes only a sight stretch of the imagination to picture the setting of a school.
Second, though, what makes these books interesting is that it’s school—with a twist. The school settings of fantasy books are intriguing not because they’re familiar but because they’ve got something different to them. Hogwarts in Harry Potter is interesting because it teaches magic. Princess Academy is exciting because it’s preparing uneducated mountain girls to act like princesses. Vampire Academy is intriguing because…well…let’s not go there. The point is, all of these schools sound much less boring than our schools were (although this may be an issue of “the grass is greener,” since learning takes work wherever we may go to school!). The “school with a twist” concept is interesting because of the way it combines the familiar with the exciting.
What’s more, these school stories are places we’d like to attend. Of course, we might not want to have to fend for our lives against dark wizards (Harry Potter) or prepare to marry a prince we’ve never met (Princess Academy), but in general, the school is engaging enough that we’d want to trade our own “boring” school experiences for these more exciting fictional schools.
An often-overlooked and very subtle benefit of school settings, though, is the innate structure of a school story. The school year has a very definite beginning and end, along with breaks for Christmas and the like, which forces authors to condense the story into one-year units. While such imposed structure may not work for every story, it does wonders to the outline of the story when there are definite deadlines by which x actions must take place.
A complement to the structure of school stories is the automatic multilayered plot. Obviously, on the surface level, there is conflict arising from teachers and homework and exams. However, there are also opportunities for conflicts among classmates. Then, too, in fantasy stories, there’s usually some darker villain looming in the shadows who must be conquered by the end of the school year. So many layers of conflict embedded in the story make it much more lifelike and interesting.
So there you have it: top reasons why school stories are so popular. They’re familiar, they have a twist that keeps them from boredom, they’re places we’d like to attend, the stories have structure, and they have an automatic multilayered plot.
Comment below and let me know your favorite school story, or tell us if you’ve been writing a school story yourself!