My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Watching Disney Movies as a Writer--Part 2

Part 1

Continuing my effort to give W.A.W. a Disney theme in honor of the fact that I'm AT Disneyland for a few days, as part of my anniversary with Supportive Girlfriend. Also, this will probably not be a particularly long entry, as C-3PO and Indiana Jones await.

So last entry I talked about the perils of Disney movies, but that they could be very useful to a writer precisely BECAUSE they are formulaic. I know a lot of people look at Disney movies and vow that they will never write something so simplistic, so predictable, and so shockingly laden with tropes and cliches. That's good.

But like many things in life, it's very difficult to break the rules if you don't know what the rules are. Ever seen someone who talks about how they are breaking the rules of grammar for effect, but it's pretty clear they just don't know how to join two clauses? Yeah it's like that. It's impossible to write against the grain of a Disney movie if you don't know what that really is.

Most people have their stories rejected not because they lacked complex literary elements--in fact most people do a PRETTY good job of knowing what level their writing is at and what sorts of magazines to send them to. According to editors I've spoken to and what I've read, most people have their stories rejected because they lack a plot. Nothing really happens. "This is a poignant character sketch of an intense moment, but it is not a STORY," is shockingly common feedback for new writers.

I witnessed this phenomenon time and time again throughout my writing program and even in some of the graduate work I had a chance to see. Over and over I would see amazing writing with fantastic descriptions and significant detail, I would see care paid to setting, and simply gorgeous characterization...but nothing would HAPPEN. No rising tension--no tension at all. Just someone wallowing in their emotional state for a few pages. They don't burn with desires and needs when they walk on the page, so before we try to slip the noose with "there's no discernible plot because this is character based" which is high brow and pretentious but also absolute bullshit, let's just be clear that you can't have character based fiction if your character is REACTING to everything and isn't going after what they want.

There is no story to speak of in 80-90% of young writers' fiction.

Most writers would actually do well to understand plot, and going back to the basics is a good place to start. Disney movies are masters at the basic plot. You can't overly burden a four-year-old with intense complexity. You might be able to slip in some adult humor, but the basics of the story have to be basic. Yes, a Disney movie is formulaic, but that formula is something people must know long before they can successfully break it. They've got the story arc down pat--rising tension, complication, climax, denouement. Most of them follow The Hero's Journey (despite its flaws and criticisms) so closely, that it would only take you a few seconds to figure out who the "mentor character" is in a list of ten or fifteen Disney movies. (Go ahead; try it: Hercules, Cars, Lion King, Aladdin, Mulan, Finding Nemo.) Most Disney protagonists burn with what they want and what they need. Sure it's sophomoric to have them say "I want to win that race more than anything!" within the first five seconds, but it beats a story where you're not sure WHAT a character actually wants. What Disney is doing poorly is also what Disney does great, and examining them for what they're doing (over and over and over and over) again is a great way to avoid doing it yourself, or to do it knowing what you're doing, or to do it in unconventional ways, but if given the alternative between no story and a Disney story, writers shouldn't be too proud of going against the grain.

So if you have problems with plot, you could do worse than to suffer through a few Disney movies. Learn to walk before you fly...to infinity and beyond. (Sorry, I had to.)

Now, I must go to see a mouse about a thing.

1 comment:

  1. Fair point. Actually, IMHO, your point about 4-chord songs is also telling-- if you want to write music, you could do worse than learn to play some Tom Petty for a while until you recognize the difference between verse, bridge, and chorus. Simplistic doesn't always mean bad, and in fact it's almost harder to do simple WELL.