With the passing of November so passes the annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWrimo) challenge of writing a novel in thirty days. According to my calculations, at 6pm on November 27th I crossed the NaNoWrimo 50,000 word finish line. The official word count on their computer was about 58,000. I must have lost track of some words along the way. The draft of my future best seller will be left to rest for at least a couple of weeks as I give myself a breather. To give you some perspective on why I am so proud of this accomplishment I offer these facts into evidence. I’m not a professional writer. The weekly Disney Connection blog I’ve been submitting for your enjoyment over the past year typically runs about 1,500 words and usually takes me between 3-4 days to write, edit and layout. According to my NaNoWrimo Dashboard, for the 27 days I wrote, I averaged 1,932 words, writing every day. My best one day word count day was 11,000! I went from running a couple of laps around the track to tackling a marathon with no training period. There was no carb loading, no daily stretching, just BIC (Butt in Chair) and fingers on the keyboard. So, I hope you will forgive me for using this space to crow about my accomplishment. I have proudly hung my “Winners” certificate on the wall of my office.
I see a hand raised in the back of the room. Yes? You’re asking, “So, what has this got to do with Walt Disney?” I’m glad you asked that. Among all of the things Walt Disney accomplished in his lifetime, he was, first and foremost a story teller – a writer. Having taken a month to see what it’s like to do what he did, almost every day, here’s what I have learned from all my hard work this month.
First, no great or even good writing appears on the page, fully formed and perfectly written. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back (or if you’re Shakespeare they kill themselves) is just the framework. The hard work is making that story arc interesting by populating the story with characters, good and bad, and placing them somewhere the audience can identify. Creating a plot and story arc that the audience can follow, builds to a climax and then finishes with a satisfying ending is harder than most people think it is. I’m sure when I read back what I wrote, the plot will have all kinds of unexplained holes that need to be filled and the climax probably lacks emotional punch. It all seemed so simple when I wrote my four sentence plot summary.
I think I could make the argument that Snow White was the one animated feature that Walt wrote himself. In 1934, he pulled some his animators together on a soundstage for, what is now considered, a legendary session, during which he acted out the entire story for them. Walt was a visual artist so, he hadn’t written the story down on paper. But, he had spent considerable time writing it in his head so he could tell the tale. He couldn’t get away with the short film format which was really just a series of comedic gags. Walt knew that he could never sustain the feature film length without a strong story that would captivate the audience.
Second, a good story must be supported by characters that the audience comes to know and care or, in the case of the villain, hate. As I wrote my story, I found I still hadn’t really gotten to know my characters well enough. In scene after scene I discovered new details about their lives. As a result, my characters, seem to lurch between different emotions and don’t always act consistently from scene to scene. Snow White, and all of the other characters (with the possible exception of the Prince) have distinct enough personalities that most of us could write our own stories about them beyond what appeared in the movie. It’s not just the names of the Dwarfs that tell us who they are. It’s how they act with each other and how they interact with Snow White. Even the Huntsman, who appears only briefly, is someone who we come to understand and feel for, from the moment he is given his assignment to just before he has a change of heart (credit Milt Kahl and Co. for an amazing acting job along with Walt and the directors). There are no wishy-washy characters (maybe the Prince). Every character has his or her own set of objectives (even the Prince) and the story is driven forward by their desire to reach their goals.
Third, setting the story somewhere and describing it in enough detail to allow the reader to enter the fictional or real world is what sets a novel apart from a movie or play. Since I was writing a historical piece, I tried to gather enough information before I started writing to accurately describe life in Southern California in the mid 1960s. As it turned out, I woefully underestimated the kind of detail I would need to know. This meant frequent trips back to books and the internet to try and see and feel what a restaurant would have looked like, what cars they drove, clothing, houses, etc. Even if I were writing in the present, I would still need to be observant enough to tell someone what they needed to see in their mind’s eye.
Considerable time and effort was put into backgrounds, costumes, settings for both the real things in Snow White as well as the fantasy elements, like the Queen’s laboratory and the Magic Mirror. If that had not been accomplished so well, our attention would have been drawn away from the story and focused on what we knew to be “wrong” or out of place. The use of the multi-plane camera provided more believability to the settings by giving a sense of real depth to what are only flat drawings.
Finally, the protagonist must overcome obstacles that increasingly raise the stakes. Each new challenge should have the potential to keep our hero from succeeding. The higher the stakes the more interesting the story. I can tell you from my experience that finding ways to get your hero into trouble without having Martians drop in from outer space is no easy task. Snow White finds herself almost killed and forced to run through the scary forest at night. This is followed by having to convince the Dwarfs to let her stay with them. She fails her last challenge, the apple, and needs the Dwarfs and the Prince to bail her out. I prefer to see my heroes solve their own problems. I think Pinocchio’s story follows a better path of obstacles to his eventual redemption and success.
The NaNoWrimo site offered this at the end of the month:
Good stories and storytelling were the cornerstone of the Disney brand and its success and continue to be today. Many stories that are now considered legendary kicked around the studio for years before Walt or current Disney management felt they were “ready”. The Little Mermaid which premiered in 1989 was a story Walt had his people do work on right after Snow White was finished in 1937. Even then, once stories are in production, the stories continue to be reworked and refined.
Final Dwarf versions
Early Dwarf concept drawings
Early on, Walt relied heavily on fairy tales and other stories he had enjoyed as a child or, in the case of Mary Poppins, stories he would read to his children. “What?” you say, “Couldn’t he come up with his own stories?” I see nothing wrong with the approach he took. He took well written pieces and found ways to have them speak to new generations through the magic of animation and later live action films. Walt’s uncanny ability to recognize what his audiences would respond to was part of his story telling genius. He also had a knack for finding the right people to collaborate with and help him work out the final version of the story.
Writers of movies and television rarely get the credit they deserve. Most novelists toil in obscurity and few become household names even after their work hits the NY Times best seller list. But, make no mistake – writers are the engine of many mediums. Those of you who pursue the illusive satisfaction of a well written piece, as I do, regardless of the medium, should be proud, not only of your finished work, but of the effort it takes just to try.
Here are some of my favorite authors (no particular order). Who are the authors you like to read?:
J.K. Rowling, Ernest Hemingway, J.R.R. Tolkien, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dan Brown, Rex Stout, Harper Lee, Isaac Asimov, Erik Larsen, David McCullough