Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

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Why Writers Matter

NaNo-2017-Winner-Twitter-HeaderWith 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.

2017 Nanowrimo winner cert

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.

Walt Disney hard at workFirst, 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.

snow white model sheet

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.

snow white model sheet posesSecond, 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.

Multiplane CameraConsiderable 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:

nanowrimo end of month message

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.

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, JoeGrant3_Disney“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?:

favorite authors

J.K. Rowling, Ernest Hemingway, J.R.R. Tolkien, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dan Brown, Rex Stout, Harper Lee, Isaac Asimov, Erik Larsen, David McCullough

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Inspired by Walt to get Creative

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Many of my posts mention or are about Walt’s creativity. Story was at the core of Disney films, television and theme parks. A story for a film had a strong theme, was written for and created with his audience in mind, all with a heavy dose of emotion. But, Walt didn’t stop there. What set Disneyland apart from other amusement parks wasn’t just the quality and attention to detail, but that Walt created a park filled with attractions based on stories.

The Disney Company has continued that tradition more than 50 years after his death. Attractions like the Haunted Mansion, Expedition Everest, Rock ‘n Roller coaster, and Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, to name a few, are all enjoyable because Imagineers like Rolly Crump, John Hench or Joe Rhode started with a story they want to tell. They tell that story using the path we take through the design, music, sound and set dressing of the queue then finish it with the actual ride experience itself as the final chapter. Think how different the Indiana Jones Adventure, Expedition Everest, or Space Mountain would be without all of those elements. I go to other amusement parks (I pause for the expected shock). Their rides (not attractions) start with hours long queues winding through what looks and feels like a parking lot. The only thrill is the ride itself, which typically lasts a couple of minutes or less.

Writing this Blog is a creative outlet for me. I’ve written for work and pleasure for a good part of my life. This year, I am going back to a challenge that I haven’t tried for several years. I’m going to join over 300,00 participants in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) program and write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.

nanowrimo logo

What started out as a dare by a few people in 1999 has become a not-for-profit organization that organizes a worldwide event. The organization is committed to “. . . a world that celebrates diverse voices, and encourages everyone to tell their stories. Their mission statement “National Novel Writing Month believes in the transformational power of creativity. We provide the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page. They also go into schools, libraries and communities through their young writer’s program. If you are interested in learning more, offering support or participating, I recommend checking out their website, Nanowrimo.org. Your local library or community center may offer support for writing participants.

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NaNoWriMo Night of Writing Dangerously, San Francisco

I look forward to the challenge with both excitement and a certain amount of anxiety. I’ve done this twice before.  But knowing what to expect from a month of intensive writing, almost every day, doesn’t make it any less daunting.I tell you all this not because I want applause or a pat on the back (although any support is welcome). But, to be a “winner” I need to write 50,000 words in November (that breaks down to 1,667 words each day).

This effort will probably not give me much opportunity to write my usual, weekly blog. (As I wrote that, I could actually feel the disappointment across the wires of the Internet.) Fear not, oh faithful readers of the Disney Connection. While I may not do a regular Blog post, I am thinking of providing updates on my progress and my experience following in Walt and his master storytellers giant footsteps.

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Choices are always difficult

inkandpaint coverI am spending this week doing some preparation by building a basic story and getting to know the characters that will populate it. I don’t have a title as yet, but the inspiration for my story was the book “Ink and Paint, The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation” and will be set at Disney Studio in the early 1960s.

No one who participates in NaNoWriMo publishes their 50,000 word work without considerable editing and rework. But, hundreds of NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published. They include Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Hugh Howey’s Wool, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder. I hope that my story will eventually be worthy enough in my eyes for me to share it with all of you. For those of you who challenge yourselves to create, I wish you happiness and success in your field of endeavor. And remember “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible”. For those of you who haven’t yet made the leap, “If you can dream it, you can do it. The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”

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