I’m not sure why I decided to do it, but after my chores were done today I sat down and watched the Disney movie, Frozen. I’d seen it before with my grandchildren, and was as much focused on them and their reactions as I was on the movie itself at that time. Watching it concentratedly, by myself, taught me a few things about storytelling, and about why these musical fairy tales capture the imagination of children and adults alike.
First, I’ll mention the gorilla in the room: music. And not just background music, but songs that are an integral part of the story. I grew up loving musicals. But let’s face it: there’s quite a stretch of the imagination to be made when watching a film musical with live actors. It just isn’t natural to burst into song to express feelings in the midst of a movie. The vast majority of live-action movie musicals got their beginnings on Broadway or London’s West End. The construct of theater is openly artificial, and so somehow having musical numbers performed by characters on the stage is OK. As theatergoers, we’ve already suspended our disbelief at the door. The movies that were original musicals usually wove the idea of music into the characters themselves (think Singing in the Rain).
But live-action movies are so relentlessly real—even when they’re science fiction or fantasy—that to have a character suddenly start singing actually jars us out of the moment instead of flowing seamlessly through an already altered reality. Yet music is elemental; we need songs in our lives, and songs have the ability to capture emotion in ways that words can’t always.
Enter the animated movie musical. Like a stage play, we have to accept the essential unreality of the story right from the outset. When animated characters—even ones who are made to look hyper-real—start singing, it feels natural and heightens the emotion.
A book is not a musical, of course. But it has to have moments of heightened emotion, moments where the fictional time slows to allow a character or characters to blossom.
This is essentially the epiphany I had while watching Frozen. The simple manipulation of time at the service of storytelling and character delineation is masterful.
Take the parallel openings: first, we are introduced to Kristoff as a young boy with his reindeer pet/friend Sven, set against a classic work song. Then we go to the two young sisters playing, starting out very innocent, but the one with the magic accidentally mortally wounds her younger sister, creating the necessity for erasing her memory of the magic, and for the older sister to be hidden away so that she won’t be a danger to others.
Enter the first character song. The song serves to express Anna’s loneliness, and also facilitates the passage of time, racing us forward to their parents’ tragic voyage, Elsa’s coming of age, her coronation, the ball where Anna falls in love, accepts a proposal of marriage, angers her sister, and causes her to bring perpetual winter down on the land as she runs away and hides herself in her ice castle on the north mountain. This is the moment for another song, the most famous of the movie.
I didn’t look at how much time elapsed, but this all happens very quickly. Four big plot points in about 20 minutes. A huge amount of action in what is basically backstory. Because the central drama is Anna’s quest to find her sister and bring her back to Arandelle. There’s a cute set-piece for Olof the snowman, but otherwise we’ve heard all the songs by this point in the movie, and themes circle back like leitmotifs to foreshadow or underpin.
With the exception of Olof’s song, nothing in the movie doesn’t advance the plot. The crescendo toward the moment when Anna performs her act of true love—not the expected kiss from Kristoff, but the act of sacrificing herself for her sister—is unrelenting, and the denouement swift and satisfying, with all main characters having grown and learned from the experience.
This all seems like obvious storytelling 101. So what did I learn from it?
1. Don’t let your characters wait around for something to happen. Push them relentlessly forward on the path of the plot.
2. Look for those moments where you need to suspend the pace, where a song would go, and use it to add contrast to the action.
3. Don’t go for the obvious ending, the one you were probably thinking of when you started out. Let your characters surprise you, and discover that the real theme of your story isn’t the “first kiss,” but the act of sisterly love.
All this is much easier said than done, of course. But it did make me realize that my current WIP isn’t surprising enough, doesn’t have the pace and momentum it needs. I’ve been frozen in the story, and I need a little magic to make it sing.