Having spent a week in the Magic Kingdom and its copyrighted affiliates, it got me thinking about Disney stories. Every night we watched a classic Disney film under the stars and there's a comforting rhythm to their stories.
Chris Vogler, one of Disney's writers, put together a memo for story pacing and structure based on Joseph Campbell's Hero of a Thousand Faces. He divided a classic story structure into 12 stages:
1. The Ordinary World. This is the hero/heroine's everyday life. Cinderella doing the chores and singing to her mice, Rapunzel playing with her chameleon and painting on her walls, or Tarzan's family escaping the sinking ship and building a Swiss Family Robinson treehouse.
2. The Call to Adventure. The inciting incident which sets the story. The king announces a ball to find the prince a bride, Rapunzel wants to see the floating lights and Tarzan's family is killed by the leopard and he is rescued by the gorillas.
3. Refusal of the Call. The hero has some hesitation or obstacle to answer the call. Cinderella's attempts at a homemade dress are ripped to shreds by her stepsisters, Mother Gothel refuses to allow Rapunzel out of the tower and Tarzan struggles to thrive in the jungle world.
4. Meeting with the Mentor. The hero gains supplies/confidence/training from an outside source. Cinderella's fairy godmother provides her dress and carriage, Rapunzel meets Flynn who can take her out into the world and Tarzan meets Jane and her father as they arrive to study the gorillas.
5. Crossing the First Threshold. The hero commits wholeheartedly to the adventure and it's too late to go back to ordinary life. Cinderella dances with the prince and falls in love, Rapunzel overcomes her fears to go with Flynn and Tarzan agrees to learn about the human world.
6. Tests, Allies and Enemies. The hero explores his/her new world, faces trials and makes friends and enemies. Cinderella must flee to avoid being caught out at midnight which sets in motion the Grand Duke's quest to find her, Rapunzel charms a tavern full of ruffians and Jane and her father teach Tarzan about the human world.
7. Approach to the Innermost Cave. The hero nears the center of the story. Cinderella has an opportunity to prove who she is to the prince and reunite with her true love, Rapunzel arrives at the kingdom and sees the floating lights and Tarzan agrees to show Jane and her father the gorillas, whom he has sworn to protect.
8. The Ordeal. The black moment when all seems lost. Cinderella is locked in the tower while the Grand Duke tries to fit the glass slipper on her stepsisters, Rapunzel believes Flynn has betrayed her for money and Tarzan's family is kidnapped and he is held captive, betrayed by those he thought he could trust.
9. Reward. The hero survives and triumphs. Cinderella escapes with the help of her mice, Rapunzel realizes she is the lost princess and Tarzan escapes his captors.
10. The Road Back. The hero returns to the ordinary world. Cinderella catches the Grand Duke before he leaves, Rapunzel confronts Mother Gothel and Tarzan brings his gorilla family back to their home.
11. The Resurrection. A final challenge. Cinderella produces the second glass slipper after her stepmother smashes the original, Rapunzel agrees to stay with Mother Gothel if she is allowed to heal Flynn and is able to use her tears to do so after Flynn cuts her hair and Tarzan assumes his place as protector and leader of the gorillas, even though he believes it will cost him Jane.
12. Return with the Elixir. The ultimate triumph. Cinderella marries her prince, Rapunzel is reunited with her family and Jane chooses to stay with Tarzan.
I've heard people complain about using structured plot points, claiming that it makes the stories too predictable and formulaic. But there is something inherently satisfying about the plot arc which Vogler outlines. Each story is very different, but hits the same emotionally resonating notes in roughly the same order. I'm sure a psychologist could do a study to show why an audience responds to this pattern but the reason doesn't matter. We just do.
Often when I find myself unsatisfied with a story, I've applied Vogler's pattern and discovered that the particular story doesn't fit. Usually they've skipped point 11, The Resurrection, and gone straight to the happy ending. Or they've missed the initial reluctance or obstacle (point 3, Refusal of the Call). These can be very brief but they do need to be included.
Disney may be a giant corporation which has been likened more to a factory than an artist's workshop, but they've understood that their continued survival depends on telling great stories. Vogler explains that during his time at Disney, he would use this structure to tweak good screenplays into great ones. I use it for my own work as well and found most of the storytellers I admire (be they screenwriters or novelists) do the same.