One thing everyone knows about Disney, is that they have pretty catchy songs (just try not to think about Let It Go, I dare you). The most interesting thing, as pointed out in a video by Think Story called How Disney Tells a Story Through Song, is that these songs are never in the story for music’s sake, they forward the story.
Aristotle tells us, in his Poetics, that a good story never has a moment that doesn’t forward plot or character. Your screenplay may not have musical numbers in it, but it doesn’t hurt to take a look at methods that not only succeed, but are so fundamentally simple that they can be applied to anything from comics to novels.
Think Story boils down the Disney songs to have three purposes:
This seems like a no-brainer, but I surprise myself with how much of my screenplays are empty scenes. Detail for detail’s sake. Once I find the purpose of the scene (or get rid of it completely) I have to craft it so it’s always moving the story whether that’s through character or plot development. That’s what these Disney songs do. Take for example Lion King’s “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” which explains Simba’s ignorance of his responsibilities, helps them get rid of Zazoo, and they arrive at the elephant graveyard in the end. An entertaining way to show what could have been a slow-moving process.
For most screenplays, writing a musical number instead of a normal scene isn’t doable. However, you can look at a scene that’s giving you trouble and think of it in the style of a Disney song. The entire story gets outlined before the songs are written. Look at the scene and wonder where is it being bogged down by something the audience doesn’t need to know? Since my current project deals with an uncommon mythology, I usually find myself talking about details at length that could easily be shared between dialogue, action, and character development. The Disney songs blend these three elements together to make a balanced exposition.
In songs like “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from Little Mermaid, we don’t question why or how Ursula can do this or why she needs Ariel’s voice, the character and plot are so enchanting that we believe it. No one had to have a monologue about her witchcraft or define how the shell took Ariel’s voice. It was assumed that things would be different in this underwater kingdom and this was just part of it. What about other movies not in myth? In Treasure Planet no one needs to explain where Earth is, because it’s not part of the story. Only things necessary to move the plot forward are used.
Which Disney songs reveal Character the best? In my opinion, the villain songs. Tangled’s “Mother Knows Best” and “Mother Knows Best [Reprise]” show both Mother Gothel and Rapunzel’s character development. In the first song, Mother Gothel reveals herself to be manipulative and Rapunzel is seen as gullible and naive for being blindly obedient to her ‘mother’. However, in the reprise, Rapunzel stands up for herself and rejects Mother Gothel’s emotional manipulation. While these songs are important because they move the plot forward with developing the characters, there is character development happening outside of the song.
Another good example is Princess and the Frog’s “Friends on the Other Side”. We meet the villain, Dr. Facilier. In this song, we learn the desires of our protagonist and the villain’s soon-to-be henchman while Dr. Facilier puts the plot into motion. The song also explains that Dr. Facilier has these “friends on the other side” and peripherally introduces them so later we understand what is motivating him. Embedded in the lyrics are amusing foreshadowing hints. Dr. Facilier uses phrases like “hop from place to place”, “freedom takes green”, “it’s the green you need”, and the art in the card revealed to Naveen has a lily pad made out of money in the background. These tricks define Dr. Facilier as cunning and move the story forward with the audience now anticipating the inevitable without having outright said he was going to turn Naveen into a frog.
Express a Theme
Themes, also known as the premise of a story, are important to have a story feel complete. The theme has to move from one pole to the other like “hiding who you are to fit in” to “being who you are without shame” in Mulan which can be seen through the song progression. It starts with “Honor to Us All” which explains Mulan’s role in society and her reluctance, “Reflection” shows her desire to be who she is despite society not approving, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” follows Mulan after she has defied her parents and now reaches personal growth when she is given more freedom, and “A Girl Worth Fighting For” revists the stereotypes and societal restrictions placed on women, but Mulan is now seen outside of it and it is viewed from the male perspective. This last song, she is still pretending to be a man and it is clear she doesn’t fit in. While she enjoys the freedoms pretending to be a man has given her, it’s still not her being who she is. This all moves the plot forward to the end where Mulan proves herself, not as Shang, but as herself, defying societal norms to do what she believes is right.
According to Lajos Egri, premise is the only thing more important than character. If your premise, or theme, is weak or doesn’t flow from one end of the story to the other, you need to either rethink your premise or restructure your story. The example songs didn’t outright say exactly what their purpose was (except maybe for “Reflections”), but within the story, it was understood by the audience and helped move the story forward. It isn’t hard to throw a musical number in and get nothing from it.
For example: “A Guy Like You” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame seems like it’s supposed to be a break for the children watching from the dark drama that has been happening for a while. This includes Paris on fire, a gruesome witch hunt underway, and the second lead character was shot with an arrow. If you’ve seen this movie, do you remember this song? I love The Hunchback of Notre Dame and I always find myself bored with this. Not only that, but I remember learning (from watching commentary) that this song bored children in test runs so they added the gargoyles doing funny things in the background, but kept this faintly comedic break of action. For children, maybe it was a good idea, but if they were bored, then the song needed some definite fine-tuning.
Not Just Disney
Disney isn’t the only place to find musical moments that move the plot forward: there are musicals. Yes, like buying-a-ticket-and-going-to-a-theatre musical! I went to see a friend’s Miscast Cabaret a few nights ago after I had seen the video this article is based on and I was able to listen to the snippets from musicals in a new light. I’m not very knowledgeable of musicals, but while I was listening to them, most, if not all, contained all three elements. I had no idea what Island Song is about, but after hearing “Wall Lovin” I understood the character singing and the basic theme by just hearing that song. The song basically being a story in itself makes it more entertaining to listen to and harder to forget.
While not all of the old Disney movies are great with this since the art form took a while to perfect, it is something that has the possibility to make your screenplay better. Maybe go out and watch a Disney movie with songs or a Dreamworks or Pixar film. They may not have songs, but there is that seemingly effortless forward momentum of plot, theme, and characters.
Watch the entire Think Story Video below.
Have any other song examples or think I may have missed something? Let us know and comment below!
Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting student at Drexel University. While focusing on writing for the screen, she has also dabbled in playwriting, writing comic books, and video games. World building is her favorite and she constantly obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her non-existent spare time, you may find her begging her plants to stay alive or trying to convince nonbelievers that dragons are real. She is also a percussionist in several ensembles with a love of music that outweighs her skill.