How Disney use story, even in their park entrances

Stories are everywhere. In fiction, obviously, but non-fiction uses story forms too. Stories are used in marketing and politics. If you keep your eyes open, you can see stories everywhere. Even in design.

We had a family holiday to Disneyland Paris recently, and the amount of story on display was immense. This isn’t too surprising‌—‌Disney made their name with films and animations‌—‌but look a little deeper, and there is more to their use of story than this. They understand that stories are journeys, and if you want a potential customer and fan to follow that journey to the end, you need to engage their emotions.

The place is split into different areas, each with their own theme (Fantasyland, Discoveryland and so on), with distinctive buildings and music. The queues are their own ministories, with twists and turns that reveal props connected to the rides, or animated characters, or screens giving instructions in a manner suited to each ride.

And the staff are a part of the stories, too. It’s no accident that Disney refer to them as ‘cast’ or ‘crew’. They wear costumes appropriate to each area of the park or specific ride, and many perform roles in the manner they interact with the visitors. Even those cleaning the streets are in costume, and wouldn’t look out of place dancing with the chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins.

So objects and personnel are part of the story, but the physical design of the place plays a big role, too. Nowhere is this most obvious than in the entrance to the main park.

Once through the security checks, visitors walk toward a large, impressive-looking building that houses the entrance to the park itself. But there is no straightforward route. Paths twist and turn around flower beds and water features, yet the journey eventually brings the visitor to the entrance.

disney1-e1561187814653.jpgThis is beneath the building, and on a bright day it is dark under there. It’s classic storytelling‌—‌the hero must first pass from the everyday world into the new, and that often means travelling somewhere uncomfortable, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. In classic hero’s journey tales, there’s a threshold guardian to thwart the hero’s attempt to progress, and in Disnelyand that role is played by the greeters and ticket-checkers.

But we pass these guardians, and emerge from the dimness into the new world of the park itself. But the journey is still not complete. In story, the hero must work through many trials, and the goal is never discovered round the first corner.

Disney2Ahead, blocking the path, is another building, this one a train station. The track runs overhead, and to progress the brave adventurer must step though the dark arches underneath. Emerging from these, the space opens up, and the adventurer is met by buildings from some idealised perfect past‌—‌clearly fake, but this is a magical story, so we can expect nothing else.

Yet this isn’t the promised end of the journey. We’ve all seen the Disney castle (at the start of every one of their films and on so many logos), and we know this lies at the centre of the kingdom. As in so many fairy tales, the castle is the ultimate goal. And now, on the far side of the train station, we can see fleeting glimpses‌—‌a pink turret, a flag‌—‌but not the whole thing. A bandstand blocks out view.

So, one more obstacle. We walk around this, and only then does the view open up‌—‌Main Street, with music and sounds and lights and life, and just beyond the wide space at the end, framed perfectly by the buildings of the street, is the castle, just as it appears in all the pictures. Now that we have seen the castle, we know we’ve arrived in Disneyland.

It’s easy to be cynical about this. Disney understand how stories can be used to persuade, and how a captive audience can be parted from their money. By that shouldn’t detract from the attention to detail here, and to the way that story is used so effectively. It’s also worth remembering that one of the primary functions of story is to entertain. In a place like Disneyland, the rides and attractions are the main focus, but by adding entertainment to the walks and queues Disney aim to turn a day out into a journey of adventure. Love it or loathe it, they know how to use story effectively.

New short story

It’s often said that editing involves cutting at least ten percent of the words, and while this isn’t strictly true, may words written in a first draft never reach the final product. Sometimes, whole chapters get discarded.

That is how this new short story, There’s Always A Choice, came about. It was originally part of an early draft for Dominions V, but I decided to cut it fairly early on. I liked it too much to let it be ignored, though, so I reworked it. Maybe it’s a deleted scene from an as-yet unpublished book, or maybe it’s a short story in its own right.

You can read There’s Always A Choice here. And if you like this one, you might like to compare it to A Lesson In Death, a far earlier story focusing on Rodin. I think they mirror each other fairly well.

And, as always, I’d love to know what you think of the story.

The sentence that pulled me out of ‘Dune’

I suppose it’s inevitable that the way I read is changing as I learn more about storytelling and the craft of writing. Reading’s still one of my favourite things to do, but when something doesn’t feel right in a book or story, I’ll try to analyse the perceived problem. I’m also more likely to reflect on a book in a more analytical way. I’ll attempt to figure out how a writer has impressed me, and also imagine how I’d approach those little things that didn’t work for me.

I thought I’d share one of these moments. It happened when I re-read Dune recently.

Dune_FrankHerbertBefore I dive in, there’s a couple of things to bear in mind here. Dune was published over ten years after Frank Herbert’s first novel came out, and he’d had years of publishing short stories in magazines before that, so this is a book by an experienced writer. I’m still near the start of my writing life, so I’m in no way holding myself up to be ‘better’ than Herbert (or the numerous editors who would have been involved in the book’s journey).

Dune was written over fifty years ago, and fashions change in writing, just as in everything else. The thing that tripped me up might not have been considered an issue when Herbert was writing it.

But trip me up it did. One sentence pulled me right out of the story.

It happened in the fifth section (they’re not labelled as chapters, but they might as well be), where we finally get to meet Dr Yeuh. We already know that he will betray Duke Leto Atreides, under orders or instruction from the Barron Harkonnen. Such a thing should be impossible, as Dr Yeuh has undergone Imperial Conditioning, but Harkonnen in a previous scene hinted that there are ways around this. So our first scene with Dr Yeah himself is keenly anticipated.

The scene starts with Dr Yeuh entering the room of Paul, the Duke’s son, and we get to hear a number of Yeah’s internal thoughts (a technique Herbert uses often throughout the book.) But almost on the first page we get this thought from the man.

What I do is done to be certain my Wanna no longer can be hurt by the Harkonnen beast.

When I read this, I immediately saw it as an info-dump. The wording sounded clumsy in comparison to Dr Yeuh’s previous thoughts, and it felt that the information‌—‌that Harkonnen was breaking the man’s Imperial Conditioning by holding someone Dr Yeuh cared deeply about‌—‌had been shoe-horned in.

It does allow us to feel some sympathy for the man‌—‌yes, he will betray the Atreides family, but it is not through choice. Rather, he is being forced into this action by the real villain, Harkonnen. But the man comes across as fairly sympathetic over the rest of the scene anyway, in the way he talks to and acts around Paul. So couldn’t this nugget of information be saved until later? Would it not be better to let us, the reader, see the man before learning his secret?

Later in this scene, Dr Yeuh gifts Paul a book, and asks him to turn to a marked page. Paul feels two marks on the pages, and opens at the smaller‌—‌but when he starts to read, Dr Yeah yells for him to stop.

“I’m sorry,” Yeuh said. “That was … my … dead wife’s favourite passage.”

I couldn’t help thinking that this should have been the first mention of Wanna. The way Yeuh hesitated, then calls her ‘my‌…‌dead wife’ is quite dramatic, and should be enough to start connections in the reader’s mind‌—‌maybe this is something to do with his expected betrayal. And if we heard some thought from him here, it could confirm this impression.

So maybe that first info-dump thought should have just hinted at some hold Harkonnen had over the man. I do what I must to keep her safe, or something similar. It gives us enough to know that Yeuh is being forced to betray Duke Leto, and then more details arise naturally.

At least, that’s how I would have written this scene. But maybe I’m missing something, and there’s a reason Herbert did what I saw as an info-dump. Maybe this is my inexperience showing.

In some ways, this doesn’t really matter. It might have pulled me out of the story for a moment, but I still enjoyed the book overall (enough that I’ve made a start on the sequels). And in forcing me to think about ways of handling the imparting of information in a story, it should improve my own writing.

 

New short story – ‘Stronger Than Death’

I’m going to warn you up-front that this is another dark story.

In the fourth Dominions novel (Riled Dogs), there’s a particularly nasty character called Garrick‌—‌the type of villain who enjoys torture, and who uses pain to get what he wants. He’s ruthless, and any who go up against him must have a certain kind of strength‌—‌not physical, but deeper. They would need their own kind of ruthlessness, or brutal practicality.

This story, Stronger Than Death, is based around this idea, and you can read it here. But don’t expect a pleasant ending.

There’s a thin line between hero and villain

The trailer for the upcoming (at the time of writing) Batwoman series came out recently (click here to watch it yourself), and I’ve found myself watching a lot of reaction videos. Most of the reactions are pretty negative (don’t think I’ve come across any that are positive), but there’s one (on the ‘Heel vs Baby Face’ channel) that goes deeper into the trailer’s problems This video argues that, rather than portraying Batwoman as a hero, the trailer actually shows her as a villain. It’s wonderfully argued, by someone who clearly understands character arcs in stories, and I recommend you take a few minutes out to watch it. In fact, stop reading this and watch it right now.

The video makes a great deal of sense (and I love his reimagined version, where Batwoman has to be encouraged to take up the mantle of the Bat). But what struck me is how the difference between hero and villain can be so small.

Both strive to get what they want, often against huge odds (even the ‘cartoon villains’ of Bond films have spent years building up their money and power, often weaving complex deceptions to get their own way). However, we want the villain to fail, and we want the hero to win‌—‌and the reason for this comes down to sympathy.

We also feel sympathy for a hero because of their flaws. A character who is strong in every way is hard to relate to‌—‌flaws make a character more human, more like us, especially when their imperfections threaten to impinge on what they are trying to achieve. This is why we love the ‘everyman’ hero, the average person who is thrust into unimaginable dangers‌‌—‌because we can relate to these characters, we can imagine ourselves in their shoes.

This is why Harry Potter works as the hero‌‌—‌he might have innate magical ability, but the whole wizarding world is new to him, and he struggles with so much of it. Then there’s Ripley, just another worker who finds herself battling an alien as it kills off the rest of the Nostromo’s crew. There’s Katniss, taking her sister’s place in the Hunger Games and being thrust into a whole situation she is totally unprepared for.

The list goes on and on.

Motivation comes into play here. The hero’s struggles are often down to the battle between what they want and what they know is the right thing to do. Where the villain is consumed by entitlement and superiority, the hero constantly battles with doubts, and has to push hard to do what they feel they must. They put their lives on the line, or their reputation, or their own happiness, because they know, deep down, that there are higher stakes.

And this is why we root for a hero. They might have similar doubts and imperfections as us, but they don’t give in. They fight for what is right, just as we want to imagine we’d do in the same situation. They don’t have everything handed to them, or take whatever they want.

In the trailer, it does appear that Batwoman simply takes everything Batman has built up, and demands credit for it‌—‌and so it’s hard to sympathise with her. But it’s worth pointing out that this is only the trailer, and might not be a fair representation of the series itself. It’s always possible to pull scenes and lines of dialogue out of context, and to create the illusion of an alternative story (as the Scary Mary video demonstrates so well, trailering Mary Poppins as a horror film, or the ‘happy’ trailer for The Shining).

Or maybe this trailer shows highlights of the first act of a redemption story, where Batwoman initially allows her internal villain to take over, but as the series develops we’ll see her forced to confront this. Maybe she’ll fight through as she learns what made Batman who he was, and in the final act we’ll see Batwoman helping others for their sakes rather than her own ego, finally becoming the superhero Gotham needs.

There’s a thin line between hero and villain.