In part one of the discussion about what writers can learn from the movie Moana, I talked about how the film fits into the larger Disney princess movie canon. I also reviewed some of Moana’s greatest strengths. If you missed part one, you can find it here.
Today, I’m going to talk about some of the things I think Moana could do better, and then I’ll wrap up with a practical discussion of how to apply these lessons to our own writing. Let’s get started!
Things Moana Could Do Better
The ocean. In Moana, it’s a character in its own right. It picks up people, it throws the Heart of Te Fiti all over the place, it gives Toddler Moana a super cute hairstyle, and it even chooses who should be the one, special person who takes the Heart back where it belongs. The ocean can do all kinds of incredible things.
Oh, except help out when Moana and Maui are attacked by Kakamora out on open water.
Moana even calls out to the ocean for help, and what does it do? Nothing. I’m not buying that the ocean didn’t have the power to, say, stop those cobbled-together Kakamora pirate boats from surrounding Moana and Maui. At the end of the movie, the ocean pulls back old-testament style so that Te Ka can reach Moana and the heart. But in this scene, it is nowhere, at least not in personified, helpful form.
From the perspective of the story, this scene needed to happen in order for our two heros to start building their relationship. Moana needed to see how skillfully Maui piloted her boat. Maui needed to see how determined and capable Moana was. If the ocean had helped, I imagine it could have taken out the Kakamora too easily. For the plot, it makes sense that it holds back. But when it comes to just plain sense, not so much.
Arguably, maybe the ocean didn’t show up for this conflict because it wanted Moana and Maui to work together, to gain some skills, to learn some respect for each other. But if that was the case, then the viewer needed to see it. One quick moment, as the pirate ships close in, when an ocean wave pops up and indicates, “Hey guys, yeah, you’re on your own, here.”
Then, there’s Maui’s inability to use his fishhook to transform. At first I assumed that it was his first loss against Te Ka that knocked him off his game. But then Moana fixes the shape-shifting problem by talking to Maui about the parents who abandoned him, and all the years he spent doing things for humans so they would love him. She tells him that she believes the ocean brought Baby Maui to the gods because it knew he was worthy. And the gods didn’t make him Maui, he did.
Then, *poof* Maui can become a lizard or a hawk at will. But the solution seems totally disconnected from the problem. If Maui’s issue was that he pinned his success on this gift from the gods, rather than himself, then he would have had problems way, way before he even stole the Heart of Te Fiti. But it seems he didn’t, because the fact that his fish-hook doesn’t work takes him by surprise.
I suspect, that if we dig a little deeper here, we’ll find that the loss to Te Ka and the failure to bring the Heart to humans was the moment Maui started thinking that the hook was his source of power. Years deserted on an island, all alone and without the hook, probably sealed this in his mind. Without the power to transform, Maui was stuck, helpless. And I think we might have seen this the first time Moana meets the demigod if he hadn’t been so full of bluster. One or two little cracks in his facade at that moment might have been enough to show that the problem with the hook was coming, and also hinted at the solution.
First of all, this movie is progress for Disney when it comes to parents and the role they play. Most Disney parents are killed off in the first ten minutes, if they even show up at all. Even when they’re not dead, they’re usually not around (hello, Rapunzel).
So the fact that Tui and Sina are in Moana’s life as happy, caring parents is sort of a Disney miracle. And as Moana grows up, Tui gently guides her away from the ocean and back to her duties as the future chief of Motonui.
Then Moana suggests that they fish beyond the reef, and that’s the last time her father has any patience with her until she returns home from her quest. Seriously. He yells, picks her up off the boat, plants her back in the sand, chucks down the oar she’s holding, and storms off.
Now, from Tui’s backstory, delivered to Moana by Sina, this behavior makes a certain amount of sense. Tui once tried to leave the island on a boat, which resulted in the death of his best friend. So, he’s definitely afraid for Moana’s life, and that kind of fear can make parents super cranky. But really, other than in the story told by Moana’s mother, we never get to see Tui’s underlying fear. He and Moana never have a conversation about why he doesn’t want her to go out on the water.
I was left with the feeling that Moana’s father was acting this way because it’s what the plot demanded. And a character that might have been really rich and interesting came off as just another Disney dad yelling at his daughter.
For the most part, the dialogue in this movie works hard and does a great job moving plot, demonstrating character, or providing a good laugh.
Then, there are moments where it’s not so great.
Like, when Moana goes totally out of character to get out of an awkward situation in which she ate a piece of pork in front of her pet pig. This would have made sense from Anna in Frozen, but not so much from Moana in Moana.
The conversation between Maui and Moana that gets him back to his shape-shifting self also might have done more to explain why he’s having trouble now.
Using What You Learn
As fun as it can be to pick out where a story goes astray, or clap with glee over what it does right, neither of these will make your writing better. To achieve that, you have to move on to the next step. You have to think about how the problems can be fixed, and how to achieve those good moments, too.
So, let’s dive into the practicalities of how all we’ve discussed applies to your writing. Keep in mind that you might approach these situations differently, and that’s okay. The important thing is to start thinking about why the movie works, and trying out solutions to the parts that don’t.
Remember how we talked about Moana’s solid plot trajectory? How the tension rises as the story progresses? How each time the heroes achieve a goal, there’s a setback? This classic arc is good to know and good to practice.
There are a few ways to make this happen in your own writing, depending on your approach. If you’re a plotter, a writer who likes to map out the story before you start writing, then you can plan out the bones of your narrative first. Figure out the beginning, the end, the climax, each success and setback along the way. Then you can fill in the gaps. Or, start by writing your plot, and then check it to ensure it has good rhythm. If not, you can revise it.
If you’re a pantser (a writer who flies by the seat of his/her pants), then you might be surprised that you have a few options here. First of all, as you go, make sure you don’t make things too easy on your characters. If they’re running along smoothly, achieving goals one by one, then throw a little trouble their way. Make sure that achieving something has an unexpected consequence. Not only is the story more interesting, that’s usually how life works, anyway. If you prefer, you can let your story take you wherever it wants to go, and then revise for better rhythm later.
I think that getting the character arcs to flow alongside the story is one of the trickiest tasks a writer faces. Getting that overall plot in place definitely helps. But, the characters must reach their moments of crisis at just the right time in the narrative, and they must do so in a way that feels natural to the character. That’s a lot to ask.
Here’s why it all works so well in Moana. The heroes’ personal struggles are inextricably linked to the plot. Each achievement and setback have meaning to Moana and Maui, making them more than just ups and downs on the narrative.
Accomplishing this means knowing your characters. What do they want, what are their struggles, and how does it relate to the larger story? If you plot ahead of time, these are questions to think about in the planning stages. If you’re a pantser, you might have to take them on as you go. Either way, it’s important to to keep this in mind as you revise.
Incorporating symbols is tricky. Too many symbols and they just become clutter. The wrong images or objects can feel stilted. But when done right, they add to the story and the characters, so it makes sense to practice using them.
In my own writing, I find that symbols don’t usually emerge until the second or third draft. That’s when something will come marching forward as vitally important to the story, and I’ll discover that it naturally fits in other parts of the narrative. During my next revision, I will try to ever-so-gently sprinkle that symbol throughout.
It is also possible, of course, to plan symbols and where they appear in advance. Then it can be incorporated from the very beginning into characters and plot.
Just be wary. Don’t let a symbol take over the plot or a character. It should enhance these things, not push them.
I’ll also point out the very different ways the conch shell and the bolder spiral symbol were used in Moana. That spiral appears over and over again, a reminder that the goal is getting the Heart back to Te Fiti. It has power in this repetition, because its purpose is to indicate that the narrative is driving forward. The conch shell, however, only appears twice, at the beginning and end of Moana’s quest. Both times, it is a gift. It is this sparing and purposeful use of the shell that gives it so much power.
Plot holes can be tough for a writer to spot. After all, you know why things are happening, and you think you’ve explained it well enough in the story. It seems natural to you why one thing leads to another, or why something works a certain way. But these things might not be so clear to a reader.
That’s why it’s so important to let other people read your work, and be open to critiques. And when a reader starts asking you questions about gaps in the story, or is confused about why something happened, then you could be looking at a plot hole that needs filling.
So, how do you fill a plot hole? Sometimes, it’s really simple. For example, during the Kakamora attack, the ocean could have somehow indicated that it was going to let Moana and Maui deal with the anthropomorphized coconuts on their own. Then, we wouldn’t be left filling in that gap with our own musings. We would know that the ocean had stepped back on this occasion intentionally.
Sometimes, filling a plot hole is just letting the audience in on something you already know. Sometimes, filling a plot hole means restructuring events and even adding whole new characters.
There are a lot of different ways of approaching the shift in Tui’s character, so I recommend that you brainstorm some of your own. But, this is what I think is going on here.
Tui is afraid. He knows Moana is going to go out on the ocean someday, no matter how hard he tries to stop her, no matter how hard she tries to stop herself. Then all the crops on the island start to fail, and I think he starts to wonder if maybe Gramma Tala is right. Maybe Te Ka is out there, and that is the reason why the fish are gone and the coconuts are blighted. And no matter how they move the coconut groves, the plants are going to die, and his people are going to suffer. But instead of fear, we see anger.
This anger actually makes the problems the island is facing seem smaller. If we could see at least some of Tui’s fear, then I theorize that we would take the peril the island is in much more seriously. Tui would also appear less like a stereotypical “Disney Dad angry with his daughter”.
What if it is Tui, instead of Sina, who talks to Moana about how his friend drowned on the boat? What if, even once, we saw that maybe he believed larger forces were at work in his island’s trouble? What if, instead of yelling at Moana, he begs her not to go, and that’s what holds her back? Her love for him and her people, rather than his anger.
I think even just one or two of these suggestions would have really changed how we view Tui during this part of the movie. His character would appear more consistent, and we would have more sympathy.
Dialogue is probably the trickiest of all things to get right. I think so, anyway. The things people say to each other on screen and in books have to do a lot of work. Conversations have to sound slightly better than real, build character, move the plot, and also be funny. That’s a lot to ask, and probably explains some of the places in Moana where it isn’t quite as strong.
So how do you get dialogue right? Know your characters. Know what they want here, there, everywhere in the story. Know what secrets they’re hiding, from the other characters and from themselves.
Practice. Listen to conversations between the people around you. Then write, write, write.
When you’ve written it, read it out loud. Does it sound like something a real human-being would actually speak with a real human mouth? If not, revise until it does.
Confession: dialogue does not come naturally to me. I have to work on it a lot, more than a lot of other things. If there’s something you need to work on, study and practice can absolutely make it better.
Moana might be a movie for the younger demographics, but there is still much to learn from it. This is a film that gets a lot of things right, and the key to that is studying, practice, and revising. The good news is that you can study writing all the time. It’s in movies and TV shows, it’s in the advertisements you see every day, it’s in your favorite books. You just have to take a closer look, and think about it all a little more critically.
Practicing and revising, however, are going to take time. So, I encourage you, if you haven’t already, to set aside a little bit of time every day to write. When the sun is shining and you feel great, sit and write. When it’s snowing out and you have a miserable cold, sit and write. Even ten or fifteen minutes is enough, as long as you do it every day. I have often found that once I start working, I don’t want to stop when the time is up. Sometimes, however, I gladly close the notebook, and that’s okay, too.
These slivers of time might not seem valuable. I once thought that if I couldn’t write for hours on end, it wasn’t worth doing. But small stretches of consistent practice are far more important than the occasional writing marathon. Like a lot of things, really great writing is born of consistency. So, schedule your time, carve out your workspace, and practice your craft!
That’s the end of my first Craft Talk here on Bright Ink. If there’s a lesson you gleaned from Moana that I didn’t cover here, then I’d love to hear from you! If you found this discussion helpful, then I’d love to hear that, too. Thank you so much for visiting, and I hope you have a lovely day.
I’ll just be over here, writing and singing all the songs from Moana.