Craft Talk: Beauty and Horror in The Handmaid’s Tale

Craft Talk: Beauty and Horror in The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood is an author who I’ve had on my to-read list for a long time, and I finally tackled The Handmaid’s Tale last month. I’m so glad that I did, because her writing is beautiful, but I also can see what took me so long, because it’s equally gut-wrenching. I’m glad I waited until a time when Little Dude was older and I wasn’t so sleep-deprived. That said, the concepts in this novel could be particularly poignant and horrifying right now, depending on your view of current politics. I’m reading and watching things from a really different perspective right now, so the book has a lot more impact than if I’d read it in college, thoroughly convinced that nothing like this could ever really happen.

Honestly, most of what I’ve read recently has felt really heavy. Except perhaps Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, so if you’re looking for some fun escapism, that might be your best bet.

If you’re looking for a worst-case-scenario to smack you in the face with disarmingly beautiful sentences, then The Handmaid’s Tale is a great option.

Truly, though, this book is one of the most well-crafted novels that I’ve read in a long time, and if you’re interested in studying up on really great sentences and structure, then you should read it. This is one of those cases where watching the TV adaptation just won’t be enough.


The Sentences

Sentences are the building blocks of novels – the next step up from words, anyway – and yet sometimes we ignore their importance. Especially when writing a first draft, it is more important that sentences march forward than appear beautiful. And some types of writing even call on the sentences to vanish into the background, to be more functional than lovely. There are times when writing should not call attention to itself.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, sentences are like songs. The way the narrator describes even the smallest things are unusual and lovely, and this builds a world that is very real, full of strangeness, beauty, and horror. The images, even those of death, have a lovely twist to them. Because of the care with which each sentence is crafted, we see very clearly who the narrator is. She doesn’t have to tell us a lot about herself, because we can see the way she thinks.

There is a grim humor in lines like, “It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.” Shortly followed by, “The circumstances have been reduced; for those of us who still have circumstances.”

Every sentence in this novel works, and works hard. Building character, building the world, building a feeling, building the story. And building the beauty of all these things. The narrator sees humor in the world in which she lives, and this rises up from the way she uses sentences to tell her story.

I think one of the most important things about The Handmaid’s Tale is that even through the loveliness of the sentences, meaning is still clear. It’s very easy for a beautiful image to lack meaning, to muddle intent, but not here. The craft in the lines enhances the meaning and sharpens the intent. Nothing is lost for the beauty.

“We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.”

Through lines like these – thoughts that flash through the narrator’s mind – we are drawn into her world, and what is important to her becomes important to the reader.

It should be noted that some of the sentences in this book would be discouraged by some of the rules of writing style. The author breaks rules, but I believe that they are broken intentionally. Certainly, the way they are broken is effective.

The sentence, “My young mother, younger than I remember her, as young as she must have been once before I was born,” contains several repetitions of the same thought, with very subtle variations. Some would advise the author to carve this down to just one thought, just one image, on the precept that to have three makes the thought less effective. But in this case, the repetition of the thought with slight variations actually gives the thought deeper impact. The first image, “my young mother” is simple, basic, could be said by anybody. The narrator goes farther, “younger than I remember her,” connecting herself with the image. And then, finally, comes, “as young as she must have been once before I was born,” which is speculative, an imagining, connecting to her mother in a way that isn’t entirely possible. The narrator seems to slip into a time when she didn’t exist, and carries with her an understanding that she can’t fully comprehend what kind of person her mother was before having a child.

These chains of thoughts and the way they are expressed, though considered “wrong”, actually work very well in the context of a novel where all of the narrator’s old life is forbidden. She begins with a thought that is simple, could apply to anyone, a thought that is safe. And then she continues to a thought that connects to her past life, the life that’s gone now, a life she can’t even talk about with anyone around her. And then she ends with a step sideways, to a place she’s never been, a place where she could never possibly have gone.



The structure of The Handmaid’s Tale at first feels loose and disjointed. It bounces through several different time periods, the narrator’s life before everything changed, her time at the training center, and her life as Offred. Sometimes there are brief breaks in the middle of a narration, a little gap of white space in spite of the fact that the time being described hasn’t changed.

But underlying these shifts, the seemingly random bouncing, is a pattern. In the contents, the novel begins with the section “Night” then moves to “Shopping” then to “Night” again. The narrator exists in this world of constant swing between stasis and action, and all the while her old life intrudes on the present, sometimes when she seeks it, sometimes without warning.

Late in the novel, the narrator addresses the disjointed structure, the way several different times have been filled in, side by side. “I’m sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force.”

This back-and-forth in the narration is not only tantalizing to the reader, who is always searching for clues about what happened before the narrator’s current circumstances, it also makes sense. Because the narrator’s life has been ripped apart, without ever being put back together. The present is unreal, and makes little sense. The past intrudes, and in the context of the present, it too seems unreal. Her time at the training center connects the two, and though it should be the most nonsensical time, it is in fact the most stable. Here, at least, the world the narrator is in acknowledges the past, and how bizarre it appears alongside the present.

Later, people move together through a present that they all know is strange, and yet they can never acknowledge that. And so every image is a little disjointed and broken. Through this, the reader can see how desperately the narrator is trying to hold herself together, when everything she once was has been blasted apart.




This is a story rich with people who are complicated, diverse, and honest. Everyone the narrator encounters has wants, interior thoughts that the narrator can only guess at, but which are hinted at through her descriptions. Even the people she dislikes aren’t reduced to villainous caricatures. She has moments of sympathy, even for those who try to hurt her.

The narrator lays out even her worst weaknesses for the reader, and we can see her not as a flat hero, fighting to right the evil around her, but rather as a person, encased in difficult circumstances, trying to survive.

This book works because it lacks simplicity, because the people in it do not act like characters. They act with the broad spectrum of real people in the face of a radical situation. Some parts of them adapt to what has happened, and some do not. They risk their lives for what seem like meaningless indulgences, and yet live alongside atrocities that seem unthinkable.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be right for every story. Some tales of epic heroism require that the characters become archetypes, but even those tales benefit from a dash of complexity. In The Handmaid’s Tale, however, this complexity is everything. This story requires real people, because the reader needs to sink into the world, and feel that it is a true account. Without the horror of possibility, without that reality, the book would have much less meaning.



Reading a really well-crafted novel like The Handmaid’s Tale can be equal parts enjoyment and discouragement. I know that I read something like this, and then look to my own writing knowing that what I do isn’t nearly as good. My sentences aren’t nearly as clean, my images don’t have that kind of impact. I know my characters aren’t that complicated or detailed.

But this is exactly why it’s good to read writers who are further advanced in their skills. There is no way to learn that kind of skill, no way to even envision it, without reading it first. As usual, the first step in applying these techniques to your own writing is to read in the first place. Read as much as possible (I know, it’s not always much, but every bit counts; at least that’s what I tell myself) from as many different areas as possible. Read the things that make you laugh, read the things that make you stop and think. Read in the genre where you write, and outside it, too.

I find reading a book twice, or more, can be the best way of identifying all the components that make the piece work. Sometimes techniques aren’t apparent until you’ve fully absorbed the plot.

Then, when you read something that feels out of the reach of your own skill, remind yourself that the author probably worked long and hard to achieve what you’ve read. Books that are well-crafted might be easy to read, but they are not easy to make. When a novel is beautifully done, down to the level of the sentence, remember the hours of reading and writing that came before the writer even sat down to craft those sentences. Remember the messiness of the first draft, and all the challenge of turning that mess into something beautiful. It’s a process that every single book goes through, even if it’s not apparent from reading.

Next, practice your own writing. Sometimes, when I’m feeling discouraged about what I’ve written, I like to remind myself that no word is wasted. And that’s true. Every sentence that you write is practice, even if it will never be read by anyone else. It doesn’t matter if the sentences you scribble right now hit the cutting-room floor later, it doesn’t matter if that happens to entire chapters. Everything you write builds your skill, and advances you forward. Or at the very least, keeps you in practice.

It should be noted that Margaret Atwood does not only write novels. She’s also the author of many works of poetry, and the kind of writing and thinking required for poetry shows in The Handmaid’s Tale. Even if your poetry turns out to be complete crap, the economy of language and the type of thinking that poetry demands will force you to learn how to craft good sentences.

I imagine that Margaret Atwood’s poetry is probably not complete crap, however.

As to writing richly-fleshed characters, this requires deep observation of the world, and a really challenging level of honesty about oneself. In order to create characters who feel and behave real, a writer has to be able to look at the people around him or her and see them as rich and real. This is not always easy. It can be very tempting to villainize those who make life more difficult for us. It is, in fact, a built-in part of human nature to look at those who are remarkably different from us and see them as ‘other’. But this is one of the most essential parts of character-building, to set that aside, and acknowledge that maybe those others who annoy us aren’t all bad, and that often our own actions can create pain for others.

This is another thing that takes time and awareness, and I’ll admit that I’m not a master of it. I am, however, constantly working at it. Reading things like The Handmaid’s Tale certainly helps advance my understanding.

As always, I’ll conclude by encouraging you to keep reading and keep writing, and do both thoughtfully. Try not to get bogged down in an attempt to make every single sentence lovely, of course. You could spend your whole life staring at a blank piece of paper if you do. Keep getting sentences down, one after the other, and then revise and edit them, always getting closer to the ideal result. Every ounce of practice that you can carve out of your day is time well spent.



Craft Talk: Ancillary Justice and Too Like the Lightning

Craft Talk: Ancillary Justice and Too Like the Lightning

Gender and Science-Fiction

So far this year, I’ve read four science-fiction books, and of those, two have dealt pretty heavily with gender norms. Those two books were also recently published. It seems that this is a topic on a lot of writers’ minds right now, and though these two novels dealt with gender in very different ways, there was definitely a challenge underlying both of them to view the topic from new angles. Both books surprised me with the depth of their impact on my thinking. Those two books?

Ancillary Justice, and Too Like the Lightning.

Both of these are well-crafted novels, and worth reading for a variety of reasons. But in this post, I’m going to specifically focus on how they treat gender. One of my favorite things about science-fiction is the way it can push readers to think outside the confines of their learned standards and norms. We come to science fiction with the expectation of seeing the world in a new way, so altered social norms are much easier to accept than in many other genres. Sometimes, science fiction is even able to lift aside illusions and show us, in a very stark way, what those norms look like.

I would argue that both of these books are successful in the way they ask readers to look at gender in a new way.


Ancillary Justice

In the case of Ancillary Justice, the twist on gender norms is simple, but has a dramatic effect. The ruling group of aliens in the galaxy, the Radch, do not have a separate pronouns for male and female members of their race.

Instead, everyone is referred to as “she”.

In Ancillary Justice, “she” can be male or female. “She” is an emperor, an officer, a wealthy citizen, a soldier, a doctor, a parent, a musician, a criminal, a farmer. Everyone, in the language of the Radch, is a “she”.

At first, it felt strange, to read the female gender pronoun being attached to everyone. As I read, I constantly tried to mentally correct it when the narrator referred to a character who I knew was male. My brain wanted to know, as soon as a character was mentioned, what gender to assign them. As I built an image in my mind of this person on the page, that was one of the key pieces of information, the thing that usually comes first in any other book, on the screen, even passing someone on the sidewalk.

In our world, it is coded in hair, the movement of the body, clothing, shoes, and accessories. Those who defy the codes stand out, sometimes are ridiculed. In Radch society, to distinguish by gender goes against their culture.

Eventually, my brain adapted. After a few chapters, I stopped caring, from the moment a character appeared, if she was male or female. Within the pages of this book, that didn’t matter so much. It became far more important to know what the characters did, how they behaved, what they wanted. There was a certain purity to them when they could exist without the heavy constraints of gender expectations.

By the end of the book, I still hadn’t determined the gender of some characters, and I didn’t ultimately mind. Nothing that any of them had done, none of their struggles, relied on the kinds of constraints that we typically see in our society. There were certainly questions of class, and questions of the ruling race exerting authority over the rest of the galaxy, but the idea of gender had been lifted away.

Not so say that gender was left entirely neutral by every character in the book. The protagonist does move through cultures where male and female are distinguished by their appearance, and in fact, when this character moves back into Radch society, she finds the gender neutrality of Radch appearances a little disconcerting. The signifiers that the Radch mix and match in their dress with wanton abandon seem confusing to those who are accustomed to the symbols being used with purpose.

Ultimately, Ancillary Justice spent a lot more time on other questions of identity and morality, with this twist on gender running through the background. The way it was embedded so deeply in the language of the book, however, made it a very effective way of dismantling notions attached to the pronoun “she”. Just reading the book is a confrontation of one’s own expectations.


Too Like the Lightning

Too Like the Lightning is a book that takes on a variety of subjects in a very direct manner. It delves into philosophy, as well as futuristic science fiction. Here, a network of flying cars (controlled by people whose brains have been shaped to work as computers) exists comfortably alongside a faction that serves people’s spiritual needs when religion has been outlawed.

Like Ancillary Justice, Too Like the Lightning imagines a place where gender identifiers have been reduced to almost nothing. Instead, most people dress to express their allegiance to a particular mindset. The Humanists wear boots with treads that leave an unique imprint wherever they go, and engage in risky, thrilling behavior. The Utopians wear coats that display ever-changing images of the world around them as they wish or imagine it to be, while reaching for impossible-seeming ideals.

Unlike Ancillary Justice, though, the narrator of Too Like the Lightning talks about gender all the time. He calls his good friend Thisbe a witch, claiming she possesses dark arts and mystical powers available only to females. In a society that attempts to maintain a level of gender neutrality, Mycroft regularly points out how a person’s behavior makes them male, female, or puts them somewhere in between. He even makes a point of discussing some around him who are anatomically one gender, and yet because of their dress or behavior he identifies them as the other gender. And he spends an enormous amount of time making his arguments for doing so.

Mycroft definitely gives a reader the sense of speaking with a time-traveller. He is at odds with the society he lives in, a society that is striving to remove the indicators of male and female. He constantly points out identities, explaining them to the reader, while also explaining the enormous impact when antiquated gendered clothing is worn. Mycroft exists in both spaces, the place where male and female aren’t supposed to matter, as well as the place where it is coded in every part of a person’s appearance.

If Ancillary Justice frees the reader almost entirely from considerations of gender, then Too Like the Lightning is more of a challenge to the reader’s thoughts of gender, no matter what those thoughts are. It is almost impossible to follow Mycroft without asking questions about why certain standards are in place, while also questioning what the detriments might be of leaving those standards behind. Too Like the Lightning presents what might be considered an ideal world, and simultaneously dismantles it.


Writing on Issues

A lot of books attempt to discuss the weightier topics facing society, with a broad range of success. At one end of the spectrum are those books that do more harm than good by bashing at an idea with little sensitivity or understanding. At the other end are the books that are so blindly enthusiastic about a topic that they ignore all the little snarls and complications. Somewhere in the middle are the works that dig in and really bring to light all the nuances, subtly weaving the truth about our world into the story.

These kinds of books are rare, but I think the skills behind them are of benefit to every author – really, to every human being – and worth cultivating.

I think one of the primary things on display in works that achieve that balance is self-awareness on the author’s part. The writer of work like this must know how other people think, yes, but even more they must know their own thoughts and prejudices. In order to treat the characters on all sides fairly, the writer has to be aware of when their own feelings on a subject might cause them to make a villain out of someone who is, in fact, a complicated human being.

One of the other vital pieces at work in successfully discussing issues in fiction is a connection to the subject. If the writer doesn’t have a personal interest in capturing the nuance of a topic, then it’s likely to be misrepresented on the page. Without thought or consideration, something like the discussions of gender could easily get distilled in ways that don’t contribute anything useful to the subject. Or even in ways that are harmful.

This connection to the subject is important even when the writer isn’t delving into some serious modern-day issues. If a book is going to have soul and life, the author has to care, and has to keep caring for hundreds of pages.


Language Shifts

I remember discussing in one of my college creative writing courses the use of pronouns, particularly attempts to speak in a way that was gender-neutral. In a lot of formal writing, the use of the phrase “he or she” when talking about some theoretical person feels stilted, but not too much so. That same “he or she” phrase in fiction is so unnatural that writers avoid it at all costs. Many students in my class confessed to using the grammatically-incorrect “they” to refer to a hazy person of unspecified gender. The professor did not give an opinion as to whether this was right or wrong, and at the time it felt entirely theoretical.

I figured, “let’s just use ‘he or she’ and move on with our lives!”

But the world has changed a lot since then, and increasingly we as a society are confronting the spectrum of gender identity in an open way. Also increasingly, I think we find that language fails us, which is why it’s not only interesting that science fiction like Too Like the Lightning and Ancillary Justice are tackling the topic, but also vital.

Too Like the Lightning, by the way, takes the stance of many of my fellow-students, and refers to most characters as “they”. Ancillary Justice applies “she” to every character. In one case, a plural pronoun has been hijacked to cover the singular in a gender-neutral way, and in the other, every person regardless of sex is given the female pronoun. Both tactics work within the context of the story in which they appear, but in the outside world, they both feel inadequate.

I think both of these books demonstrate just how important science fiction is to the broader conversations that we, as a society, are engaging in. The futuristic worlds allow all of us to examine the questions that we face now – in these two novels, we get to see two very different treatments of gender, both of them tackling the effects of gender roles in our society. As these conversations unfold in fiction, they help advance our language and our understanding of how deeply gender is woven into our society, influencing and enhancing the nonfiction work on the same topic.

This, in my opinion, is science fiction at its best.

Craft Talk: Moana, Part 2

Craft Talk: Moana, Part 2

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

Plot Holes

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.


Moana’s Dad

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.


Character Arcs

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

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.


Moana’s Dad

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.

Schedule your time. Craft Talk: Moana, Part 2

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.




Craft Talk: Moana

Craft Talk: Moana

In Craft Talk, I break down the elements of movies, TV shows, and, of course, books, to highlight what is working and what doesn’t, and how they can be applied to our writing. These are not reviews. Rather, they are careful looks at what can be learned from a lot of different mediums.

I decided to start this series because so often we feel like we don’t have time to work on our craft. I’d like to show you, however, that by looking more closely at the media you spend time with every day you can constantly glean lessons that will benefit your own stories.

I’m beginning with the Disney movie Moana, to really drive home the fact that there are things to be learned from even the simplest of stories. Also, this movie is very popular in my house right now. This process really can be integrated into your life, no matter where you get your stories.

One caveat: looking critically at the stories around you can help you learn lessons that apply to your own writing, but this will never make up for the time you spend in front of the keyboard or the page. The things you learn must eventually be applied to your own work. It’s a good way to flex story-telling muscles, and is most effective in tandem with a writing schedule, however light.


Moana and Disney Princesses

Moana is not a movie in a vacuum. It exists alongside a universe of Disney princess films. The title character might be the daughter of a chief, destined to become a chief herself, but one character even goes out of his way to make the point that she is a part of this canon.

“I am not a Princess!” Moana says.

Maui says, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”

While Moana carves out her own territory in the Disney princess world (there is no prince to be seen! No love interest in sight!), she’s also definitely defined by this. I think the weakest parts of the movie are those that cleave to the traditions of this formula, like when Moana pulls one of those ditzy “Oh, hey, I hear them calling, so I – gotta go!” moves to get out of an awkward situation. This never happens again, and feels extraordinarily out of character on subsequent viewings.

Other things in Moana probably have greater resonance because this is a princess movie. See the previously mentioned lack of love interest.

The lesson here is, if you’ve created some really strong characters, maybe let them be who they are, even if it means going into unfamiliar territory. You probably have that option way more than Disney does, so go for it.


The Plot

If you haven’t seen Moana, and you don’t plan to, then I’ll summarize here. Warning: plot spoilers ahead!

Moana opens with Gramma Tala telling how Te Fiti brought life to the world, until her heart was stolen by the demigod Maui. Immediately, the demon Te Ka rose up, and struck down Maui, after which both demigod and the Heart of Te Fiti vanished. Gramma Tala warns that Te Ka’s darkness will consume the world, but a hero will rise up to return Te Fiti’s heart, saving them all.

Guess what happens next?

Moana (a toddler, at this point) goes down by the ocean waves. She saves an adorable baby sea turtle from some frigatebirds (yes, a toddler saving a baby sea turtle is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in a Disney film) and then the ocean gives Moana the Heart of Te-Fiti. She is the chosen one!

Then her dad scoops her up and carries her back to her responsibilities on the island, because little Moana is also the future leader of Motonui. Moana drops the heart in the water.

Moana grows up, and in spite of her yearning to be on the ocean, she commits herself to her leadership role. Until, one day all the crops on the island start to shrivel and die, and the fish leave the waters around the island. After a disastrous attempt to sail out past the reef, Moana follows her grandmother to a cavern where the boats her people once used to explore the ocean are hidden. Then, Moana’s grandmother gives her the Heart of Te Fiti, and tells her that the ocean chose her as the hero who would convince Maui to return the Heart.

Moana’s father doesn’t think this is such a great idea (in fact he sets off to burn the boats), but Gramma Tala falls ill. She urges Moana to go, find Maui, so that he can return the Heart. Moana takes one of the hidden boats, and sails off.

With help from the ocean, Moana gets to Maui’s island, but it turns out Maui is a self-absorbed jerk. He tries to steal Moana’s boat, and insists that he isn’t interested in anything but getting back the magic fishhook that allows him to shape-shift. With some sass and some help from the ocean, Moana convinces him that if he wants to be a hero again, he has to help her.

There’s some peril with personified coconuts, a demon-crab called Tamatoa, and Maui’s backstory, but they retrieve the hook, and set off to face Te Ka. It turns out that Te Ka is pretty tough, and they aren’t able to get past. Worse, Maui’s magical fishhook is cracked in the process.

Convinced he has no power without the hook, Maui abandons the quest, leaving Moana to confront the question of why the ocean would choose her. She returns the stone to the ocean, telling it to find a different hero. Then, Gramma Tala shows up in spirit form and gives Moana a pep talk so good that she decides to retrieve the Heart and complete the quest alone.

So, Moana takes on Te Ka, and of course Maui returns to help at just the right time. When Moana climbs the island that was once Te Fiti, she finds that most of the land is gone. She realizes that Te Ka and Te Fiti are one and the same, the ocean parts to let the terrifying lava monster approach Moana, and she returns the Heart.

Te Fiti returns to her benevolent form, life is restored to the islands, Maui flies off a happy demigod, and Moana returns home to her island where she teaches her people how to be wayfinders again. Everyone is happy, the end.


What Moana Does Well


One of the places where Moana really shines is in the rhythm of the plot. The inciting incident, the thing that launches the story, happens right away, when Moana receives the Heart of Te Fiti from the ocean. Through Gramma Tala’s brief story, the viewer already knows the significance of the green stone.

Then, each time Moana moves forward to the ultimate confrontation with Te Ka, there’s a setback, and the stakes get a little higher. At first Moana just feels an urge to travel the oceans, which she sacrifices to serve her people. But then the crops start to fail and the fish leave. Still, Moana’s father forbids her to leave. When she sails out on her own, she doesn’t know what she’s doing and her boat capsizes, almost drowning her. Gramma Tala gives her the Heart, and Moana’s father threatens to burn the boats. Moana gets past the reef, but is struck by a storm. She finds Maui, but he’s a self-involved jerk. She gets him on the boat, but they’re attacked by Kakamora. They retrieve Maui’s hook, but he’s unable to transform. They get to Te Ka, but can’t get past to Te Fiti. Finally Moana gets past Te Ka, only to discover Te Fiti is gone.

Just before the final confrontation with Te Ka is the lowest point of the movie, when Moana, full of self-doubt and alone, gives the Heart of Te Fiti back to the ocean and decides to return home. With counsel from Gramma Tala, she remembers all she has learned on her journey so far, and reaches a turning point that leads her to the climax of the story: a young woman with no powers daring to face down a fearsome demon, filled with the knowledge of who her ancestors were, and who she is, now. A knowledge that allows her to see Te Ka is actually Te Fiti, robbed of her heart. The contrast of these two moments, the lowest and the highest, make both much more effective.

Then, pretty quickly, the movie wraps up and everyone is happy again. Because the rises and falls of the story already worked out all the snags and conflicts, this denouement runs smoothly, and makes sense.


This chart from The Hoffman Agency demonstrates effectively the rising and falling plot that Moana follows. The movie definitely has its own spirit, and it feels fresh, but it follows the same arc as Romeo and Juliet. It’s a classic way of storytelling that really does work.


Character Arcs

Emphasizing the strength of this story arc, the characters’ personal journeys rise and fall in tandem. Both Moana and Maui have a personal failing to overcome, and only by reaching their lowest points are they able to see with clarity. Upon seeing the truth about what it is they lack and overcoming it, they’re able to face Te Ka and save the world.

For Moana, her struggle is in answering the question “Who am I?”. Throughout the film, she grapples with two very different desires. She wants to be a good daughter to her parents, and a good leader to her people, but that clashes with her yearning to explore the ocean. She believes that it is impossible that she do both. And even though she believes that getting the Heart to Te Fiti is going to save her people, still she struggles. Is she a wayfinder, or is she a leader? Why did the ocean choose her for this journey, a young woman without any sailing experience? Her doubts keep plaguing her, rising and falling as she succeeds and fails.

At the moment of crisis, when she is alone and has returned Te Fiti’s Heart to the ocean, she confronts how her desire to prove herself as a wayfinder led to the breaking of Maui’s hook. Gramma Tala’s spirit tells her that she can return home, if that’s what she wants. Yet Moana hesitates, and her grandmother tells her (in song form, of course) to listen to the small voice inside her. Even though she’d heard this before, it is only now that the lesson takes hold, and she realizes, “the call isn’t out there, it’s inside me.” She sees herself as the type of leader her ancestors were, both chief and wayfinder.

This knowledge of who she is allows her to see Te Ka as the bereft form of Te Fiti. At the final crisis, she reminds Te Fiti, “this is not who you are/ you know who you are”. Moana returns the Heart, also restoring the goddess’s sense of self.

Maui’s personal struggle is also a quest for self-identity, although in his case, he attaches all of his self-worth to his fish hook, and the shape-shifting powers he gets from it. Until Moana showed up, Maui languished on an island, unable to leave. The moment Moana arrives, his singular goal is to get back that fish hook. To do this, he will abandon Moana on the island, ignore the quest to return the Heart of Te Fiti, and use Moana as bait for the crab monster Tamatoa.

Moana tries to convince him that the hook never made him great, that it was Maui’s own actions that did that. He seems to believe, but when his hook is damaged in the fight with Te Ka, he won’t dare try facing the demon again. He says, “without my hook, I am nothing.” He abandons Moana and the quest to save the precious object that he views as all his self-worth.

Maui’s awakening doesn’t happen on-screen, so we can only assume what happens. But we can guess that as he flies away, he feels guilty for abandoning Moana, and sees that leaving her behind isn’t the act of the hero he desperately wants to be. He returns to stand between Te Ka and Moana so she can get to the island and return the stone. During the fight, his hook is completely shattered, yet still he is willing to face Te Ka.

After the battle, he is able to say, “Hook, no hook, I’m Maui.”

The moment of Te Ka’s transformation has great impact because of the turning point Moana and Maui faced immediately before. Their personal journeys mirrored and intersected the larger quest, making this climax both grand and personal. The viewer has followed the characters through their struggles, and so it is easier to feel the importance of this moment when Te Fiti returns to her former self. When she realizes who she is.



If you’ve read Harry Potter, you can probably think pretty quickly of objects in the books that were important. The Maurader’s Map, the Invisibilty Cloak, Harry’s broom. In 1984, it’s the eyes of Big Brother, a coral paperweight, Julia’s red sash.

In Moana, some of the important symbols are a spiral, a fishhook, and a manta ray. Each of these elements show up over and over again, building a sense of familiarity, highlighting things that are important in the story.

The spiral shape is a powerful symbol of Moana’s quest. The Heart of Te Fiti is a green stone bearing a spiral, and the same spiral is on Te Fiti’s chest. The locket where Gramma Tala stores the Heart has a spiral shape. The sail on the boat Moana takes onto the ocean bears the same shape. The island where Te Fiti once rested forms a spiral. And it is when Moana sees the spiral on Te Ka’s chest that she realizes where Te Fiti has gone. This symbol is a marker for important points in Moana’s quest, because it is an echo of the quest’s goal. The spiral originated with Te Fiti, and to Te Fiti it must return.

There is another, smaller spiral that beautifully bookends the movie. After toddler Moana saves the baby turtle, the ocean gifts her with a conch shell, which has that swirled shape. At the end of the movie, after Moana has completed her quest, the ocean gifts her with another conch.

The fishhook is a symbol of Maui’s power, but also of his burdens. Maui marks the days on the rocks of the island where he’s marooned in the shape of his lost hook, where it can haunt him as much as it encourages him. Even though he and Moana retrieve the hook from Tamatoa, Maui must separate his own identity and his trials from the power of the hook before he can transform again. He must come to view it as a tool, rather than as essential to his identity.

The manta ray, however, symbolizes Gramma Tala. Moana’s grandmother has one tattooed on her back, and even dances in the water with them. After Gramma Tala dies, she appears as a glowing manta ray, to guide Moana. Like the gentle ray, Gramma Tala does not try to push Moana (except when she urges her to start the quest, already, which she apologizes for later) but guides her to answers.

Moana uses these symbols effectively throughout the movie, telling viewers where to look and how things fit together.


This wraps up the discussion of Moana’s strengths. Next time, I’ll look at what I think the movie could do better, and the practicalities of applying these elements to your own writing. Thanks so much for following along, and I hope to see you back for Part 2! If you have any questions or additional thoughts, please let me know in the comments.