What Watching Disney (and Pixar) Taught Me About Storytelling

What Watching Disney (and Pixar) Taught Me About Storytelling


Sometimes you’ve got it all. Awesome characters, a cool plot, a great setting and the perfect amount of description, but it still lacks something. You need a bit more, but what is it? What does the story need?

What Watching Disney (and Pixar) Taught Me About Storytelling

I’ve decided that a ticking clock is often the unsung hero. What’s missing is the pacing.

My kids are 4 and 6. Frozen was really the only Oscar-nominated movie I got to see. And because kids like watching movies over and over I get to watch them over and over too. I have to admit that Pixar and Disney are among the best story tellers.

A similarity I noticed with their plots, is that there is almost always a time constraint. The role it plays varies, but it is always there. It adds suspense, it improves pacing, and it always adds to the conflict.

Consider these 10 classics:

  1. Frozen: The town is literally frozen. People are going to die. Anna has to find Elsa to thaw it.
  2. Up: Carl wants to get his house to Paradise Falls. He uses helium balloons to fly the house there, but the helium will only last a certain amount of time.
  3. Toy Story 1: Andy’s family is moving. Buzz and Woody have to get back before the moving van leaves or they won’t know where the new house is.
  4. Tangled: Rapunzel has been locked in a tower her entire life. Once a year, on her birthday, the sky is filled with lanterns. She will do anything to see them. She blackmails Eugene to take her to the town where the lanterns are launched.
  5. Epic: The Leaf People can only pick their new queen on the one night when the solstice and the full moon coincide. This only happens every 100 years. The queen chose a new pod, but she has died. The pod must open in the light of the full moon for the new queen to be crowned.
  6. Beauty and the Beast: Belle must fall in love with The Beast before the rose dies.
  7. Little Mermaid: Eric must kiss Ariel before the sun sets on the third day.
  8. Monsters Inc.: The city of Monstropolis runs on scream-energy that is collected by scaring children. The city is running out of power. The monsters need to up their game to get more screams.
  9. Finding Nemo: Darla (a fish killer) is coming in a few days. Nemo is her gift.
  10. Cars: McQueen has to get to L.A. before the other racers to start practising for the final race.

And for people, who actually get to watch real movies, think of stories like The Life of David Gale. The journalist races to find the evidence before the execution date. In the series 24, Jack Bauer has a time limit to thwart terrorists.

Use wedding dates, bombs with timers, board meetings, deadlines, solar eclipses, or anything that ups the odds for your characters. Please leave titles of books that use time to add suspense below.

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

 by Mia Botha

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This article has 3 comments

  1. Anthony

    Great post, Mia. I didn’t realise how cleverly animated films did this.

  2. Julia

    Nice article as always, but as an aspiring animator, let me fix one choice of words in particular.
    Just because the movie is an animation, doesn’t mean it isn’t a “real” movie. It’s just another medium of telling the story, and people worked just as hard on it as in any movie other movie. The term you were looking for is “live action”, where real people are being filmed and acting, not created from zero.
    I know it may sound silly, but as writers, we should know that a single word can change the whole idea of a settence

  3. Sally Jadlow

    In my book the “The Late Sooner,” Sanford Deering has to get to the Oklahoma Territory to claim 160 acres before all the land is given away.
    In my “God’s Little Miracle Book” series, (all true stories) the United pilot has to get across the Pacific before the questionable passengers blow up the plane on 9/11 (book 2).

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