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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What Writers Can Learn From the Success of Disney's Frozen

Have you seen the Disney film Frozen yet? If not, it's probably only a matter of time!

This (very loose) adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale "The Snow Queen" has broken just about every record for an animated feature. And it has also been spectacularly successful in its merchandising, with little girls (in particular) desperate to get their hands on anything Frozen-related, from costumes and jewellery to singalong DVDs.

I saw Frozen for the first time under rather unusual circumstances. I was on a cruise holiday in the summer, and was confined to my cabin for 24 hours after suffering a bout of food poisoning (thankfully not the dreaded Norovirus). It happened that Frozen was on the list of movies on offer that day on the ship's TV, so with few other alternatives I decided to tune in. Rather to my surprise, I genuinely enjoyed it.

It struck me as well that there was a lot that writers could learn from the success of Frozen, so I thought in this blog post I'd set out a few things. Note that I'll be giving away some plot points, so if you haven't yet seen the film and want to retain an element of surprise, you may prefer to stop reading now!

1. With Frozen, Disney actively encouraged social media involvement

In the past Disney haven't exactly embraced social media. Indeed, they were more likely to let their legal department loose on anyone sharing anything to do with their carefully protected "intellectual property".

With Frozen, that all changed, however. Rather than going after anyone who (for example) posted a video of themselves singing a song from the film, they actively encouraged fans to get involved. The result was a torrent (or maybe snowball would be a more appropriate metaphor) of enthusiastic publicity for the film, which helped spread the word in double-quick time.

Takeaway: Writers need to encourage people not just to buy their book but to interact with it in other ways as well. Facebook pages, fan sites, newsletters and even reader forums can all help build the buzz around your story and help bring it to the attention of a wider readership. And obviously, if the nature of your book lends itself to merchandising as well, don't hold back!

2. The Story Subverts Viewer Expectations at Every Turn

As you may know, the film's central characters are two sisters, Anna and Elsa. The older sister, Elsa, is the Snow Queen, either blessed or cursed with the ability to turn anything she touches to ice and snow. After accidentally almost killing her sister and plunging her kingdom into eternal winter, she flees from the Royal Palace in shame. Her sister then embarks on a quest to find Elsa and persuade her to return and bring back summer.

The story subverts our expectations in many ways. For example, Anna is newly engaged to Prince Hans, who it initially appears will save the day in time-honoured fairytale style. However, he turns out to be a treacherous cad, whose cruel and selfish actions almost lead to Anna's death. And at the end, both Anna and Elsa's lives are saved by an "act of true love", not from a man, as one might traditionally expect, but by the love of one sister for another.

Takeaway: Modern audiences are highly sophisticated and familiar with all the traditional plot devices. To attract readers (or viewers), writers need to seek out different plots and resolutions that are attuned to modern-day values. One aspect of that is (of course) that women can be just as strong and heroic - or more so - as men.

3. The Characters Avoid Stereotyping

In a way this follows from the item above. All of the main characters in Frozen defy conventional stereotyping. Although Elsa's actions are often misguided, she is not at heart evil, simply trying to protect her sister and others from her unwanted powers. And Anna, while heroic in many ways, has her shortcomings as well, for example in her naive inability to see her suitor's duplicity.

Anna is also helped in her quest by Kristoff, an ice hunter. He turns out to be another rare character in fairytales, a genuinely nice bloke (albeit one who has some strange friends!).

And even the comic relief, Olaf the snowman, is more than just a slapstick figure. He comments on events with sly wit, and also has a more wistful side.

Takeaway: Just as modern readers are familiar with all the usual plot twists, so they can recognize flat, two-dimensional characters. Writers today need to go beyond the standard stereotypes of hero, villain, accomplice, and so on, and seek to build genuinely unique and surprising characters.

So those are just a few things I believe writers today can learn from the success of Disney's Frozen and build into their own writing and marketing. But what do you think? Are there any other lessons we can draw from the film's popularity? I'd love to hear your comments!

Note: I shan't be around much from 12 to 19 December, but please do still leave any comments, and I'll approve them as soon as I get back.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great points! I also read that Disney held extensive focus groups to find out what viewers wanted in a movie. I think it's important to share your draft with many different readers to get their opinion. Yes, you are the author and it's important to have a voice, but if you want to have a successful book, it's important to give the reader what they want.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks - interesting point. My understanding is that Disney didn't really use focus groups for developing the basic storyline.

However, they did (for example) get all their female employees who had sisters together in a discussion group, to try to get a handle on the special relationship sisters have.

I do agree about getting feedback on your drafts, though. It's important to try to get some idea of how other people respond to your story, and any shortcomings they may see in it.

7:40 PM  

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