Tuesday, October 04, 2016

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Frozen

Young Anna enjoys her sister Elsa’s magical ice-powers, but after Elsa hits Anna in the head, Elsa closes up the castle and goes into hiding. Years later, as Elsa reluctantly becomes queen, Anna gets a chance to leave the castle and meets Hans, a handsome prince. They quickly decide to get married, but Elsa refuses her blessing. In the ensuing fight, Elsa’s ice-powers go out of control and she flees into the mountains. Anna pursues her and joins with ice-merchant Kristoff and brought-to-life snowman Olaf to find Elsa, who sends them all away, striking Anna’s heart in the process. Hans tracks down Elsa and imprisons her. Anna is told by trolls that she’ll die without an act of true love. She goes to kiss Hans, but he tries to kill her instead. Elsa escapes and Anna almost dies to save her from Hans, and that’s the act of true love that saves them both.
PART #1: CONCEPT 18/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 A princess must save the world from her sister’s out-of-control ice powers.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
Having to stop (and maybe kill) the person you most love.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
It’s a very believable difficult sibling relationship
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Not really, there’s a ton of plot, and many of the plot turns are somewhat awkward.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Anna, though it does a good job of also allowing it to be Elsa’s story in secondary way.
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
Does the story present a unique relationship?
A princess and an ice merchant must team up to stop another princess.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Hans.  The movie would have been much weaker if not-really-bad Elsa was the only antagonist.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
Greatest hope: She finally gets to be around her sister, in a very ironic way.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
She finds love, betrayal, etc. 
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
It’s hard to fight your sister.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Yes, only her love for her sister is strong enough to break the curse.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
Yes and yes.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
Yes, it’s got great songs, a fun upbeat tone, etc.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
The ice palace, the fractals, etc.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
The Hans reveal.  
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
Hans is evil.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Yes.  It’s actually really concerting to see the promotional materials in which Hans is smiling as part of the gang.
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
She has many, but no one big one.  I would say it’s the unique-but-universal emotion of being shut out by someone who used to let you call the shots, and saying “It doesn’t have to be a snowman”  I’ll talk more about this soon.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
The people’s princess.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
She’s tortured by her relationship by her sister and her suppressed sexuality.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Adolescenece: “It’ll be totally strange.” “For the first time in forever”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Sunny, awkward
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Naïve insistence
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
Yes: save her sister.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
”What if I meet the one?...I know it all ends tomorrrow, so it has to be today.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
Just ask Elsa to turn her powers off.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
Open: never get married, never bond with sister. Hidden: Have to hurt sister.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
She is damaged physically and emotionally in the opening minutes.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
Naivite, haplessness
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
Hope, pluck, positivity
Is the hero curious?
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Not tremendously, but she recruits allies that have the skills she needs.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 This’ll be easy, I need love quickly, I need Elsa.  (The first two turn out to be problematic, but not the third one.)
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Everyone else (except Olaf) is far more cynical, and lacks the pure love that will save the day.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
Sort of.  Like so many heroines, she is the master of the muttered aside.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
She’s waking up her sister and then playing in the snow. We know Anna is the hero because it’s her waking Elsa up and not vice versa. 
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Yes, she’s a princess, and she’s in charge of the country once Elsa flees.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
No.  She’s an everywoman with few skills.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 17/21
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
She can’t see her sister or leave her palace to find love.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
On her first day outside, she has an embarassing encounter with a cute guy.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
She then hits it off with him and decides to marry him right away.  The intimidating part is that her sister refuses her blessing.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
No, that’s her problem.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
Sort of.  Elsa runs away and Anna goes after her.  Will this help her solve her own problem, or is it just selfless?  Presumably, with Elsa simply missing, Anna will be in no position to become queen herself and marry whom she wants, so it’s sort of solving her own problem. 
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
She meets Kristoff, and tries to get him to help her, but he refuses, then pushes back after agreeing.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
Yes, she’s just trying to find her sister and ask her to stop it.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
Yes, they meet Olaf and the three of them develop a fun rapport.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
Elsa kicks them out and freezes her heart.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
No, Anna becomes passive, than she tries another easy way (kissing Hans)
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
Yes, she realize that Hans is evil and she really loves Kristoff.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
Yes, she’s now dying, the winter is getting worse, Elsa might be killed, etc.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
Yes, her sister almost kills her, her fiance betrays her, etc.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
Yes, Hans betrays her.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
It’s a line from before that now gets interpreted correctly: “An act of love of love will thaw a frozen heart.”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
Get Kristoff to kiss her.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
Sort of.  Her goal of getting Kristoff to kiss her is still somewhat passive, and Olaf is leading her around.  She really only become proactive at the last, crucial second.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
Yes, Elsa escapes, chased by Hans, forcing Anna to act.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
Yes. Everybody is there except the trolls and the Duke of Weselton.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
At the same time.
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
She’s happy in love, able to live outside the castle, and reconciled with her sister.
PART #4: SCENEWORK 16/20 Anna confront Elsa in her ice palace
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
Anna is clearly naïve in her expectation of how this will go.  Elsa has made it clear she wants no more of anyone.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
No, it begins at the beginning.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
Yes, it’s an ice palace in which Anna can’t even stand up straight, and Elsa can summon creatures to defend herself.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
Elsa: “You should probably go.”
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
Elsa’s curse is getting worse.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
We can root for both, but we’re more on Anna’s side.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Elsa wants to stay, Anna wants her to come home.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface: Come home, Suppresed: Why did you abandon me?
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
Elsa stabs Anna’s heart.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
No, they’re pretty open about it. 
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
No, it’s just direct confrontation.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
They never directly touch, but Elsa creates a creature to pick Anna up and throw her out.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
Elsa’s anger becomes a monster, if we want to count that as an object.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
Anna is sent away.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
It’s not really ironic, she just fails.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
Anna and Elsa find out more about each other.
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
No, it ends with them being thrown out.
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
We’re worried about that hit in the heart Anna took.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Yes.  Kristoff has more perspective than Anna.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
Anna is fairly selfless in her concern for her sister, but their needs coincide enough that it’s not a problem.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
The awkward scene where Anna and Elsa talk is excellent.  Neither can discuss everything between them.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
Not really.  It’s a fairly generic setting and the princess-ing is fairly generic as well.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
MF: Elsa: Parent “Be the good girl you always have to be”, Kristoff: Mountain man “We leave at dawn”, Olaf: Childhood
PT: Elsa: Cold, Kristoff: Unimpressed, Olaf: Open-hearted
AS: Elsa: Brook no opposition, Kristoff: Quiz you to expose the flaws in your argument (What’s his last name?), Olaf: Help you figure it out for yourself.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
Partial polarization: Olaf: Heart/Gut, Kristoff: Head/Gut, Anna: Heart
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
When Kristoff points out to her that she barely knows Hans, and he clearly has her number.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
No, it’s all dumped on us at the beginning, but they do a great job with it, interweaving it with a song.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
When Anna confronts Elsa in the ice palace.
Part #6: Tone 9/10
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)
The fairy tale
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
The princess-marriage plot  and the magical curse tale.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
The curse is broken and everybody gets what’s coming to them, but the princess both end up unmarried.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
A snarkier and more absurd version of the standard fairy tale
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
The dramatic question changes a few times, until Anna gets hit in the heart and the dramatic question for the rest of the movie is, “Will she beat the curse?”
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
The songs.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
Not really.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
They set up at the beginning that getting hit in the heart will be the worst, so we fear that and know what it means when it happens.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
The doors are closed, then they’re opened.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
All of the stories except the Kristoff story climax at the exact same moment as the curse is broken.
PART 7: THEME 12/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Family vs. independence
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
”Why did you shut me out?”
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Get married without family’s blessing?  Sacrifice your safety to save your family member?  Live as a hermit if no one understands you?
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
Very much so: Love at first sight is actually a terrible idea, and an invitation for pschopaths to take advantage of you.
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
Not really.  There’s no commentary on life in contemporary Norway here.  It’s a fanciful fantasy kingdom.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
The story is inherently critical or the pricessess-ification of girl-culture, ecouraging girls to see the problem with the traditional princess-love-story paradigm
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
There are lots of different types of families, including the merchant’s loving gay family, and Hans’s toxic relationship with his brothers. These are contrasted with orphan Kristoff and created-from-nothing Olaf.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
Interestingly, not really. There is no amulet reprsenting the powers, for instance, and no wilting flower representing the out-of-control cold.  The closest thing is Anna’s hair, but that doesn’t really count.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
Family is better than independence, but both are important.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
Elsa’s powers are embraced.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
We never find out the source of the powers, etc.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
Yes. There’s not a lot of talk about what it all means. 
Final Score: 106 out of 122


James Kennedy said...

Great checklist as usual, but in the scene item "Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next?", your answer says "We’re worried about that hit in the head Anna took." But Anna wasn't hit in the head here in this scene; that happened when Elsa mistakenly zapped her when she was 4 years old or whatever. This time, as an adult, Elsa zaps her in the heart. SIGNED, SOMEONE WHO HAS SEEN THIS MOVIE TOO MANY TIMES

Matt Bird said...

Good point! Fixed.

Jane said...

Great checklist! My daughter is four, so I've seen this one plenty.

I feel like one major problem with Frozen is that Hans and Anna actually have way better "I understand you" moments than Kristoff and Anna do. They both connect over feeling ignored by their siblings, and their song is full of lines where they intuitively understand one another's way of looking at things ("Jinx!" "Jinx again!"). Every time they talk about finishing each other's sandwiches, I think, Maybe those two crazy kids can work it out.