Angela Bourassa, founder and editor in chief of LA Screenwriter, breaks down the story structure of the animated film MOANA, including a downloadable infographic!
I have a toddler, so I’m constantly prowling Netflix for a new kid’s show or movie that will help my son simmer down before bedtime and, just as importantly, won’t drive me crazy. In my eternal search I’ve found that (1) most kid’s programming is crap, and (2) Moana is an amazing movie.
If you haven’t seen it, go watch it right now. It’s currently streaming on Netflix, and – no joke – I’ve watched it at least a dozen times. A few of those times were with my son when he wasn’t feeling well. A few were just because. And a few, honestly, were occasions when I was feeling down and needed a pick-me-up.
When I learned that my mom had cancer, and my husband couldn’t get home to be with me, I put on Moana. It’s that movie for me.
The last time I watched it, I tried to be an analytical viewer. I’m a screenwriter after all, so I tried to pay attention to the structure, and I found myself baffled.
This wasn’t a three-act structure, was it?
I felt sure that Moana was told in five acts or seven, some format that I wasn’t familiar with, because it just didn’t feel like the structure I was accustomed to.
In my investigation, I ended up beating out every major plot point in the film and tracking what minute each beat occurred at (unfortunately, I didn’t have access to the screenplay). I then took those beats and did my best to identify the major plot points using:
- The basics of three act structure
- Five act structure
- Michael Hague’s six stage plot structure
- David Trottier’s seven plot points
- and the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet
The results of my work can be found in the infographic below (you can download the infographic here).
(Beware, spoilers ahead.)
What I found is that ALL of these structural forms can be placed on Moana’s plot, and all of them work, because each of these systems is ultimately a different method for identifying the core characteristics of story that should always be present – a central problem, a journey to solve it, and rising stakes along the way.
Which structure model is best? That’s the wrong question. A more useful question would be, which model works best for you?
It’s our job as writers of screenplays, television, short stories, novels, etc. to study structure from all sorts of angles, because the better you understand how structure works, the more creatively and effectively you can manipulate it – which is one great way to make your story stand out.
(Speaking of standout stories, if you’ve written one, consider entering Write/LA – a new screenwriting competition presented by LA Screenwriter and LiveRead/LA. The early deadline is April 30!)
Moana’s structure, for example, has some interesting peculiarities that writer Jared Bush (who also wrote Zootopia) was able to pull off, thanks to a deep understanding of structure.
Take the first act. It is rather long (over 30 minutes out of a 96-minute movie) and contains a massive amount of story. Indeed, a whole mini-movie occurs in the first third of Moana:
- Grandma tells the story of Maui stealing the heart of Te Fiti – Backstory
- The Ocean gives Baby Moana the heart, which Moana accidentally drops – Inciting Incident
- Now a teenager, Moana tries to be happy with her role on Motunui – Debate
- Food problems arise; Moana wants to go beyond the reef to fish, but her father refuses – More Debate
- Moana decides to go past the reef – Break into Two
- But she fails – Complications Arise
- Grandma shows Moana that their people were once voyagers and gives Moana the heart – Midpoint Turn
- Moana goes to her father and publicly proposes finding Maui to return the heart – Bad Guys Close In
- Dad refuses; Grandma falls ill – Dark Night of the Soul
- Grandma tells Moana to go; Moana leaves with her mom's help – Climax
There is A LOT of exposition in this first act, but each new piece of information complicates Moana’s choices and adds conflict to the story. And much of the exposition is revealed through the movie’s best songs – with lyrics by none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda – which keep the story active and visual rather than simply expository.
I was also surprised to realize that Moana’s relationship with Maui – who doesn’t arrive on screen until minute 35 – is actually the B story. Most of her interactions with Maui revolve around helping him realize that his value as a person isn’t dependent on his magical fish hook. The A story is Moana’s alone – her journey to return the heart of Te Fiti and find out who she is along the way.
And that was another revelation I had while examining this story structure. The three main characters – Moana, Maui, and Te Fiti – all share the same internal journey: figuring out who they are. (Learn more about aligning the internal journeys of your characters in this great video.) Indeed, two of the three most powerful moments in the story are when Moana sings out, “I am Moana!”
and when Moana confronts Te Fiti, telling her, “This is not who you are. You know who you are.”
(The other most powerful moment, in my opinion, is when Moana’s mother catches her leaving the island and, instead of stopping her, helps her go. Makes me cry every time.)
Maui has a similar moment of realization/change in the third act when he tells Moana, “Hook, no hook – I’m Maui.”
Moana is a beautiful story of personal strength and identity, and its underlying structure is anything but formulaic. The structure follows the general principles of story, certainly, but it adapts to the needs of this unique plot.
Watch it. Study it. Feel all the feels.