The Story Genius of Moana

8 minute read
Author: Jo

If you’ve got (or have ever had) small children in the house, it’s likely you’ve watched and re-watched your fair share of animated movies, possibly to the point where you find yourself singing Frozen songs alone in the car or randomly quoting Finding Nemo at confused retail workers.

And while the sixty-gazillionth viewing of the same formulaic movie may seem like the perfect opportunity for a micro nap, there’s a lot to be learnt from kids’ films in terms of storycraft. For example, Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats tweeted 22 Rules for Storytelling back in 2011 that reveal a lot about the careful process and balance of elements that make up perfectly constructed stories like Toy Story and Up and Wall-E. 

And once you have even the barest grasp of story structure and plotting theory – for example via the foolproof 16 point plan from our very own Plotstormers ahem – it’s very easy to dissect these movies and marvel at the storytelling chops behind them, turning yet another rendition of “Let it goooo!” into a literary learning experience.

Watch ’em nail that inciting incident, the point of no return, the pivoting midpoint, the weaving of subplots and layered themes, the switchback and subversion of expectations, and something animated movies seem to do REALLY well: the ‘all is lost’ moment.

This is the point about 3/4 through where everything seems totally up the creek. The protag has failed. They’re often alone, friendless, helpless, and all is utterly, utterly lost. Think: Nemo getting flushed down the drain (MY HEART). Or the Toy Story 3 gang in the incinerator (THE TRAUMA OMG).

Now, there’s a fine balance between making everything so bleak you just wanna crawl into a hole and giving your protag (and reader) a teeny tiny ray of hope. Too much failure and they’re gonna fall down and stay down. Make it too easy and all the stakes seem meaningless and the tension goes flop.

So how do you find the perfect tipping point?

Well, following the ‘all is lost‘ moment, a character must face the music, pull up their socks, rally the troops, and head back into the fray, even though they don’t believe they can succeed. They must be reminded of their skills and knowledge and friends and draw on deep reserves of inner strength to make it to the finish line. They need to get shit done.

Now, there’s a few different ways to do this, for example:

  • Ask for/accept help: No protag is an island. Or at least they shouldn’t be. They can’t make all the decisions and fight all the bad guys. For one thing it’s unrealistic, and for another thing it robs them of the chance to develop their character through the messy world of relationships. Plus, acknowledging that you can’t do things alone is a pretty grown up thing to do, and we want our protags to grow from metaphorical babbling, impulsive toddlers to wizened, worldly-wise arse-kickers throughout our stories, don’t we? Take the weight off their shoulders for once and pass the baton to one of your other characters.
  • What can they do now that they couldn’t at the beginning? Maybe they’ve learned a sick new skill that helps them succeed where previously they’d failed. Maybe they’ve learned to hold their fucking tongue instead of speaking their mind all the time. Maybe they’ve learned that violence isn’t the answer. Or maybe that they’ve learned that you can’t always be passive and there are times when you have to fight. Pinpoint one thing they couldn’t possibly have even considered at the beginning of your novel and make them do the opposite now.
  • Memory recall: Oh, you know that seemingly insignificant piece of info you breadcrumbed into your story earlier? Suddenly it makes sense. Suddenly they remember the catalyst for some huge moment of self-discovery. Suddenly they figure out a puzzle that’s been bugging them this whole frickin’ time. Suddenly that traumatic backstory has a purpose. Look back at your story to find a nugget of gold for your protag to pull out of their pocket right about… now.
  • Hopes and dreams: So, remember right at the beginning your green little protag had all these aspirations and good intentions? Well, isn’t that what they’ve been striving for all this time? Now’s the time they might just get ‘em. Or maybe they’re forced to choose between their ultimate life goal and something else. How much do they really want it? What are they prepared to do to get it? What happens if they don’t?
  • Knock down the domino: Sometimes the action is taken out of your protag’s hands and events unfold beyond their power. Like Indiana Jones at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark – all is lost, Indy and Marion are captured and tied to a stake, the Nazis have the Ark and shit’s going down. All Indy really has to do is keep his eyes closed when the Ark is opened and all the ghosty stuff comes flying out and melting people. He just has to let them destroy themselves. Sometimes it’s okay to let things happen and have your protag swept along on the wave.
  • Remind them who they are: Let’s turn to Disney for some help for this one – in particular, the genius of Moana: the frickin’ pinnacle of story structure disguised as a heart-warming coming of age tale involving sentient coconuts and a really stupid chicken. Moana has always wanted to go exploring the ocean but her village rules forbid it. Plus, she’s next in line to be village chief so has, like, responsibilities. But something dark and terrible is destroying the island and she’s tasked with returning the Heart of Te Fiti (a kind of earth goddess). She doubts her abilities, has to deal with an arrogant demi-god, and is plagued with guilt for going against her family’s wishes. Just as she’s about to give up, the spirit of her grandmother (reincarnated as a gigantic, bioluminescent sting ray – just go with it) comes to tell her this:

Gramma Tala: 

I know a girl from an island
She stands apart from the crowd
She loves the sea and her people
She makes her whole family proud
Sometimes the world seems against you
The journey may leave a scar
But scars can heal and reveal just
Where you are

The people you love will change you
The things you have learned will guide you
And nothing on earth can silence
The quiet voice still inside you
And when that voice starts to whisper
“Moana, you’ve come so far”
Moana listen, do you know who you are?


Who am I?
I am a girl who loves my island
And the girl who loves the sea, it calls me
I am the daughter of the village chief
We are descended from voyagers
Who found their way across the world
They call me

I’ve delivered us to where we are
I have journeyed farther
I am everything I’ve learned and more
Still it calls me

And the call isn’t out there at all
It’s inside me
It’s like the tide
Always falling and rising
I will carry you here in my heart
You’ll remind me
That come what may
I know the way

I am Moanaaaaaaaaaa!

Ticks every box, doesn’t it?

She asks for help, and Gramma Tala arrives right on time.

She uses all the sailing and navigation skills she’s learned, along with her natural wiles and tenacity to finish her journey.

She remembers/realises she was chosen by the ocean to return the heart to Te Fiti.

She is buoyed up by her original hopes and dreams of being an explorer – she’s really doing it! – even if the reality is harder than the expectation.

She doesn’t really have any other choice. She’s lost in the middle of the ocean. Its get up or give up time.

And, most importantly, she is reminded who she is:

“Scars can heal and reveal who you are…”

And who is she? She calls back to her upbringing, her ancestors, and everything she’s done to get to this point.

“I am everything I’ve learned and more…” 

So even though she’s suffered losses along the way, she still has the resolve deep inside to carry on…

<Don’t cry, don’t cry, we promised we weren’t gonna cry…>

Fuck it, we should have just quoted Moana from the beginning of this blog and been done with it.

THIS is the big rallying moment; the hoiking up of socks; the pulling together of selves; a moment of true self discovery. And THIS is why we always end up blubbing at the end of a stupid (or actually very clever) kids movie.

Storytelling 101, y’all.

Sometimes the simplest stories are the most powerful, so don’t knock ’em until you’ve analysed ’em.

No go crack open your favourite animated film and see what structural, characterisation, or storycraft secrets you can glean from it…

Share this article:
Bookmark (0)

No account yet? Register


Join our amazing writing community!

  • Get three free writing courses
  • Gain access to online writing retreats and Flash Face Off spoken word nights
  • Meet like-minded writers and get support and resources to keep you writing
  • Oh and it’s free

Want to be a better writer?

Or just to laugh at bum jokes? Either way, you need the famous Writers’ HQ newsletter. You know what to do – put your thing in the thing.