I just watched Disney’s Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs for the first time in years.*
I found new appreciation for this legendary film during the scene where the Seven Dwarfs come home from work to find that their woodland cottage has been invaded by a potentially-malicious housecleaner. The suspect is, of course, the obliging 1930′s ideal-housewife-in-a-princess-dress known as Snow White.
The audience knows about Snow, but the Dwarfs don’t. Walt Disney and Company masterfully introduce us to seven characters at once – which is a challenge most storytellers would work around or cheat on.
How did they pull it off? By creating a movie inside of the movie.
As the film continues to age, the temptation to dismiss it on account of the antiquated humor and political incorrectness grows. But despite the misogyny, the film is a fine specimen of visual storytelling.
Today, I’ll share one lesson that we can learn from this Disney Classic – How To Write GREAT Character Introductions.
It’s Hard Out Here For A Dwarf:
Prior to the “intruder” scene, we know:
- The Dwarfs are miners and to them, unearthing jewels by the bucket-load is no big deal. (Note their ambivalence and carelessness in regard to the priceless jewels.)
- Their job sucks so much that they burst into song at quitting time.
- Despite their super-long commute (it’s still daylight when they leave and it’s night when they get home), they walk to work.
- They’re either super-honest or super-dumb. (Has it never occurred to any of them that maybe a handful of jewels could solve their transportation problem?)
- Dopey is a liability.
…and that’s pretty much it. It’s not until they get home that get to know them.
Now keep in mind: There are SEVEN of these dudes. SEH-VUHN! And we meet them all at ONCE!
There isn’t a “gathering the team” sequence or an anachronistic “fake action movie trailer” montage with a freeze-frame of each character where his name gets typed-out on the screen.
PLUS, to make it even harder, the Dwarves all look really similar.
Sure, each one has his own distinct adjective (Happy, Grumpy, Bashful, Dopey etc.) for both name and personality** but that information doesn’t come out until way later.
Walt and Company valued the old “show, don’t tell” rule so highly that they didn’t even exploit their own narrative device to introduce the Dwarfs.
What’s amazing is how these two significant narrative challenges are completely undetectable within the masterful simplicity and elegance of the “intruder” scene.
Character Introductions Need Action:
Again, any storyteller would be tempted to do the whole “And YOU must be Grumpy!” role-call scene for the character introductions. But nope. Not Walt.
Walt guides you through two entire scenes. Two entire sequences, actually – the commute home (Heigh Ho!) and the “intruder” scene before we learn who’s who. We understand the Dwarfs on a visceral level through their actions, reactions and decisions…
Walt designed a movie inside of the movie.
Act 1 is (as I recently explained in a lesson on story structure) where we get to know the characters, the world they live in, their paradigm and their passion (I credit Michael Arndt for most of this Act 1 framework).
For The Dwarfs, Act 1 is the commute home and overlaps with the beginning of the “intruder” scene.
They discover “the ocean” that must be crossed. That’s act 2. For The Dwarfs, it’s their invaded cottage that they must search. This is where the depth of character emerges and the emotions of the Act 3 conflict and resolution are set-up. Act 2 is where we earn the ending.***
We see Doc on the front lines, leading, despite visible fear. We learn (multiple times) how Dopey got his name. And so on…
And then in Act 3, we experience the “It’s a ghost!” climax as Snow White stirs from her sleep and moves the sheets around and the resolution when the characters discover it’s just a princess and they finally move on to the “role call” bit.
I’d also like to point out that the subsequent “Meet the Dwarfs” “role call” sequence is it’s own thing. It has it’s own beginning, middle and end. (For bonus points, watch it and come back here to post your own analysis.)
Character Introductions Need Conflict and Contrast:
One of the biggest mistakes in all of modern moviemaking is this: Storytellers often think that the rule “Every story needs conflict” means “Your characters should argue a lot.”
Arguments are usually a story buzzkill. And when there’s more than one argument in a movie, it’s often excruciating.
In most “argument” scenes, the story comes to a standstill. At best, the story starts going in circles. It just hovers in this intense space until the argument gets interrupted.
Even worse, these “argument” scenes often exists because something important is supposed to be happening.
Filmmakers throw away or mangle their potentially-compelling story moments by burying them under aimless arguments.****
But this post isn’t about the broader application of conflict in storytelling, so here’s how you can add conflict and contrast to your character introductions…
The Dwarfs are united in the main conflict of this sequence. They all need to investigate their invaded cottage. But the way they each approach the situation is unique. Each Dwarf’s approach conflicts and contrasts with others.
Here’s one simple example: Just as The Dwarfs are about to attack the sleeping intruder, Sneezy sneezes and botches the surprise! The Dwarfs scold sneezy and proceed as the intruder stirs.
It’s a simple conflict framed by contrasting reactions. It’s visual. It’s visceral. It’s organic. And it functions as part of this whole, extended introduction to the Dwarfs.
The sequence seems so simple when you watch it, but as you dig deeper, awe-inspiring complexity emerges.
…and I’ll bet it all just came from relentlessly brainstorming creative answers to this question: “How do we introduce seven unique characters at once?”
When you write scenes that introduce characters, look for a way to create a little “movie inside the movie.” Or in our case a “comic inside the comic.”
Look for ways to introduce the characters by showing their actions, reactions and decisions within a conflict and whenever possible, contrast those actions against other characters.
* I watch a lot of animated movies with the sound off because it helps me focus on the animation, the designs, the color palettes and the layouts without getting swept up in the narrative. (I often get swept up in the narrative anyway, but the mute button helps me maintain objectivity.) The silent treatment worked again with this movie. My niece and I were watching it while my wife and mother-in-law were having a conversation. They kept turning the volume down until it was inaudible. But my niece and I were both too exhausted from a day at the beach to move, so we just watched it with no sound.
** “Doc” isn’t literally an adjective but the name’s the function is the same.
*** There’s also a Thematic element stitched into this scene. It’s the poetic foreshadowing of Snow White’s eventual fate – the Witch’s sleep-curse. The Dwarfs “discover” Snow White then, as well.
****I’m not saying that you can never have characters argue. Just make sure it reveals truths about the characters, the story and the audience.
I have recommended John August’s Screenwriting Blog (and now PODCAST!) many times before.
But if you’re hungry for more information about character introductions, I’d like to direct you to a helpful article that John wrote on the subject. I referenced his article several times during the writing of my own webcomic.
Comment and Share:
How do you plan to use action, conflict and contrast in your own character introductions?