Thoughtful children’s programming delights old and young with purpose and meaning.
Every writer dreams of delivering something that lasts and strikes a chord within the hearts of their audience. To connect on a deep emotional level and share our experience of life with another is why we create. An understanding of the structure of that communication ensures a win-win on both sides of telling a great story: author and audience member appreciate each other.
The season finale for the Disney channel’s animated show Tangled: The Series premiered last week. As a story consultant on the series, I found the reaction from fans rewarding:
"Wow, a season-ending cliffhanger! i LOVE season-ending cliffhangers, but didn't expect it from a children's show! I'm pleasantly surprised and can't wait to see what Rapunzel and Eugene's adventures in season 2 will hold!"
This level of gratitude and anticipation, common with most of the responses, arises because of the care and thought that went into writing a complete story for the first season.
Detailed in the article Outlining a Television Series with Dramatica, the process involved listening to the various ideas for character, plot, and theme and converging all into singular storyforms for both the entire series and the individual seasons.
"believe me when I tell you that everything has significance and is meticulously crafted. The writing is amazing.""
That “meticulous” craftsmanship? 100% purposeful and deliberate from the very beginning. The narrative structure of the series accounts for part of the show’s success and helps to explain much of the positive feedback.
The storyform for the first season—the special narrative code—can be found in the Subtxt, a service built from the ground-up to support the development of amazing stories.
When Executive Producer Chris Sonnenburg first approached me with the idea of creating a deliberate and purposeful path for the series to follow, he stressed one phrase in particular:
Plus est en vous
French for “there is more in you,” the phrase appears in the journal Rapunzel’s mother gifts to her near the beginning of the series. Everything within the first season revolves around this theme.
How then do you tie intention to narrative structure?
You make your purpose part of the structure.
The following image, taken from the Atomizer, displays the quad of character elements found at the center of Rapunzel’s personal Throughline.
The engine behind the Atomizer relies on the Dramatica theory of story—a comprehensive approach to story that sees complete narratives as models of the human mind at work.
Translated into common tongue, the quad above says ”Rapunzel, driven by speculation of what she might become, focuses her attention on an apparent problem of self-awareness, and responds by seeking greater external awareness.”
Plus est en vous is telling Rapunzel to look inwards, to become more Self-aware. Her lack of understanding of what that means drives her to seek out a higher Awareness of everything around her. Everyone Speculates what she could be, but what indeed is her Destiny?
Looking upwards through the model, we find an Issue of Destiny situated directly above these four character elements. Rapunzel’s core drive naturally leads to this thematic issue of Destiny—another instance of Sonnenburg’s intention. Find what’s inside of you so you can carve out your path through life.
Setting Rapunzel’s Throughline to this quad of elements, integrating a Triumphant ending, and granting her father the most significant shift in personal point-of-view locks in the balance of the story’s thematic appreciations.
King Frederic, Rapunzel’s father and Obstacle Character for the first season, challenges his daughter and the rest of the kingdom with his efforts to repress painful memories. His lies and attempts to make things appear better than they define an Obstacle Character with Issues of Falsehood and a Problem of Perception.
These thematic elements do not arise haphazardly—they perfectly balance out Rapunzel’s issues of Destiny and Speculation. The problem with Destiny is the question of whether or not we're fooling ourselves--a character who finds success in fooling himself and those around him is perfectly situated to challenge a character beset by issues of Destiny. Are we just lying to ourselves with the belief that there is something more, and that our struggle leads to something meaningful? Or is the lie real?
For example, think of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The Main Character in that film, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) shares Rapunzel’s focus on Destiny and the idea of “waiting for a train...knowing where you hope it will take you, but you can’t be sure.”
Rapunzel and Dom partake in the same thematic issue. Their respective Obstacle Characters challenge them with half-truths and falsehoods: Frederic with his professed ignorance of problems in the kingdom and Dom’s wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) and the lie she holds onto regarding being in a dream state.
Obstacle Characters and their challenging point-of-view exist to impact the Main Character and force him or her to deal with their justifications. Rapunzel holds tight to her focus on something more within her, causing her father to fundamentally shift his point-of-view.
Instead of continuing to persist a lie based on appearances, Frederic shifts his attention to the reality of the situation and of Rapunzel’s unique role to play. Her father “arcs” from Perception to Actuality.
This effort towards meaningful character development and sound narrative structure brings a cohesiveness to the series typically absent in most children’s programming. Some may question overthinking a show that exists only to babysit and distract for 22 minutes at a time. Placing aside the reality that regardless of age, every one of us problem-solves with the same psychological process, children know when they’re being talked down to and instinctively ignore those who pander to them. Why shouldn’t they be shown the same amount of respect and attention to detail found in more adult programming?
Don’t they deserve great stories?
The first season of Tangled: The Series was not a matter of lucky happenstance. The creators set the path from the very beginning and referred to this narrative storyform throughout, to keep the series focused on Rapunzel’s most personal problem.
The first season consists of 19 half-hour episodes and three one-hour specials. The pilot episode Tangled: Before Ever After and the finale Secret of the Sundrop account for two of these specials, a mid-season special Queen for a Day (Episode 17) furnishes the last. While these three form the bulk of the first season’s storyline, the episodes in-between support and subtly inform that central purpose.
Remember that the development of this series began three years ago—three years before binge-watching and multiple streaming services were a thing. Anticipating this particular situation and eager to present something more than merely another children’s show, the series’ creators lobbied hard to make the serialized nature of Tangled: The Series a reality. This effort would likely be a foregone conclusion today given the landscape and appetite for season-long storyforms that draw Audiences in with the promise of something more.
This first season of Tangled, and the seasons to come, showcase the kind of impact intentional storytelling brings to the final work. That "I can't wait to see the next installment" is a reaction to complete and as-yet-to-be completed storyforms. You hook them with the anticipation of a greater understanding of the issues and problems we all face. Give your Audience a meaningful structure that says something, and they'll respond with appreciation and gratitude.
Enjoy the show!