When I was teaching story development at the California Institute of the Arts, I would use Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas as the perfect example of what it feels like to experience an incomplete story. As magical and entertaining a film as it is, Nightmare still lacks a specific element of heart to it—a result of its missing Relationship Story Throughline between Jack and Sally.
This, of course, doesn’t detract from the absolute requirement that one must watch the film at least once each and every October.
While fulfilling my obligation last week, I encountered another deficiency of story worth mentioning in regards to The Nightmare Before Christmas.
You know when the music finally stops, and the kids start to lose interest? Somewhere around the 45 or 50-minute mark, when Jack takes to the skies to pretend to be Santa?
That’s when the story plot falls apart.
Complete stories do not merely require four perspectives, they also require consistency in the flow of plot events. Some stories move forward because of an action or a series of activities that drive characters to make necessary decisions; other stories progress because of a decision or a round of deliberations that drive characters to take action.
This cause and effect relationship between action and decision sets the internal logic of a narrative. A story that starts out driven by actions but then, for some reason, turns to choices for essential plot points breaks logic and breaks trust with the Audience—why continue to have faith in a story that doesn’t fulfill its own promises?
This is what happens with The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The film clearly sets up a narrative driven by Decisions—deliberations over what to do for next Halloween, Jack’s decision to explore Christmas Town, and Jack’s ultimate decision to take over Christmas. These crucial decisions drive other characters to take actions to find Jack, to support Jack, and to basically scramble around doing whatever is needed to compensate for his choices.
When Jack takes over for Santa Claus, the Audience expects another Decision will turn the story—but one never appears. Instead, ground artillery knocks his sleigh out of the sky sending Jack tumbling to the cemetery below. Splayed across a graveyard cross, Jack sings about making a decision to return to his former life because of that Action of being shot down.
The Audience tunes out, kids start getting antsy, and we all subconsciously wonder why we’re starting to get bored.
The reason lies in that broken Story Driver.
It’s too late now, but the way to fix Nightmare’s broken story would have been to offer Jack a chance to make a Decision that leads directly to being shot down. Perhaps Sally could have joined him (which would have certainly helped out the deficient Relationship Story Throughline), and with cannons waiting to fire, offered Jack the chance to make a choice to turn around. Jack’s refusal and decision to stay the course would then have directly caused the action of being shot down—rather than the other way around.
While the fix might seem simple, the effect on the integrity of the narrative is gigantic. The Audience expects and anticipates a significant driving Decision towards the end of that Act—honoring that expectation builds a tremendous amount of trust and keeps them engaged and locked into the story.