Disney recently created a live action version of the famous Cinderella story that’s actually a very good movie despite the fact that nearly everyone already knows the story. What did “Cinderella” do to make a familiar story interesting again? The lessons can be applied to any story, not just stories that everyone knows about.
First, “Cinderella” gives us a unique spin on the familiar. In the cartoon version, the fairy godmother is a cheerful character who pops out of nowhere and seems competent. In the film version, the fairy godmother is first set up earlier in the story when Cinderella’s mother tells her to be kind and that a fairy godmother watches over her. Now when the fairy godmother does appear, her presence is set up despite everyone knowing she’s going to appear anyway. This earlier setup simply strengthens and unifies the story.
Next, we expect the fairy godmother to be competent but she seems a little crude and less competent than we thought. First she drinks milk and pours it down her chin. More importantly, she reminds Cinderella that her act of kindness is more important, which pays off the earlier setup of Cinderella’s mother telling her to be kind. Once again, we already know what the fairy godmother will do, but this gives her a reason to help Cinderella because she’s so kind. By revealing the reasons behind her actions, the fairy godmother helps strengthen our perception of Cinderella as kind.
When the fairy godmother turns the pumpkin into a carriage, we expect her magic to be amazing. Instead, it’s nearly a disaster as the pumpkin almost blasts the greenhouse apart. When she turns the mice into horses, this is also set up earlier when Cinderella plays with the mice and talks to them.
Unlike “Maleficent” where the only story is about the hero, in “Cinderella” there are plenty of subplots that mirror the main story. In this case, the evil stepmother has a cat and the cat nearly eats one of the mice. This mirrors Cinderella’s own plight and thus strengthens the story.
Basically “Cinderella” sets up future story elements and then pays them off with subplots that mirror the hero’s own goal. The prince is actually struggling against his father’s wishes, which makes his minor subplot more interesting. Everything in “Cinderella” is focused on telling a familiar story with a unique twist by showing us elements we don’t expect. The main difference between “Cinderella” and “Maleficent” is that “Cinderella” is far more focused and unified with mirroring subplots and characters who have goals of their own. In “Maleficent,” only the hero seemed to have a goal where other characters existed solely to advance the plot, which made them far less interesting and the entire story far weaker.
“Cinderella” sets up plot points and pays them off with unified subplots that enhance the main story. Imagine if “Cinderella” had a subplot that had nothing to do with the main story. It would seem even more out of place because we all know the story. Yet in many bad movies, that’s exactly what happens when subplots exist for no reason. “Cinderella” shows you what to do right.
Now imagine for your own story that everyone knows the plot ahead of time. How can you make your story interesting anyway? If you follow “Cinderella”, you’ll come up with the following lessons:
- Surprise us. Make every scene and character interesting in some way like the crude and incompetent fairy godmother.
- Setup and pay off everything like Cinderella\’s mother telling her to be kind and her kindness gives the fairy godmother a reason to help Cinderella.
- Make everything unified to tell one story. If you pretend everyone already knows your plot ahead of time, then you have to focus on subplots to enhance the main plot.
“Cinderella” is charming far beyond the costumes and the actors, but for the story structure where every scene and character supports the main story. That’s what you need to do in your own story so every word supports your main story whether the audience is aware of it or not. Audiences know when a story doesn’t feel right. That’s why you as the screenwriter must get the structure down with setups and payoffs that help tell a single story, and that will make your story as magical as “Cinderella.