Building a Story: Walt Disney’s Cinderella

If I were ever to teach a class in basic storytelling, especially one in which the class and I discussed popular imaginative fiction, I might very well start off with this book as a perfect example of how to structure a story.

The edition of the Walt Disney Cinderella story I mean is one that I found in the children’s section of Top Shelf Books, our wonderful used-book store on Northwest Highway here in Palatine, Illinois. The book is copyrighted 1995 and on the title page is identified as a Grolier Book Club Edition: “Originally published in Denmark by Egmont Gruppen, Copenhagen, in 1995.” Probably I bought it when Lily, our daughter, was around three years old. I’ve read it to her countless times. She’s read it to herself numerous times, as well. (She’s now seven.) It is a slender hardcover volume of about 44 pages, although it doesn’t even have folios. It does have four-color illustrations taken directly from the Walt Disney cartoon version of Cinderella, the one all of us are familiar with.

Here’s the thing that I noticed the very first time I read it to Lily. Getting into the story, I’d read the large-type text on facing pages, and the events described would be good news for Cinderella. Turn the page, and the next you know, we have dialogue or action that pushes things backward. Trouble for Cinderella. Classic reversal. Next page or two, we’re on the upswing. Next two pages, reversal. This goes on regularly until we get to the happy ending. It isn’t mechanical, although I may make it sound that way here. But the succinctness of telling the story this way builds into it a real sense of dramatic tension and personal investment. It’s the x-y graph we all learned when we were introduced to the classic structure of Freytag’s pyramid or the up-and-down sine wave of how to structure a movie script or a mystery story. Peak, trough, peak, trough, gradually climbing in intensity, until we get to the final act and then everything comes together except for those last few curve balls that leave you breathless until, ta da, climax, happy ending, resolution, denouement, redemption, happily ever after.

On the very first page of this edition we get an illustration of Cinderella awake in bed, fooling with her hair, with bright sunshine coming through the window and her little bird friends chirping her awake. No surprises here. We know that the use of animals in fables and tales pretty much goes back to the very beginning of storytelling. The Jatakas of early Buddhist literature and Aesop’s fables for all practical purposes reach back to the beginning of the human oral tradition. Generally, animals are regarded as being better than human beings in almost all ways; they are clever, wise, powerful, sexy, vital. (We may debate whether anything’s being superior to human beings is really much of a challenge, given how woefully we have disported on this earth in our time, but that would be a topic for another blog.) Animals represent the gods or the supernatural, introduce change in the protagonist’s life or bring wisdom to the afflicted or afflict those who think themselves very wise or clever in order to teach them a lesson. So here is Cinderella, very much an Ur-protagonist, one with Nature, beloved of Nature —

— and very clearly in trouble, as we notice immediately on the facing page, in a deep trough, because here we see Cinderella on hands and knees, scrubbing the floor, with the evil stepmother hovering over her, and the text makes clear that the stepmother is cruel and that she and the two stepsisters treat her like a servant and make her do all of the work. That’s all we get. Not much in the way of nuance. We are in a world of wholes, not of halves or fractions, of gray areas or ambivalence. We go from the natural world of Nature and happy birds to this false, indoor world of cruel people who aren’t even actually part of Cinderella’s life because they’re not related by blood. They’re artificial. We’ve already been notified that Cinderella has more in common with the innocent creatures of the natural world than she does with these creeps who command the household.

And so it goes. The royal messenger arrives saying that the king is going to have a ball that night for the prince. Peak! Turn the page. Cinderella is permitted to go…if she gets all of her work done in time. Trough! Cinderella excitedly pulls out her mother’s old gown from the trunk in the attic in anticipation of a wonderful evening. Forward! Then the stepmother comes in: “Cinderella, wash the floors!” “But I washed them yesterday!” “Well, wash them again!” Reversal! The animal friends help Cinderella, but even that assistance fails against the will power of the evil stepmother and the machinations of the wicked stepsisters.

Until! Halfway through the story, we get the fairy godmother. For me, this brings to mind Robert Bly’s famous leaps of association, which he describes in “Looking for Dragon Smoke,” the first part of Leaping Poetry (1975): “In ancient times…the poet flew from one world to another, ‘riding on dragons,’ as the Chinese said…. [Poets] dragged behind them long tails of dragon smoke…. The dragon smoke means that a leap has taken place in the poem. In many ancient works of art we notice a long floating leap at the center of the work. That leap can be described as a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.” Bly cites examples of such leaps in Gilgamesh and The Odyssey. “In all art derived from Great Mother mysteries, the leap to the unknown part of the mind lies in the very center of the work. The strength of ‘classical art’ has much more to do with this leap than with the order that the poets developed to contain, and, partially, to disguise it.”

So we are dealing with deeply resonant human material in Cinderella, a story that Marina Warner, in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, reminds us goes back at least a thousand years. Warner discusses at length an ancient Chinese version of the story, details the sexual symbolism of the slipper, and makes clear that the fairy godmother in modern variations was an animal helper in more ancient versions but that, fairy or animal, this figure is indeed the dead mother returned: “The animal helper, who embodies the dead mother in providing for her orphaned child, constitutes a structural node in the Cinderella story, but the creature changes in later European versions until she takes the form of the fairy godmother familiar today.” Structural node, indeed: that’s Bly’s long floating leap, isn’t it? It’s the dragon smoke. Cinderella, Warner reminds us, is a “much-loved story of female wish fulfillment.” “Cinderella is a child in mourning for her mother, as her name tells us; her penitential garb is ash, dirty and low as a donkey skin or a coat of grasses, but more particularly the sign of loss, the symbol of mortality….”

Right here we have the beginnings of the Harry Potter epic or an Ender’s Game in the making, or another of any number of such characters and plot set-ups. This is rich, deep stuff, and when we use the story in its stripped-down form in this Grolier Book Club Edition that I would provide for my class, we have very clear architecture that we can use to build any sort of story we like.

So the fairy godmother appears and the impossible occurs: Cinderella, or her dead mother, or the girl’s subconscious, or animal spirits assist her in achieving her original goal, of attending the ball so that she might, of course, meet the prince and thereby achieve the happy ending, the fulfillment, the enlightenment, the resolution that all true suffering protagonists must attain. The last half of the story is pretty much the first half in reverse: the prince searches for the beautiful girl whom he wishes to wed, and no matter what the evil stepmother and the wicked stepsisters do to interfere with this fated reunion, things backfire on them. The animal friends actively help Cinderella in the first half of the story; in the second half, they assist by actively interfering with the stepmother and the sisters. The stepsisters, proactive but arrogant and remote in the first half, now react with selfish tears and moans when they are unable to fit the glass slipper onto their own toes. The stepmother was able to control all circumstances when it was just she and the girls inside their old castle in the first half of the story; now that outsiders, life, fresh air, and freedom have intruded in the persons of the duke and the footman, the envoys of the prince (that is, envoys of the world that Cinderella’s fairy godmother has opened for her and introduced her to.) the stepmother’s actions take the form of bungling slapstick. Whereas previously she could do nothing wrong, now she can do nothing right. The story reversals now work in Cinderella’s favor.

This Disney version undoes a lot of what, over the centuries, were critical elements in the Cinderella story, but in terms of sheer basic storytelling power, this really works. So I’d introduce my class to all of this material and draw the graph and the sine wave on the chalkboard or whiteboard or easel, and then suggest that we all collaborate on building the outline of a story based precisely on this architecture.

You can see where this could go. A teenage vampire story? A space opera adventure? A Western? The opening has to provide an introduction for our protagonist that gives us fundamentally everything we need to know. Look at the opening of, for example, John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian, right? And the dragon smoke or structural node in that movie? Conan dies on the Tree of Woe and is brought back to life from the land of spirits. Wouldn’t have worked to have it be Conan’s fairy godmother, but we get the idea, be it strength deep within ourselves or the symbolism of dragon smoke (or demonic spirits), a trip through a time portal, a perilous sea voyage or space voyage —  we could use whatever we like, but that’s what makes the protagonist the protagonist. For Gilgamesh, it was battling Enkidu, his spiritual brother, his animal-like wilder self, before journeying to the end of the world, losing what he had come for, but returning all the wiser for that and becoming, finally, a decent man and a decent king.

That would be the first day of my class, and this concise little hardcover of Disney’s 1950 cartoon would be my introductory text. It makes use of very resonant, and gratifying, subconscious elements while using a story framework  patterned on the Greek tragic model we’re all familiar with, that of incident piled on incident until we have a final denouement, like Greek warriors rushing into battle to settle things once and for all — the shootout on the streets of Dodge City, or the attack on Darth Vader’s battle star, or John Walton’s finally making it back down the mountain in time for Christmas morning, despite all odds that his life is in very real danger. (Or maybe it was coming back up the mountain. I forget which.) I’ll bet my class and I could spend the rest of the semester crafting story after story built on this architecture, creating good popular fiction with compelling plots, and – – if we were to do it right — with characters that halfway through look into a mirror, die and are reborn, defeat a shadow, or take a long journey that brings her or him back to where she or he started in order to complete a very powerful story journey. That journey would feel as satisfactory for whoever were to read it as it would to those of us who wrote it. Whether we did it as an outer space Western or a Victorian mystery story or a sword-and-sorcery adventure, I’ll bet that few people would recognize it literally. Subconsciously, though, they might very well understand that they are experiencing a good strong tale…one that, in its essence, has been around for a thousand years or more.

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