by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is taking the box office by storm, as it has every time a new iteration of the story has been released. We could chalk the success up to brilliant casting, memorable music, or simply the magical wand of Mickey Mouse. But those familiar with the power of narrative tropes know the real secret. Creatively employing timeless and universal elements of storytelling is what gives this tale as old as time it’s enchantment. Here are nine story lessons we can learn from Beauty and the Beast.
1. The Fish Out of Water
One of the first things we learn about Belle is that her village thinks she’s an odd girl. It is important that the protagonist doesn’t feel completely at home where they are. Otherwise, there is no reason to ever leave and seek the life that may await her elsewhere. This set up also allows the village to come to the realization that the girl they had dismissed as being odd was actually just misunderstood. Of course, this touches one of our most core psychological desires – to believe that when others view us askew, its their perception that’s off, not ours.
2. The Reverse Parental Role
While we immediately like Belle’s father, we quickly learn that he may need more care than she does. It’s Belle that must go after him when she learns he is in danger. She saves him from being caged for eternity when the Beast captures him, offering to take his place behind the iron bars. Again, at the tale’s conclusion, she leaves the world she has become comfortable in to go rescue her father. All these actions would normally be expected of a parent. However, in some stories such as this, it is the child who takes on the parental role. Psychologically, we connect this to an important step in maturing as an adult — when we recognize that we must care for ourselves and become our own parents, in a sense.
3. The Invitation to a Life of Safety
Aside from providing the story with a wonderful villain, the character of Gaston also offers Belle a life of safety. Choosing this life would mean never developing into the woman she images she could be. It means that she might never enjoy the creature comforts that a life with the wealthy Gaston would allow. It means that she would never have to fight her own battles. In good stories, strong protagonists will choose to take the road less traveled, though it will be dangerous and not allow a life of comfort. Only when we take the risks that these more treacherous journeys allow can we become the fully-developed people we are capable of being. We all must, at times, learn to choose what is best for us over what is easy.
4. The Unexpected and Ironic Relationship
In many ways, Belle’s relationship with the Beast would be the last thing we would expect. It begins with the Beast holding her captive and treating her poorly. Then, there’s the fact that she is a girl and he is a beast. However, throughout the story, the characters overcome what we would expect and defy the irony of their relationship. As an audience, we love to see characters who initially appear to have no romantic chances eventually find love, against the odds. It reminds us of the tenaciousness of love – how it often finds a way in the most unlikely of circumstances.
5. The Sacrifice
All of us have had to give up something we loved. Seeing characters do the same reminds us that we are not alone in making these hard choices, and that sometimes there are great rewards for making such difficult picks. When the Beast decides to free Belle to go and save her father, he knows he may never see her again. He gives up the very thing that has restored hope to his life and caused him to love again. There is power in watching a character develop passion for something or someone, only to have to give that thing or person up. In doing so, we are reminded that love cannot be caged, it must be free. When it later returns to us of its own choosing, we can be sure of its authenticity.
6. The Mysterious Magician
Though a minor character in the story, the Enchantress is very important. This mysterious magician initiates the catalyst that propels the story into action. Having a character who controls the fate of the protagonist allows us to be more deliberate in creating conflict. The Enchantress also restores order at the end of the story after the important lessons have been taught. Characters with this power serve as proxies for our relationship with the divine, the universe, and fate.
7. The Helpful Curse
In the beginning, the curse that the Enchantress places on the Prince seems like a work of evil, meant to punish someone whose heart is cruel. Over the course of the story, we learn that the curse is actually meant to develop the Prince into the man he was always capable of being. As humans, we need to feel as though the pains and trouble we experience in life actually have meaning. We need to believe that when we experience “curses,” they are actually developing us into stronger and better people in the long run. Seeing this principle become true in a character’s life affirms this for us.
8. The Darkest Hour
Story guru Blake Snyder referred to this moment as the “all is lost” moment. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle is betrayed and captured by Gaston while trying to save her father. The entire village is coming for the Beast with torches and violence in mind. It appears as though nothing could save Belle, the Beast, or any of the people in the story we have come to care about. Though somehow, in the midst of it all, solutions arise and good overcomes evil. This is what powerful writing is all about. Crafting our characters into the most impossible corners and then somehow helping them escape, against all odds.
9. The Restoration
While not necessary in every story, audiences generally love to see that which was bent crooked made straight. We love to encounter that which was lost become restored. We love redemption. Setting up impossible circumstances opens the opportunity for great emotional relief in the minds of the audience when we see people we assumed dead somehow live again, objects thought lost forever miraculously found, and love that we knew could never be given new life. This trope never gets old for audiences. It is at the core of who we are as humans. If we give people honest circumstances to overcome that feel as challenging as our lives tend to be, we will always cheer when the protagonist finds a way through the storm and lands safely.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.