NOTE: I finally finished Stranger Things 2, and there are some light spoilers in this post. This warning is here in case you’re late to the party like me.
But like the saying goes: If you’re going to be late to the party, make sure you bring some good guacamole.
Spoilers beyond this point.
At the end of Stranger Things 2, the main characters get to take a brief victory lap at the school’s Snow Ball dance. There’s one dance floor pairing that stands out: Nancy and Dustin.
There’s plenty that could be said about the relationship between Nancy and Steve, and how Dustin is now trying to emulate Steve, but I’m not interested in that aspect. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
Instead, let’s look at two moments, one from season 1, and one from moments before this dance, and what connects them.
So much of Stranger Things 2 is about the past bleeding into the present, worming its way back and refusing to be forgotten.
Nancy starts out Stranger Things 2 dealing with the guilt of Barb’s death. It creeps up on her at odd times. She can’t escape Barb’s memory.
Nancy sent Barb away so she could be alone with Steve, leaving Barb vulnerable to an attack from the Demogorgon.
Nancy could have no idea she was sending Barb to her death, but she carries the weight of being one of the few people in Hawkins who know the full story. Her knowledge and guilt separate her from most of the rest of the town, leaving her conflicted and angry.
But let’s go back further, to before Nancy knew definitively what happened to Barb. Back in season one, Nancy caught a glimpse of the last moment anyone saw Barb before she was pulled into the Upside Down.
Through Jonathan’s pictures, Nancy sees Barb’s sadness and isolation. This was Nancy’s fault. Nancy brought Barb to a place she didn’t want to go, then ditched her to canoodle with Jean-Ralphio’s dad. (This is canon.)
The memory of this image matches up with what Nancy sees when she looks at Dustin after he’s been rejected by the girls at the dance.
Yes, when she brings Dustin on to the dance floor, she’s trying to make him feel better. She knows what they’ve all been through (twice now). But this is just as much about her trying to deal with her guilt over Barb.
Seeing another friend having that same moment of isolation, she chooses to reach out instead pushing them away.
And the show, using the positioning of the actors and framing within the camera, as well as Nancy’s gaze, tells us these moments are all connected.
There’s no Justice for Barb. Not really. And Nancy can’t directly make reparations for the harm she’s caused others through her indifference to her friend.
The show deals with trauma as an absence. A lack. Like a missing puzzle piece that keeps you from seeing the whole image.
But there’s no bringing Barb back. No finding the missing piece. The best that Nancy can hope for is a substitution.
What Nancy wanted, at the start of the season, was a way to make amends for letting Barb go of alone and get killed by the Demogorgon. What she needed was to learn to have more honest connections with the people around her. To bring people in instead of pushing everyone away.
And it doesn’t just go for Nancy. The whole cast of characters, from Eleven, to Joyce, to Hopper, are all cobbling together a new whole, pooling together the pieces they each have left.
When something appears more than once in a story, be it an object, a dramatic situation, or a line of dialogue, you take notice. Repetition cues the audience to pay attention.
In Disney’s Moana, the title character has a repeated line of dialogue used in different contexts:
”I am Moana of Motunui. You will board my boat, sail across the sea, and restore the heart of Te Fiti.”
The Words Themselves
Let’s break it apart and look at the construction.
The first sentence makes a declarative statement of identity, saying her individual name and where she comes from. Because of how closely her people identify with Motunui, saying she is “of Motunui” stands both for the location and the people who live there.
The second sentence gives a directive to the listener, outlining the journey ahead and clearly stating the actions that will lead to Moana’s goal.
Notice how the sentence structure creates not only a sense that there are numerous steps, but lays out three stages that fit into a rough outline of the three-act structure of the movie.
“board my boat” – Crossing a threshold into a new world. For Moana, it’s the new world of the open ocean. In the case of Maui, crossing a threshold into the new role of becoming a mentor and ally to Moana (it’s her boat).
“sail across the sea” – The majority of the film’s second act takes place at sea, moving from place to place. Note the use of the word sail. The second act also focuses on instilling in Moana the tools she needs to navigate on the open ocean.
“restore the heart of Te Fiti” – The ultimate goal of the story. Returning Te Fiti’s heart will restore health to the natural world.
Put these together and you have a line of dialogue that fuses a clear statement of identity with a preview of the journey ahead.
Introducing the Words
Moana’s Gramma Tala gives her these words as her mission when she sends Moana off the island to find Maui. Tala specifically says to repeat those words after grabbing Maui by the ear to make him listen to her.
By receiving these words from Tala, it roots the message in a connection to her family. While she must travel without them, carrying the words with her brings her family along in spirit.
Setting up this mission statement as a task to deliver to Maui suggests to Moana that she can’t make this journey alone. She’ll need help and guidance. Tala knows sending Moana straight to Te Fiti on her own would be a reckless suggestion for an untrained sailor.
Phrasing the entire scope of the quest as a single task, making it seem like only the next action she should take, breaks down a big adventure into smaller, attainable goals.
Also, having seen Gramma Tala tell the story of Maui stealing the heart of Te Fiti, we know she’s aware that directing these words at Maui offer him a chance at redemption. Presented with the opportunity to correct a misdeed, he may see the value in joining the quest.
The First (Several) Repetitions
After Moana crosses beyond the reef surrounding her island and enters the open ocean, she repeats the words to herself.
During the quick cuts of this sequence, Moana faces her first few modest trials: Keeping her bearings, keeping awake, and keeping control of her boat.
The repetitions reinforce that her desire to accomplish her goal is stronger than her limitations as a sailor or the obstacles she initially encounters.
She’s also using this time to rehearse the words for when she meets Maui. Showing the act of rehearsing helps the audience remember the exact phrase, and prepares us for when things don’t go as planned.
Delivering the Words to Maui
When she reaches Maui’s island, after her boat crashes on shore, her initial introduction to Maui is intimidating and confusing.
He reveals himself by lifting her boat over his head and startling her. She’s getting off on a bad foot, and Maui keeps the power dynamic in his favor, blocking and stalling her prepared statement.
Moana: Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea, I am Moana —
Maui: Hero of men.
Maui: It’s actually Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea, hero of men. I interrupted. From the top! Hero of men. Go.
Moana: I am Moana —
Maui: Sorry sorry sorry. And women. Men and women. Both. All! Not a guy/girl thing. Maui is a hero to all. You’re doing great.
Instead of listening to her and responding to her directive, he interrupts repeatedly, trying to reinforce his talking points about himself.
When Moana finally takes control of the conversation, grabs him by the ear, and delivers the words with their full force, he’s taken aback.
Maui thought he was everybody’s hero, and she’s telling him that he needs to atone for stealing the heart of Te Fiti.
So he reacts to this new perspective in the way that seems most natural and appropriate to him: Distracting Moana with a song about himself and stealing her boat.
Moana has arrived at her destination and delivered the message, but she hasn’t yet proven to Maui why he should listen to that message. She’s a stranger, and he hasn’t learned why it’s important that she’s Moana of Motunui.
Once More With Feeling
After escaping from the cave that Maui locked her in and getting back to the boat (with an assist from the Ocean), Moana tries to repeat the words again.
Maui interrupts her by throwing her back off the boat. When that doesn’t work, he tries to swim away (only to have the Ocean carry him back.
Realizing that the Ocean wants to keep these two together and won’t take no for an answer, Maui makes the decision to listen to the words Moana’s brought for him. Her actions and determination shift the balance of power in their conversation.
Maui re-starts the phrase for her and allows her to finish. As he joins in the repetition of the mission statement, Maui reluctantly agrees to the journey.
The Words Lose Their Power
The mission statement doesn’t make another appearance until the point where it appears that all is lost.
After an attempt to reach Te Fiti ends with Te Ka damaging both Maui’s fish hook and Moana’s boat, Maui loses faith in their ability to complete their journey.
Maui prepares to leave, preferring to protect his damaged fish hook and its magical powers than help Moana make another attempt to get past Te Ka and return the heart. Moana repeats her initial imperative to Maui. She tries to remind him of the mission so that he won’t abandon her.
But her delivery is weakened by fear and desperation. It lacks the fire it had before when it was a driving force.
The words that her mentor figure gave to her feel spent. They’ve carried her as far as they can.
To convince Moana to change her perspective, she must feel the failure of her old perspective. To prepare the audience for the coming transformation of these words, they must see that the old words are ready to be discarded.
Changing the Words
In comes the spirit of Gramma Tala, appearing to Moana and coaxing her into the realization that even without Maui, all hope isn’t lost. And here’s where Moana flips the script (emphasis mine):
“I am Moana of Motunui. Aboard my boat, I will sail across the sea and restore the heart of Te Fiti.”
Changing a few words changes the entire meaning of the line. This is no longer an imperative directed toward Maui. It’s a declarative statement of identity and purpose.
And it’s not just words, but actions that reinforce the shift in perspective. As she says the new variation on these words, the audience sees her repair her boat and prepare to make another run at Te Ka alone, relying on her newly acquired skills and her belief in herself.
We see the change as we hear the changed words.
Arc words are repeated phrases spaced out at key points in a story that show how a theme relates to the external actions and internal, psychological and emotional, changes within a character.
The words stay mostly the same so that the audience can see how different contexts, deliveries, or slight alterations of the text reveal changes in the characters speaking these words.
But these can’t be small changes. A character change worthy of this much repetition and focus needs to be deeply wedded to an essential philosophical payload in the story.
The Words Carry the Theme
The transformation Moana makes with these arc words plays into the larger theme of the film: Know Who You Are.
Moana’s father, Chief Tui, makes a point about how the island of Motunui is Moana’s identity, and that the repetition of daily life defines who the people on this island are.
Gramma Tala repeats to Moana that the people on Motunui have forgotten who they are: They were not meant to settle on one island. They are descended from voyagers.
Maui defines himself by the tattoos showing off his previous bold actions, but also repeatedly says that he’s nothing without his magical fish hook. This drives his actions throughout.
Te Fiti forgets who she was after the theft of her heart. This turned her into the antagonist Te Ka, and it was only when Moana recognized Te Ka’s true self that she was able to end the conflict.
Even the antagonist Tamatoa sings a song about identity. “Shiny” is all about creating an external image, and how it doesn’t matter what’s on the inside (the counterpoint to Moana’s journey and the message of Gramma Tala)
Moana was once a child, being pushed toward action by the opposing forces of her father and Gramma Tala. When she left Motunui, it was initially to give in to that external push from Gramma Tala, and her agreement with Tala’s opinion of the best way to save the people of Motunui from their island’s blight.
Moana’s repetition of the words Gramma Tala spoke to her show how that motivation still carries her forward as she learns new skills and conquers her fears on the quest to restore balance to the world.
However, it’s not until she puts these skills to the test and decides to rely on herself that she’s able to succeed and complete her journey.
She needs to make a clear statement about who she believes she is, and not just reflect back one of her mentor’s viewpoints.
And the audience recognizes this when the familiar words change.
Picture your first draft as the Earth. Deep below the surface, there’s liquid magma, hidden from view. In editing your script, you drill down beneath the surface, looking to break through all the layers of character, plot, and visual imagery to get to that core.
That’s where the unifying ideas are. Once you’ve broken down into the core, you’re allowing that magma to rush up to the surface, passing through all the other layers. A strong core idea is already buried inside even the first draft of a script, and only by searching inside what’s already there can you find it.
Unlike the digging in this analogy, the actual act of searching for the core is about making new connections. Looking at ways that character, plot points, dialogue, etc. can connect to each other, and what lies behind those connections.
In this scene, Merida acts on her plan to win the archery competition, defeating her suitors and avoiding an arranged marriage.
This is not a movie about a princess who doesn’t want to get married, as many of the trailers made it appear to be. This is a movie whose core idea is about repairing a damaged relationship between a mother and daughter, and this idea comes across in all aspects of the scene.
First, there’s the content of the scene’s conflict. Yes, the archery contest decides who (or if) Merida will marry, but the tension of the scene is not based on if she is skilled enough to succeed. We have seen in previous scenes that she has a Gladwell-worthy amount of practice with her bow, and that it is a prized possession. We see that she has chosen this competition with the intent of winning it, and her confidence further suggests that the tension is not about if she can win, but if she will choose to win. Pushing the idea that this is about her choice to the fore front is where the tension in the scene actually comes from: Merida continuing to fire arrows as Elinor rushes toward her, telling her to stop.
There’s also the visual elements at play in the scene. In order to get the freedom of movement she needs to fire the arrows, Merida tears apart the seams of her dress. This is a dress that was put on her by her mother in a previous scene (in which Elinor ignored Merida’s complaints about how it was too tight). Not only is this dress a physical representation of Elinor’s control over Merida, but its tearing also represents Merida’s desires to escape from that control, even by careless, violent means.
This tearing of fabric to represent a damaged relationship is further strengthened in the next scene, where Merida slices through a tapestry of her family, cutting through the portion of the image where her and her mother are shown holding hands. This echo of the ripping fabric connects it to the core of the story about mending the relationship between Merida and Elinor.
There’s more that can be teased out of this scene. Consider how Merida and Elinor are together on the dais, but on opposite ends, separated by Fergus. When Merida chooses to transgress against the spirit of the competition and against her mother’s will, she disappears from the dais and moves away from her mother. As her mother tries to get her to stop, she moves closer to Merida, attempting to close the distance. Fergus himself is used as a battleground for the conflict between mother and daughter, as Elinor tries to keep Fergus from laughing at Merida’s jokes about the suitors.
This scene is one example of when a story’s core bubbles up through all the other aspects of the writing. There are strong connections between individual actions and details, all relating to a central idea. At the same time, these connections don’t all immediately draw attention to each other, as they’re grounded in character relationships and natural logistics. The core idea is there for the audience to discover, but not at the expense of leading them to stop paying attention to the dramatic action.
Keep those things in mind when looking for how to bring out the core of your own writing. Don’t just look for what best represents a theme, look for elements that are logistically and dramatically necessary to the plot, or that already exist as an aspect of the characters that can be focused on. Look for existing elements that have some kind of connection to each other or echo one another and find ways to make that stronger. Look for the foundation that already exists and build from there.