The secret to Disney’s storytelling formula

Follow this ancient script to face any problem

Tim Cigelske
Jan 28, 2018 · 7 min read

Solving a problem in real life is a lot like following a Disney script.

You have a hero, a conflict, failed attempts to solve the problem, back-up plans, a breakthrough, a solution that works and finally a conclusion.

By the end, we are back where we started, but transformed with new powers and knowledge.

Movies succeed with this narrative arc over and over again because we can all relate. If you look at Disney and Pixar movies, they are variations on this same timeless theme, sometimes called the hero’s journey.

In 1985, writer Christopher Vogler compiled the stages of the hero’s journey in a 7-page memo for Disney that became a guide for storytelling. That’s why it may seem so familiar.

But these stages don’t just work in Hollywood. They also work in real life.

When faced with a problem, you can picture yourself as the hero of your story and tackle the issue in the same way as Simba, Woody, Elsa, or Mr. Incredible. That means it won’t always be easy, but if you stick with it you might find you grow and transform.

Here are 13 steps to tackle a problem like a Disney hero.

Step 1: SEE the world

The first thing any Disney movie does is introduce you to the “rules” of their world. It could mean talking animals, a post-apocalyptic planet Earth or a kingdom under the sea. Once you see how this world works, you accept it as the natural order of things.

“You can observe a lot just by watching.” — Yogi Berra

What this means for you: You learn to accept the status quo when you live in your world day in and day out. So pretend you are seeing your environment as the opening credits of a film. View it with fresh eyes. What are the rules that govern your world? What might present opportunities and what foreshadows future pitfalls?

Step 2: DEFINE the problem

Soon after we are introduced to this world, we realize that there is trouble in paradise. At first, you might not be able to pinpoint the problem, you just have a general sense that something is off. Andy is growing up. Something is happening with Riley’s emotions. Scar is up to something.

What this means for you There can be no adventure if you don’t have something to overcome. Define and write down what problem you are trying to solve. At this point, your knowledge of the problem will be limited, and that’s OK. You’ll learn more about what you’re up against as you progress on your journey.

Step 3: GET OVER your reluctance

This new adventure has the promise of reward at the end, but danger also lurks on this journey! There is the fear of the unknown. Will our hero take the challenge or play it safe?

What this means for you Maybe you’re not sure if it’s your place to tackle this problem. Maybe you think you don’t have the right job title or qualifications. Maybe it’s not your place or the right time. But if not you, then who? To quote LeanIn, what would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Step 4: CHOOSE WISELY. Wishes are limited.

Congratulations! You accepted the challenge. Now don’t get cocky, kid. There might be a temptation to do too much or divert your attention to something else. If you get three wishes, don’t try to use one of them to get unlimited wishes — that never works.

What this means for you Remember why you set off on this journey in the first place and don’t get sidetracked.

Step 5: Expect the UNEXPECTED

Just when you think you were coasting on the easy path to victory, you realize something has gone completely array. You thought you were home free and you discover you have a stowaway on your floating house.

What this means for you It’s always going to be harder than you think. Don’t get discouraged by setbacks — try to view them as long-term opportunities.

Step 6: Know when to LET IT GO

So you experienced a setback. Sometimes the best course of action isn’t immediately rushing back into battle. Sometimes you need to retreat, regroup and recognize what you’re actually capable of.

What this means for you Failure is inevitable. Use the opportunity to reflect. And then repeat after me, LET IT GO, LET IT GO!

Step 7: LEARN from failure

You can only retreat for so long if you want to actually solve your problem. After a period of reflection, it’s time to face your failure — but with new knowledge. In the immortal words of Rafiki, “The past can hurt. But from the way I see it, you can either run from it, or… learn from it.”

What this means for you Inspect WHY you failed and write down the cause. Then remove that obstacle. So what are you going to do? As Simba tells Rafiki, “First, I’m gonna take away your stick.”

Step 8: Recruit a PARTNER to fly high

You thought you could go it alone when you first started. And now it’s harder than you thought. To get through the next challenges, you need not just a sidekick that provides comedy relief, but a true partner.

What this means for you Every hero has a weakness. To succeed, you may have to find someone who is very different than you that can complement your strengths. Maybe it’s a former rival. Maybe it’s someone you previously dismissed. Maybe it’s someone you can’t stand but you need each other.

Step 9: PREPARE for your comeback

When Mr. Incredible comes out of retirement, he has to train for the life of a hero. He works out. He goes on missions. He recruits Edna to update his costume. He wears his suit under his regular clothes. You never know when the next moment to save the day presents itself, so he has to be ready.

What this means for you In the movies, “the road back” may come in the form of a training montage with inspirational music. In real life, it’s not that quick and easy. Determine what weaknesses you have to work on and then practice. Then practice some more.

Step 10: QUESTION long-held assumptions

When you first entered this world, you accepted the rules of the status quo. You believe that you produced energy by scaring kids, for instance. But what if you could break the rules? What if you unlearned what you learned? What if you could produce energy for Monsters Inc by making kids laugh instead of scream?

What this means for you Are you doing the same thing all the time, but expecting different results? Try the George Costanza approach: “I will do the opposite!”

Step 11: Save the day WITH FRIENDS

You’re now ready to conquer the problem. The trials you’ve been through have made you better, stronger and more prepared. But you realize you still need help. You can’t do it alone. When it appears that all hope is lost, karma can come back to save the day. Save someone, and one day they may save your life.

What it means for you Never pass up an opportunity to help someone else. You never know when they will return the favor.


You’ve faced your failures and challenges and survived. You are “reborn” with greater knowledge and power than when you first started. You teamed up with friends to save others, and in the process saved yourself.

What this means for you Take stock of what you accomplished. Enjoy it.

Step 13: Brace yourself for the SEQUEL

Every good story deserves a sequel. Keep swimming!

What this means for you You’ve learned from your failures, now learn from your successes — and build off them. Get ready for the next adventure and watch the cycle repeat itself.

the end

The Creative Journey

A timeless path to discovery

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