What I Learned About Storytelling From Once Upon a Time

If you’re a Disnerd (aka Disney Nerd), chances are you have either heard of, or have binged-watched, the TV series Once Upon a Time. The show follows the stories of beloved classic Disney characters such as Snow White, Prince Charming, and the Evil Queen, along with additions from other fairytales, and original characters, like the main character, Emma Swan.

Throughout 2019, my boyfriend and I watched the series together on Netflix. While we both enjoyed the show, it also served as an excellent opportunity to enhance my storytelling skills. Today, I’d like to share what writing tips I picked up from Once Upon a Time.

Lesson 1: Make ALL Characters Matter

The most important piece of writing advice I learned from seven seasons of Once Upon a Time is that as storytellers, in order to weed out unimportant information, we need to make sure that every character who enters the spotlight plays a role in progressing the story.

Once Upon a Time is a prime example of how well this concept works, especially in the first couple seasons as a menagerie of storybook characters are introduced. Instead of having Storybrooke, (the small, coastal Maine town that serves as the setting) be filled with a bunch of random fairytale characters that do nothing, each one is given a role in how the curse came to be, or how the curse will be broken. Because viewers are introduced to all these relevant characters, it enhances the world-building and makes viewers feel as if they themselves are town residents.

Reflect

Think back to a book that you either DNF’d (did not finish) or didn’t enjoy. Did the main characters seem stagnant? Did some of the background characters serve little to no purpose?

Lesson 2: How to Write Anti-Heroes

Before watching Once Upon a Time, I had heard of anti-heroes, but wasn’t really sure what they were. Fortunately, Once Upon a Time offers beautifully depicted examples of anti-heroes with Regina and Rumpelstiltskin.

What is an Anti-Hero?

An anti-hero is a morally gray character who, while not inhibiting typical heroic qualities (bravery, morals, selflessness), makes heroic decisions from time-to-time. They can both hinder and help positive progress in the story.

So, let’s see how these two characters fit this description.

  • Rumpelstiltskin (Rumple, for short), often offers help to other characters in order to render them indebted to him in the future. His acts of kindness are self-motivated and, for the most part, result in more evil than good.
  • Regina is introduced as the epitome of evil in the fairytale world, but as the series progresses, actively works toward become a better, changed person to seek true fulfillment.

As you can see, there are two sides of the anti-hero coin. In Rumple’s case, throughout the series, he is constantly torn between his desire to become a changed man for the sake of finally savoring true love, or becoming the most powerful being alive.

On the other hand, Regina originally relishes her power, but feels unfulfilled as the series progresses. When she also gains the chance to experience love and acceptance despite her past, she finds that she must embrace the opportunity fully, and overcome her selfish desires if it means finding peace within herself.

Personally, as someone who admires positive character arcs, I’d say Regina’s progression was my favorite to watch; however, an anti-hero portrayal like Rumple’s makes for a binge-worthy story as well.

Reflect

Who are your favorite morally gray characters in literature? How are they portrayed as the anti-hero, and what makes them so likeable despite their apparent flaws?

Lesson 3: Chemistry is Key

Though, as a whole, Once Upon a Time is one of my all-time favorite TV shows, I’ve found season seven to be a major disappointment.

An unprecedented couple is introduced to viewers as the season begins, and, in my opinion, taints the last season due to all the focus on their romance. Why?

Make them Lovable

To avoid spoilers, I won’t mention the couple by name. Instead, let’s call them Bonnie and Clyde.

In season seven, Bonnie and Clyde meet in what is supposed to be a meet-cute turned hate-to-love scenario. Clyde, for all that he’s worth as our main character, has redeeming qualities that make him likable.

But, then there’s Bonnie, who is bland, irresponsible, and naive, yet somehow has Clyde falling for her. No explanation provided.

Viewers have claimed Bonnie’s unfavorability is a result of poor character development, and I agree. Bonnie is portrayed as a stereotypical damsel in distress, one-dimensional character who viewers cannot empathize with. Viewers wonder why she matters. This is not an aspect of good storytelling.

This damper on season seven taught me that while creating life-like characters is a must, it is even more necessary to breathe life into a romantic relationship you’re hoping readers will forever ship and fangirl over.

Give them a reason to feel the feels.

Reflect

Think back to a romance novel or movie that you deemed as cringe-worthy. What about the couple did not work for you?

Lesson 4: Drop Reminders of Previous Events

One of the absolute best things about Once Upon a Time is that it is so detail-rich that you have to stay glued to the TV to know what is going on.

Unfortunately, this is also the worst thing about Once Upon a Time.

During the months my boyfriend and I watched the show, I can’t count how many times my momma, daddy, sister, her boyfriend, and my uncle all asked “what the heck is going on?” after only missing a few episodes.

So much happens within the span of those 45-minute episodes. It’s unbelievable. I’ve watched every episode (up until season seven), and I’m still confused about some things.

While this isn’t always a bad thing when you want viewers to become addicted to your content, imagine if you were reading a book like this and had to go back and re-read constantly. Wouldn’t it be easier for subtle hints to be dropped to remind people of the important events that happened?

Reflect

Think back to a book you’ve read that confused you. Did the events jumble in your mind? Did the pacing seem too fast?

Let’s Recap!

I learned the following about storytelling from Once Upon a Time:

  • Lesson 1: Make ALL Characters Matter
  • Lesson 2: How to Write Anti-Heroes
  • Lesson 3: Chemistry is Key
  • Lesson 4: Drop Reminders of Previous Events

Talk to Me, Arrowheads!

Are you a Oncer? What else has Once Upon a Time taught you about writing and storytelling? Drop your lessons learned in the comments!

Aim high, stay strong, and always hit your mark.

-Allyson 😀

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As an author and blogger, my goal is to teach writers that there is a way to write realistic, thought-provoking, redemptive Christian fiction that honors God while not sugarcoating the realities of the world. 

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