Elsa Introduces the Monomyth to Future Writers

Warning: this post contains spoilers for Frozen 2.

Before I took my girls to see Disney’s Frozen 2 when it hit the theaters, I new exactly how it would end… and not because the book was already in stores, spoiling the whole plot. It’s because of McDonalds Happy Meals.

How could this be? Well you see, Frozen 2 toys showed up at McDonalds and each came with a little square code token. I scanned it with my iPhone and got access to a song from the movie, “Into the Unknown”.

Those three words. That’s all it took for me to know the entire plot.

That’s because Frozen 2 follows the classic monomyth storyline. “Into the Unknown” is a key turning point in the classic hero’s journey story. If Elsa’s going to follow the monomyth then she might as well be blatantly obvious about it. Let’s break it down.

Unusual Birth/Origin. Elsa knows who her parents are but she questions where her magic came from since she’s had it her whole life. This gives her a crisis of identity, which sets her up for her “Show Yourself” apotheosis at the climax.

The Call. Elsa gets her call to adventure when she literally hears an ancient Swedish herding call, “ah-ah-ah-ah.” This is called “kulning”; other northern cultures have variations of it too, including the Vikings.

Refusal of the Call. Elsa tries to ignore the voice. The first verse of “Into the Unknown” makes this clear: “I can hear you, but I won’t. Some look for trouble, while others don’t. There’s a thousand reasons I should go about my day, and ignore your whispers, which I wish would go away…”

Helpers/Amulet/Supernatural Aid. This prop and/or person is a source of unknown-world knowledge and also a tool to solve problems the hero can’t get out of. This role is filled by Anna, Olaf, and her mother’s shawl. Anna comes along in the protector/helper role and ultimately is the one that helps Elsa from afar. Olaf (the supernatural snowman) provides the wisdom that “water has memory” and the shawl connects the girls to the Northuldra while also providing clues about the fifth spirit.

Into the Unknown / Crossing the Threshold. Frozen 2 makes it literal again. As Elsa sings “Into the Known” she moves from refusal to acceptance and decides to go on the journey. Then Elsa and friends go through a magical force-field to enter the enchanted forest, serving as the threshold between the known world of Arendelle and the magical world of trials and adventure.

Tests/Belly of the Whale. Elsa’s first tests is in Arendelle as she recognizes the four spirits and gets everyone to evacuate. In the forest she encounters the spirits again and this time she tames wind and fire, proving her power over them. Later she tames the water spirit. Anna figures out how to use the Earth giants to solve the big problem… this is one of the unique ways Frozen 2 wove the two sisters’ plot arcs together.

Meeting With the Goddess. This role is filled by Elsa’s mother, or rather, a memory of her in the ice, showing Elsa’s past and revealing to her who she is.

Death. Often in a hero’s journey the hero has to die and then somehow conquer death or ascend above it. Elsa gets frozen solid and is essentially dead and must rely on her sister to solve the big problem before she can come back to complete the rescue of Arendelle. In the way the two sisters’ stories are woven together, it is Anna who saves the magical world and Elsa who saves Arendelle—each sister saving the world that will eventually be ruled by the other sister.

Climax & Apotheosis: Elsa’s plot-line climaxes when she tames the water horse and enters her own Fortress of Solitude. The song “Show Yourself” brings us to the climax and her final form transformation.

Magic Flight: Elsa does not have to escape from anything… instead she has to ride as fast as she can on a magic water horse to Arendelle to save it from being destroyed since Anna broke the dam.

Elixir: This is something that redefines how our hero’s role in society has changed. The only physical change we see is Elsa’s outfit but this signifies that she is now the fifth spirit and as such she adopts a new role as guardian of the enchanted forest instead of being Queen of Arendelle.

Home/Master of Two Worlds. To come full circle, everyone is home again. We see that even in her new role in the forest keeping the spirits happy (which benefits both peoples) Elsa won’t miss the wedding and she keeps in touch with home by sending letters. She has found her place in both worlds.

Brandon Sanderson cured my writer’s block… twice

I started writing lengthy fantasy and space epics before I hit puberty. Somewhere in my house there is a pink binder that still contains all four hundred handwritten pages of a ridiculous space epic I wrote back when I was an awkward teenager obsessed with Star Wars. That binder travelled to the U.K. with me at one point. I wrote about star-fighters and space weddings while bus touring through fields of sheep surrounded by beautiful blue-green hills they called “mountains” (where I come from, mountains have glaciers).

It’s safe to say that book was terrible, given that it was started by a ten-year-old. I haven’t read it.

Writer’s Block SUCKS. Sometimes it manifests as a wall you hit and you can’t write until you figure out what the problem is and how to get around it. And then there’s the other kind. The distraction.

Life hit me like an asteroid knocking my ship off course. I was en route to new worlds, new adventures, when all of a sudden BAM! I’m in college. I forget about writing. So much to do, new friends to make, new hobbies to discover. I became a cosplayer. I started working in technology. I got married.

Then I discovered Brandon Sanderson’s lectures on YouTube. I was so excited to learn that I can go to YouTube and watch college lectures on writing science-fiction and fantasy by one of my favorite authors. I started watching them. All of them. This was what I had been missing from the IB English and Dramatic Writing classes I had taken in high school and college. I was irrevocably inspired. I started writing again.

Score one for Sanderson!

I would write as I rode the bus to and from work, developing my skill, brainstorming worlds and plots and typing them up on my laptop. But then I went to work at a desk behind a computer all day. So when I got home from work I did what any screen-weary geek would do… I worked on my next cosplay.

I started making costumes in 2000. I learned to sew, made a bunch of Star Wars costumes, and later turned this into a semi-pro cosplay hobby. I made costumes from Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, even Vin from Sanderson’s Mistborn complete with a mistcloak of my own design. I built costume armor based on superheroes and video game characters, favoring strong female warriors. I started a cosplay crafting blog to share the knowledge and build community and began speaking at conventions, meeting a lot of amazing local talent. I really needed this creative outlet that allowed me to explore my fandoms while pulling me away from the computer. I won’t even start on the video-games.

I worked on developing my stories between large costume projects. I set goals for my writing. I tracked my words per day in Excel, complete with pivot charts for analysis. I wrote 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. The book was half-completed but it was a good exercise in applying what I had learned, and figuring things out as I wrote. I started more stories, more ideas. I finished an epic novel and set it aside, hoping to come back to it after gaining more experience. I wrote more fantasy adventures. I started the Nanowrimo challenge again.

Then the asteroid of life swung around and took another pass at me. I was pregnant. I had to prune back my activities. First to get chopped was writing, then I took a break from singing at church, and I focused on costuming because it was the only hobby I could still maintain. Plus I had to make all the cute baby costumes for my adorable baby. I quit my job so I could spend more time with my daughter.

Writing becomes this tantalizing treat just out of reach. I try to start writing again a few times. I get some good ideas together, start a couple of stories. I try using Scrivener but it feels like data entry. I need a clear, blank paper, like Word. Nothing fully takes off and I set it aside.

Somehow seven years have passed by and the kids are now in school much of the day. I have a little free time but I don’t want to sew things. Clothes don’t fit me like they used to and with the changes to how the local conventions are run I no longer have any desire to make new costumes. I sew a few things for American Girl dolls… I even made one as Menolly from Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffrey. I’m unsure where to go from here.

Wait! I used to write things. And then I stumble upon Sanderson’s lectures again. No wait, these are new lectures, just uploaded this week! I start watching. I listen to them in the car driving the kids to and from school. And then I plot out an entire YA sci-fi trilogy from scratch and start writing again.

Score two for Sanderson!

I don’t know where this will take me, but I now know exactly how to get out of a writing schlump. Sanderson is the pep talk I didn’t know I needed. My big breakthrough this time was hearing how he goes about plotting: figure out your big moments, then work backward and determine the steps to get there. It’s like SCRUM for novel-writing! It just clicked for me.

I have several chapters written in my current project so far, after about ten days of world-building and writing. I’m writing every day, mostly in the evening (after I’ve thought about it all day). Plus, I started this blog!

So, i want to give big thanks to Brandon Sanderson for making his lectures available online for free – and thank you to everyone involved in the filming and everything else needed to make this happen. Sharing knowledge is such an impactful way of opening a craft to new talents, inspiring others and helping them reach for their dreams. Instead of drowning in distractions.