Storytelling is in many ways a form of magic. We writers have the ability to craft worlds out of thin air and breathe life into the characters residing in our heads. We have this immense power to make our readers feel things with swashes of ink on the page.
It's incredible to think about.
Few understand this magic quite like Disney. There's a plethora of articles delving into how these films use the elements of fiction. The way the opening montage of Up conveys Carl and Ellie's romance with hardly any dialogue, the use of nonlinear storytelling and fourth wall breaks throughout The Emperor's New Groove, and the found family and exploration of trauma in Lilo & Stitch are only a handful of recent examples.
Despite the variety across Disney's history, a number of storytelling elements remain the same, enhancing that feeling of nostalgia and familiarity many of us experience with these movies.
And when it comes to Disney musicals, one key ingredient is the "I Want Song," a concept that can also be applied to non-musical, non-Disney fiction.
Before The "I Want Song"
Disney films are known for their soundtracks, the order of which tends to follow a pattern.
The opening number is designed for worldbuilding. Though not as official of a term, I call these the "Where You Are Song." It's through these we get sweeping shots of the setting and get to know some of the cast. There may be hints of conflict sprinkled in, but it's mostly with the intention of getting audiences up to speed and filling in on what they need to know.
Let's take a look at some "Where You Are Songs," starting with one that is appropriately titled "Where You Are."
"Where You Are" ~ Moana
In this number, Moana's parents remind her of her place in the island's society and what will be expected of her as the daughter of a chief and future leader. We also see Moana grow up and take her place in the village, yet still long for whatever lies beyond the shore.
This comes after Moana's grandmother shares the tale of how Maui stole the heart of Te Fiti and the damaging ramifications, something Moana will set out to rectify, setting up that plot point as well.
"The Family Madrigal" ~ Encanto
Encanto starts off with "The Family Madrigal," during which Mirabel introduces her relatives and their gifts. There's a brief comment about Bruno not being talked about, foreshadowing that key plot point, but it also tells viewers that, unlike everyone else in her "perfect" and "amazing" family, Mirabel is the only one who does not have a special power.
Mirabel is the odd one out, and outwardly doesn't seem to mind apart from dodging the question. Instead, she praises her family and proclaims that she's amazing because she's related to them.
"Fathoms Below" & "Daughters of Triton" ~ The Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid opens with "Fathoms Below" flowing into "Daughters of Triton" which introduce the characters above and below sea level, already playing into the importance both have in the story.
In the latter, Ariel's absence from the concert tells audiences that her interests in the human world may be considered a distraction from her duties as a princess of Atlantica.
"The Gospel Truth" ~ Hercules
This absolute banger makes the necessary exposition of Greek mythology easy to digest. The Muses quickly review what viewers need to know and how the Gods factor in. There are actually multiple renditions introducing key figures like Zeus and Hades.
"Down In New Orleans" ~ The Princess and the Frog
The Princess and the Frog shows how chaotic Tiana's life is as she works towards her goals through sweeping overviews during "Down In New Orleans." The hustle and bustle of her multiple jobs in the city's commotion contrast the scene of her and Charlotte listening to fairytales as children. She's had to grow up and face reality, no longer having time for fantasy but is still a dreamer nevertheless.
What Is The "I Want Song"?
Once the setting and characters have been established, we get to know the protagonist on a deeper level and get a sense of what they most desire. This is where the "I Want Song" kicks in.
This term refers to the musical number sung by the main character as they dream of what could be and what they most desire.
"How Far I'll Go" ~ Moana
After being informed of sudden rot in the coconut trees and empty traps no matter where the fishermen set them, Moana is desperate to find a solution.
After wrestling with her decision, she defies her father's strict rules against venturing beyond the reef and steals a canoe from the beach in her determination to save her people.
"Waiting On A Miracle" ~ Encanto
"Waiting On A Miracle," is a lament sung by Mirabel as she's feeling left out and less-than after Antonio receives his gift, making her the only one of her family members to not possess a special power.
All she really wants is to feel equal among her loved ones, and she has begun to lose the hope she's maintained beneath the surface for years.
"Part Of Your World" ~ The Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid has perhaps the most iconic "I Want Song" in "Part Of Your World." Up until that point, it's been made clear that Ariel doesn't fit in with merfolk and has ambitions no one seems to understand. All she wants is to be able to explore the human world despite how her father despises them.
"Go The Distance" ~ Hercules
Upon being given the medallion his adoptive parents found with him as a baby, Hercules sets out on a journey of self-discovery. This ballad explores his desire to find out where he truly belongs after feeling like an outcast for most of his life.
No matter what it takes, he is determined to find where he belongs.
"Almost There" ~ The Princess And The Frog
Tiana brings her mother down to the building she's intending to buy for her own restaurant, something she has been saving towards for years. It's not in the best shape, but "Almost There" takes us into Tiana's visions of what it could be with just a little work.
And, side note, the change in animation style for this number is one of my favorite parts of this movie.
The purpose of the "I Want Song" in these movies and others is to get inside the protagonist's heart. Lyrics relate to feeling out of place or yearning for a change. It builds the connection between the character by presenting the motivations that will drive them throughout the story.
But what if the story you're writing is not a film? After all, characters in a novel won't break out into song on the page. Does the "I Want Song" concept still apply?
The short answer is yes.
There are a few reasons to give your main character the essence of an "I Want Song" even if your chosen media of storytelling doesn't lend itself to musical inclinations.
Why Your Book Needs An "I Want Song"
Many books share a structure. The first chapter establishes your character's day-to-day life. It's a snapshot of what's normal for them before the plot rears its ugly head and shakes things up with the inciting incident. Readers love to see characters who take action, but they also need to understand what drives them to do so.
That's where the "I Want" comes in. You need to show the audience what the character wants and why they feel out of sorts or induce a drastic change that throws everything they know into turmoil.
One of the most significant pieces of writing advice comes down to three little words: make me care.
Readers are more likely to feel connected to your story if they can relate to the character or at least understand why they are embarking on this journey. Character motivations are crucial, whether it's a major thing like saving the world from imminent doom and destruction or something as simple as the classic example of wanting a glass of water.
When a character just does something because the plot pushes them into it, your reader's interest may fall flat. If the character isn't shown to care about the events happening to them, why should your reader? A character having a reason and motive to carry through is more compelling. They are someone to root for because we know what is at stake for them and what matters to them.
How To Incorporate The "I Want Song" Into Non-Musical Fiction
Unlike a Disney movie, the protagonist in a novel isn't going to belt out a few bars to tell the reader what's going on. So how do you work the "I Want Song" magic on the page?
Show, Don't Tell is going to be a big player here.
As the opening chapter sets the stage, you either show that your character is in their comfort zone or not comfortable at all.
This is your chance to start planting seeds in your reader's mind. Demonstrate why they think things are good as-is or why they long for something else.
The impact of the inciting incident marks a turning point. The protagonist can either do nothing and wait on a miracle or take action and see how far they'll go.
Typically, they'll want to take action.
This may be immediate or come with some deliberation, as exhibited in the Refusal of the Call plot point. Ultimately, something's got to give and the adventure begins. And the reason for this pertains often to that character's motivations.
Active characters are more compelling than characters who are passive and just let things to and around them, and active characters with clear and defined goals are more likely to resonate with the reader.
The I Want Chapter
Unlike protagonists in Disney films, characters in a novel don't have the option of breaking out into song.
Unless you take the route of the High School Musical 3: Senior Year novelization and write something in like "Troy sang a song from the musical and screamed on the auditorium stage."
Paraphrasing, of course. I just remember cackling at how they glossed over yet still acknowledged "Scream."
Thus, you need to find another avenue for exploring your character's goals.
What other options are there for an "I Want Song?"
Depending on your narration style, you could have the character simply say, "I want XYZ." and run down a list of the reasons.
I have to get this glass of water before I die of thirst.
I want to get out of my hometown and see the world.
Carrie needed to make peace with her divorce.
Some authors will include the "I Want" scene as exposition.
Four years had passed since Brad's fall on the ice during the Olympics. With the next Games on the horizon, he could not make the same mistakes.
Writers may also use a flashback and transport readers back in time to witness the events for themselves. In the above example, we would see Brad's Olympic failure.
The way you tackle the "I Want" concept is going to depend on personal preference and the specific needs of your story. Regardless of your approach, giving voice to your character's motivations and desires will have them resonate with readers all the more.
From "Someday My Prince Will Come" to "Into The Unknown" and everything in between, the use of "I Want Songs" in Disney movies does more than pad the run time or put itself in the running for Oscar contention. They all have the purpose of introducing audiences to the protagonist and establishing their motivations. We learn what doesn't feel right to them and what they want to change.
Translating the concept to the page can be done in a variety of ways. The main thing is that you introduce the things that matter most to your characters to build that foundation moving forward. Show readers why the adventure and risks are worth it.
Make them care.