Saving Mr. Banks is a great film and a good script to study because it contains important lessons on story design and screenwriting. Here are five lessons from the script.
1. Saving Mr. Banks Relies on Both Conflict and Mystery as its Story Engines
A story engine is the conflict, mystery, or situation that drives the action in the movie and that is designed to keep the audience interested in the story.
A lot of movies have multiple engines that relate to one another, and that is the case with Saving Mr. Banks.
The first engine of Saving Mr. Banks involves conflict, which requires one of the main characters to have a goal.
A lot of story gurus say your protagonist needs a goal–and for movies, that goal should be external (that is, filmable) and specific.
The protagonist of Saving Mr. Banks is P.L. Travers. I define the protagonist as the character for whom the story exists. The story is in effect happening to the protagonist because the character needs to have the story experience to grow.
By that definition, P.L. Travers is the protagonist, but in this movie, she does not have a goal.
Walt Disney is the one who has the goal of Saving Mr. Banks: his external, specific goal is to get Travers to sign over the rights to make a Mary Poppins film.
P.L. Travers, although suffering from some financial difficulties, resists this goal. She doesn’t want to give away Mary, who is family to her. So, the first principal story engine of the movie is a negation conflict between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers
A negation conflict is a conflict in which character A wants X, and character B keeps saying no or refusing in different ways. Character B has no independent goal (except to maintain the status quo).
In Saving Mr. Banks, this conflict is not resolved until Walt Disney chases Travers back to London in the film’s climactic scene.
The second principal story engine of Saving Mr. Banks is a mystery that is related to the conflict. That mystery is what happened to Travers as a child and how does it relate to why she is the way she is and so resistant to Disney.
Now, no one asks this question explicitly in the movie, but the frequent flashbacks implicitly set up this question. Our brains are always trying to make connections and see patterns, and when the writers start drip feeding us flashbacks to Travers’ childhood, we think, “Ah, this is a clue to how she became the uptight woman she is.” And we welcome each flashback as another puzzle piece to fit into our slowly developing picture of why she behaves as she does.
A strong advantage of any story engine involving mystery is that it invites the audience to participate in constructing the meaning of the story, and this keeps the audience engaged.
2. Saving Mr. Banks Has Interesting Relationship Arcs
While these two story engines dictate most of the scenes, there are two other important recurring elements in the script, and they both focus on an evolving relationship and a relationship arc.
[If you want to read more about how focusing on relationships can help guide the story design process, check out Why Character Relationships Matter.]
Although the central relationship in Saving Mr. Banks is between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers, there are two other relationship arcs worth noting.
One is the relationship between P.L. Travers and her driver, Ralph.
Kelly Marcel, one of the writers of the movie, explained in an interview with Go Into the Story that she added the character of Ralph to help soften and round out how P.L. came across:
“Not that I wanted PL to be more sympathetic but that I felt we needed to see a tiny shard of light, a sliver of humanity and that’s how Ralph came to be. He was a very very late addition to the script. I had finished the draft and it still didn’t feel right to me. Her core felt like it remained unseen. I needed someone to like her, and Ralph did and could, because he simply didn’t see her darkness, so overwhelmed with the darkness in his own life was he.”
The other relationship worth watching the film for is P.L.’s relationship with Mickey Mouse, which is used as a comedic runner throughout the story. I won’t spoil it, but if you watch Saving Mr. Banks, you’ll see how Mickey Mouse plays a comedic role at crucial story junctures, including the ending.
3. The Climax of Saving Mr. Banks Resolves Both Story Engines at the Same Time
The two story engines of the movie–Disney trying to convince P.L. to sign over the rights and the mystery of why P.L. is the way she is–are both resolved in the climax of the story, which is the scene in which Disney chases her over to London.
In that scene, Disney solves the mystery of why she is acting the way she is and thereby wins the conflict by convincing her to heal herself by giving Mr. Banks to Disney.
[To read more about climaxes, check out the post The Case for Writing the Climax First.]
As I write in the above post, one thing to focus on in the climax is what is the thing your character couldn’t do in the beginning of the story that the character can do by the climax. And that thing for P.L. Travers is signing away the rights of the story. She is incapable of that in the beginning of the story but capable of it during the climax.
4. Walt Disney and P.L. Travers are Clone Characters
The reason Disney is able to unravel the mystery of P.L.’s behavior is that Disney is a clone character of P.L. That is, they are two characters dealing with the same emotional issue, except one of them, Disney, is dealing with the issue in a more evolved, healthy way. Thus, Disney represents what P.L. could become if she would just change her behavior.
In particular, the identical emotional issue these two characters are confronting is how to deal with their painful childhoods. In Disney’s case, he has learned to take his past and rewrite it as a story with a happy ending; this is his more evolved way of dealing with pain.
P.L., on the other hand, holds onto both the past and her pain. She failed to save her father in real life, and she, according to Disney, has given herself a life sentence as punishment. Disney proposes that P.L. let him rewrite that story and save Mr. Banks through a story, through imagination.
In the Kelly Marcel Go Into the Story interview, although she doesn’t use the term “clone characters” to describe Disney and P.L., it’s clear she in fact viewed the characters in that way:
“I don’t believe that the soul of Disney was the happiest place on Earth either. I was much more interested in the idea that these two people would eventually find out they were the same. They had just chosen different paths. Different ways of dealing with past pain and moving forward whilst still clutching onto it. Disney had clearly found the better, healthier way, but both of them were defined by what happened to them in their formative years. They just couldn’t see it in each other until everything was on the line for both of them.”
[If you want to read more about clone characters and how they help you develop your theme, check out How Clone Characters Can Improve Your Story.]
In the interview with Kelly Marcel, she also reveals that although she doesn’t outline, she did start the writing process with her theme in mind: “I’m personally a big fan of knowing what your theme is before starting. I think they can arise as you tell the story, but writing within and for a theme seems to me to help the process along. It allows for much more intricate storytelling, ways of speaking to the theme and letting your theme to speak to you, even unconsciously.”
5. Saving Mr. Banks uses Effective Mystery Subplots to Engage the Audience
Although Saving Mr. Banks has two main story engines, one of which is driven by mystery, the writers also use a mystery subplot to engage the audience further. And that mystery concerns pears–specifically, why P.L. has such a strong emotional reaction to pears when she discovers them in her hotel room.
This mystery subplot follows the structural steps of all mystery subplots: 1. introduce a question that you don’t give an answer to, 2. remind the audience of the question, and 3. answer the question later in the story.
Step one comes when P.L. first enters her Beverly Hills Hotel room. She reacts with horror to what she sees, including various Disney gifts, but we note her especially strong reaction to the pears among the other fruit in a fruit bowl. Ignoring the other fruit, she grabs the pears, goes to the balcony, and tosses them into the pool.
Her behavior raises an obvious question: what’s her issue with pears? The reason we don’t get an answer yet to this question is that there is no other character in the room to ask it.
This scene occurs on page 14.
The next reference to pears is on page 95 when her ill, bed-ridden father asks Ginty, who is P.L. as a child, to get him some pears. This reminds the audience of the question concerning the pears.
The final step comes on page 105, where we get the answer to why pears upset P.L. Travers so much. In that scene, which is a flashback, we learn that Ginty learns of her father’s death when she returns to the house with the pears, which spill out of the bag and scatter across the floor. And with that, we understand why P.L. has such a strong reaction to the pears in her hotel room.
[To read more about creating mystery subplots in a screenplay, check out How to Set Up and Pay Off a Mystery Subplot for Maximum Emotional Impact.]