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Lessons About Writing from Barbie

Last week, after two years of waiting, I finally entered the theatre to see Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the Barbie franchise. And in all its hot pink splendor, it did not disappoint.

I’ve been a fan of Gerwig as a director for years. Lady Bird is basically a biopic about my senior year of high school (I’m the same age as the main character, having graduated in 2003). Her version of Little Women not only revealed the original ending Louisa May Alcott had in mind for the book, but showed me why the novel’s conclusion didn’t sit right with me even when I first read it at age eight.

Her storytelling is downright snarky and hilarious . . . at least until it reveals deeper, more profound ideas that you didn’t expect were there.

I knew that Barbie and Greta Gerwig made the perfect combination. Especially after I saw that first look of Ryan Gosling as Ken.

Part of my excitement lay in the fact that making up sub-narratives about Barbie has been in my bones since I was a kid. I wasn’t into the typical ‘80s and ‘90s Barbies, though—my interest lay in the original Barbies from the ‘60s, the ones with the slanted, dramatic eyes and cool Audrey Hepburn-esque clothes.

My best friend and I would buy them at flea markets, then take them home and play with them, crafting intricate storylines that lasted for hours or even days. Sometimes we filmed them with my parents’ Betamax video camera, movies which have sadly been lost to time.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve been so psyched about this Barbie movie. Gerwig has picked up where my friend and I left off.

But as you know, every movie I watch comes with lessons in writing. So, allow me to share some things I’ve been stewing on since seeing the film related to storytelling.

Know the Rules of Your World

One of the things I loved most about Barbie was how Gerwig created an entire world based on the existing storylines and products in the franchise. For instance, one huge marketing point of Barbie is that she can be anything. That’s how we end up with Astronaut Barbie, Teacher Barbie, Doctor Barbie, Disco Queen Barbie, etc.

There are hundreds of powerful Barbies . . . but there are very few Kens, and mainly, they just hang out at the beach.

Therefore, it stands to reason that if Barbieland were a real place, women would hold the majority of positions.

In the movie, this is precisely the case. The Barbies (who are all named Barbie) occupy the presidency and the Supreme Court. They are Nobel Prize winners, authors, scientists, performers, and more. The possibilities are endless.

Meanwhile, Ken is . . . “just Ken.”

The conflict between the men and women of Barbieland over their roles in society forms a core part of the story. While some critics might argue that this promotes an extreme feminist narrative when women run the world and men have no value, I respond that the film is merely playing with ideas that have been there all along.

Gerwig has taken the existing conventions of the franchise and turned them into the rules of her fictional world.

The consistency with which she does this is astonishing. It also represents something all storytellers need to do. Think about the rules of your setting, particularly how the characters are permitted or not permitted to interact. Then, be sure to adhere to these rules throughout your writing process.

Go Beyond the Expected Plot Twists

Based on the trailer for Barbie, one thing I was excited to see was what would happen when Barbie and Ken were transported to the Real World. Honestly, I expected this to comprise the bulk of the story, and at first, that seemed to be where things were going. But I was wrong.

At the beginning of the film, Barbie is bubbly, happy, and enjoying her “own pink world” (to quote Lizzo’s opening anthem “Pink”). At least until she becomes plagued with an existential crisis and thoughts of death.

The only cure is for Barbie to journey to the Real World, find the girl who is playing with her, and help her resolve whatever inner conflict is causing her to channel her emotions into Barbie.

At first, this looks like it’s going to be a Joseph Campbell-esque Hero with a Thousand Faces journey narrative. Wrong.

To make a long story short and spoiler-free, Barbie has to go back to Barbieland . . . where her journey to the Real World has resulted in serious consequences that threaten to destroy her world as she knows it.

When crafting your story, especially in the beginning stages, put yourself in your readers’ shoes and think about what they will expect. Then, consider the possibilities of where else the story could develop.

I usually find that the first two or three ideas I come up with aren’t the best ones. They’re just bridges to the more original ideas that I wouldn’t have arrived at otherwise.

Think About How Your Characters’ Worldviews Change

Pretty much every primer on fiction writing will tell you that your character must want something for a story to work. This is basically true—there are many stories where characters start off wanting one thing but end up discovering something else that is more important.

I find it equally helpful to think about character change in terms of worldview. In successful stories, characters change not just through a shift in their desires but in how they view how the world and their place in it.

At the beginning of Barbie, Barbie is accustomed to her hot pink, matriarchal world of dance parties and girl power because that’s all she knows. However, her journey to the Real World shows her that life is much more nuanced and complicated than this.

Without revealing too much, I’ll say that for the first time, she discovers that life is composed of complicated layers of joy, grief, sadness, and excitement, dramatically changing how she views her life.

The choices she makes throughout most of the film and its conclusion stem directly from this realization.

What do your characters believe to be true about themselves at the story’s beginning versus the end? If you can pinpoint this internal change, it gives you a tool for outlining the external events that lead them toward it.

Want More Storytelling Tips?

Check out my FREE Ultimate Writing Project Workbook.

It contains writing tips, templates, prompts, and tools for taking your current project from idea to finished book so you can reach your full creative potential as a writer and impact and inspire readers.

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