Mastering Story Craft: Lessons from Wreck-It Ralph

Image credit: promotional poster for Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Walt Disney Animation Studios

Bet you weren’t expecting a Disney movie for the first film post. But there’s a reason these stories resonate with children and adults alike. Disney— and to a greater extent, its subsidiary, Pixar— pays special attention to story craft. Of course, there are exceptions (looking at you, every Disney sequel ever created); but as a rule, these films are memorable and meaningful because of how artfully their stories have been crafted.

Image credit: Walt Disney Pictures

Notice that I call it story craft and not story structure, which is what many blogs detail: the hook, the first plot point, the inciting incident, the midpoint, etc. Armed with this information, many writers set to work creating a detailed outline of every plot point in their story.

In my opinion, this is backwards; as author Ray Bradbury so eloquently put it: “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” A perfect plot structure is not the end goal; it’s merely a byproduct of a beautifully crafted story.

So how do you craft a great story? By asking the right questions. Here are 3 questions* to establish audience (or reader) investment:

  1. What does the MC desire?
  2. What’s stopping him/her from getting it?
  3. What terrible consequences will result if he doesn’t get it?

Let’s explore how Disney’s 2012 film Wreck-It Ralph asks and answers these story questions with clarity and eloquence.

What does Ralph desire?

At the start of Wreck-It Ralph, we’re introduced to the titular character, the “bad guy” of arcade game Fix-It Felix Jr. In Ralph’s world— an arcade of both retro and modern games— bad guys like him never get to share the glory of good guys like Mario, Pac-Man, or Sonic. Ralph’s unmet desire is immediately articulated in the movie’s opening voice-over (shared in the context of “Bad Anon” support group):


Image credit: still from Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Walt Disney Animation Studios

“I see Felix up there, getting patted on the back— people are giving him pie and thanking him; so happy to see him all the time. And I think: ‘Man, it sure must be nice being the good guy.’”

Day after day, Ralph watches his game’s hero, Felix, get rewarded with medals, pie, and the esteem of their fellow game characters, the Nicelanders. Once the audience knows what the MC wants, tension is created: will he get what he most desires? Which leads us to…

What’s stopping Ralph from getting it?

In Ralph’s world, the prejudice against bad guys prevents him from getting the acceptance and respect he so desperately wants. Note that as character desires/goals change, so may the antagonistic forces preventing the MC from reaching them.

What terrible consequences will result if he doesn’t get it?


Image credit: still from Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Walt Disney Animation Studios

This question relates to stakes. In the beginning, the stakes are relatively low since the status quo will remain: if Ralph’s desire isn’t fulfilled he’ll have to spend another 30 years being the friendless bad guy who lives in the dump.

Alright, now that we’ve established desire, tension, and stakes, it’s time to drive the direction of the story by asking 3 new questions*:

  1. What would this character naturally do in this situation?
  2. How can things get worse?
  3. How can I end this in a way that’s unexpected but inevitable?

What would Ralph naturally do in this situation?

Ralph comes to the conclusion that winning a medal will prove he’s worthy of esteem and respect (this conclusion was reached after he crashed the game’s 30th anniversary party and confronted Felix and the Nicelanders in a passive-aggressive argument that involved cake). So naturally, he locates a game where he can sneak in and win a medal.

How can things get worse?

In early world-building scenes, it’s stated that if you die outside of your game, you die for good (i.e. you don’t regenerate). Okay, that definitely ups the stakes; when Ralph enters Hero’s Duty, a violent first-person shooter with killer alien bugs, his life’s now at stake.


Image credit: still from Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Walt Disney Animation Studios

How does this scene end in a way that’s unexpected but inevitable?

In every scene, the question hangs in the air: will the MC get what he wants? Now, the ultimate question (will Ralph get the acceptance he wants?) won’t be answered until the story’s climax; however, this question regarding smaller goals (will he get the medal?) will be answered one of two ways*:

 “No, and furthermore…”  =  escalation of an existing struggle

“Yes, but…” =  introduction of a new struggle

In Ralph’s case, the answer is “yes, but…” Yes, he got a medal; but, he crashed a stolen spaceship into another game, infected that game with a hitch-hiking alien bug, and then lost the medal.

This is a good place to point out that Ralph’s choices and actions are what lead to story complications. And that’s great! You want your MC to carry the story— both the “good” and “bad” parts.

Now, these questions are repeated over and over until their answers drive the story to its inevitable climax.

Toward the story’s midpoint, Ralph’s “smaller” goals shift; I’ll gloss over the finer plot points, but suffice to say, he realizes he must help a scrappy go-kart driver named Vanellope win a race to get his medal back. Here are the story questions repeated:


Image credit: still from Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Walt Disney Animation Studios

What does Ralph desire?

He still desires a medal, but to get that, he must help Vanellope win a race.

What’s stopping him?

At this point, the main antagonist is introduced: King Candy, the ruler of Vanellope’s game, Sugar Rush, who’s doing whatever he can to stop her from winning the race.

What terrible consequences will result if he fails?


Image credit: still from Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Walt Disney Animation Studios

With Ralph missing, Fix-It Felix Jr. has been put out of order. If he doesn’t return to his game soon (and we know he won’t return without his medal), his game will be unplugged and he’ll be permanently “homeless.”

What would Ralph naturally do in this situation?

Ralph reluctantly helps Vanellope build a go-kart and train to win the race, because he believes it’s his only way to get the medal back.

How can things get worse?

Remember that hitch-hiking alien bug? Well, it’s reproduced and spread throughout Sugar Rush like a virus; the bugs will soon destroy the game, then move onto the rest of the arcade’s games. Furthermore, we learn that because Vanellope is a “glitch,” she won’t be able to escape her home game. When Sugar Rush is destroyed by the swarm of bugs, she’ll be destroyed with it.


Image credit: still from Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Walt Disney Animation Studios

How does this end in a way that’s unexpected but inevitable?

Concerning the unexpected part, there was a twist: King Candy is revealed to be a character from another game who invaded Sugar Rush and re-coded it to make himself its ruler. Both Vanellope and Ralph must contend with him in their separate character arc climaxes.


Image credit: still from Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Walt Disney Animation Studios

Now for the inevitable part. Not all stories fully explain: why this character? Why not someone, anyone else? Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t stumble here. Only Ralph, with his wrecking abilities, can save Sugar Rush by shattering the Mentos ceiling above the Diet Cola volcano, causing it to erupt and draw the alien bugs to its explosion.


Image credit: still from Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Walt Disney Animation Studios

And there you have it! If you continually ask yourself these questions, you’ll be constantly ratcheting up the tension and stakes while creating a cohesive, believable story that ends unexpectedly but inevitably.

*Interested to learn more about story craft? All of this advice I adapted from Steven James’ Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules (2014). If you are serious about improving your writing, check out that book.

Now go curl up with some popcorn and watch Wreck-It Ralph!

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