Moana: Internal / External Parallelism

July 30, 2021

Moana is a Master Class

Moana is one of my favorite examples to use when talking about storytelling–in part because my son and I have watched it so many times. I wanted to focus in on Moana‘s beautiful parallelism between the internal (character) and external (plot) struggles.

They’re Lined Up


Moana wishes so bad to be a voyager. It’s who she is inside. The first act of the movie focuses on her passion for the sea singing about how far she’ll go. It’s satisfying to see that promise fulfilled as she overcomes barriers and gets all badass by the end of the movie.


This is pretty emblematic of the people of Motunui. They start out largely sedentary. They’ve forgotten who they are. Their boats are hidden. But they’ll take to the sea once more at the end of the story. Much like Moana, they’ll be true to who they are.


The concept of parallelism is one of those things that doesn’t sound right when it’s off. If you start a pattern, you maintain it. Here’s an example of grammatical parallelism: I like swimming, writing, and running. Once I start with a gerund (-ing) it’d be weird if I switched to an infinitive like this: I like swimming, writing, and to run. Logical or thematic parallelism isn’t as easy to demonstrate but it’s just as jarring when things don’t align.

Interest-Obstacle Engine

The threat of the lava monster grabs the audience’s attention, but the exterior plot doesn’t get them to care. It’s the internal tension that makes a story. My favorite explanation of this is in Aaron Sorkin’s MasterClass because it’s so simple. Someone wants something but they can’t have it. Moana wants to be a voyager but it’s not allowed. The interest and obstacle drive the whole story.

Click at Climax

At the denouement, the tense moment when the truth is revealed, Moana discovers that the lava monster is actually Te Fiti. She stops fighting the lava monster and is kind instead. The service of a loved one can help you be your true self. Ta-da!

The parallelism creates resonance, that emotional effect that sticks with you and makes you think. The clues were there the whole time! The same message solved everyone’s problem in the movie—even Maui, who jeopardized his claim to be the hero of all mankind. He just needed a hand to get back to his true self. The symbolic connection between the solutions feels well-crafted… because it is.

Key Takeaway: Align Internal and External Arcs

The resolution of the big problem should remind the audience of the hero’s personal issue.


The cover art for the video was taken from a talented artist I saw on Deviantart. Moana is a Disney movie on Disney+. I didn’t invent these ideas about story structure, I’m reciting them from these sources.

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