What “Finding Nemo” Can Teach Us About Story Tension

Image via Pixar's movie "Finding Nemo"

Image via Pixar’s movie “Finding Nemo”

Storytelling is in our blood, it binds us together as humans. On some intuitive level, everyone understands narrative structure, even little kids. All good stories have a clear beginning, middle and end. Ever try to skip parts of a story with a toddler? Even they can sense on a gut level that something is wrong if we miss a fundamental part of the story.

Thus, often when I am teaching new writers how to understand narrative structure, I use children’s movies. Frequently the narrative structure is far clearer, as well as the Jungian archetypes that are present in all great fiction. Additionally, all fiction can be boiled down to cause, effect, cause, effect, cause, effect. But, beyond that, novels are broken into scenes and sequels. For those who missed this post, I highly recommend you go here.

So how do we know when to cut a scene?

How do we knew when to begin and end chapters? How do we know what to trash and what to keep? Structure and conflict are like two gears.

Gears cannot turn unless there is another key wheel turning the opposite direction. No opposition, no power, no momentum. Same with a story.

All scenes have action. Action is more than a car chase or a bomb being diffused. Action does not mean a “bad situation.” All stories must have one main story goal, a core problem that must be resolved for the story to end.

Find Nemo.

I love studying children’s movies because they make it very easy to see and understand fundamental story structure.

In the Pixar film, Finding Nemo, what is the story goal for Marlin (the Clown fish father and protagonist)? Find his only son. How do we know when the movie is over? When Marlin and Nemo are reunited and safe at home, right?

Who is the Big Boss Troublemaker in Finding Nemo? The BBT is the character responsible for the story problem (the CORE antagonist). The BBT is Darla the Fish-Killer, who we, the viewer, don’t even see until Act II. Darla is the horrid little niece of a dentist who likes to go diving. The dentist (Minion) collects little Nemo from the ocean as a birthday gift, beginning the adventure of a lifetime for Marlin and Nemo.

In Normal World, Nemo and Marlin live in a sea anemone. Overprotective father Marlin finally allows little Nemo to go off school (pun intended), even though everything in his life revolves around keeping his son safe. This decision to let Nemo go to school is the inciting incident. If Nemo never went to school then he would never have been taken by the diver dentist.

The turning point into Act One is when Nemo is taken. That gives the clear story goal and the journey of the story is clear—Finding Nemo.

Today we are only going to look at scene antagonists who drive the action.

Obviously Marlin will not find Nemo right away. That would make for very boring fiction. No, there are a series of sub-goals that must be met to find his son.

Marlin takes off after the boat, but then fails to catch up.

He loses the boat and all seems lost, when he runs into another fish, Dori, who says she knows which way the boat went. Marlin follows, renewed in the chase and hopeful he will find Nemo, but then his new ally turns on him wanting to fight. She is unaware why Marlin is following her. Marlin soon realizes the only link to finding his son is a fish ally who suffers short-term memory loss.

Great.

We, the audience, think the journey is over, but then she tells him she does remember where the boat went. Marlin wants to go after his son, but then Bruce the Great White interrupts.

At first Marlin and Dori look doomed, but then Bruce collects them to join him in the Fish are Friends Not Food meeting (think shark AA—Fish Anonymous). So instead of Marlin being able to continue on his journey, he must stop to attend this Shark FA meeting.

He has to play along lest he get eaten and not be able to continue his journey. To make matters worse, the FA meetings are held in a sunken sub that is surrounded by mines. So we have outside obstacles—mines—and character obstacles—the Great White addict needing a Fish Friend for his meeting.

Marlin wants to look for his son. Bruce wants a fish friend to attend his FA meeting. This is what Bob Mayer teaches as a conflict lock. Please check out Bob’s books if you want to learn more.

At this point, Bruce is not Marlin’s enemy, but see how he is the antagonist? Bruce’s wants are in direct conflict with Marlin’s. Only one party can get his way. Marlin is held back from achieving his goal.

Through a fun series of events, Bruce ends up losing it and going after Marlin and Dori with the fervor of any addict as his shark buddies try to keep him from totally “falling off the wagon.” Marlin and Dori swim for their lives and while running, Marlin spots the diver’s mask (The diver dentist who took Nemo dropped his mask). The journey, otherwise, would have ended, but a wild twist of fate has renewed the search.

They have a clue and apparently Dori, the Forgetful Fish Ally that Marlin was going to dump at the first opportunity, can READ. He needs her.  But they must escape Bruce and get the mask.

They escape Bruce by detonating all the underwater mines, but then both Marlin and Dori are knocked unconscious. They awaken and realize that they are pinned under the sub, which is now sitting precariously off an undersea trench. The mask and only clue to finding Nemo is wrapped around Dori. As they try to look at the mask, the sub starts to slide and they lose the mask.

Scene goal. Marlin wants to get the clue, but then the submarine sends them fleeing for their lives. Just as they grasp for the mask, it drops down into the deep.

See how Marlin is progressively worse off as the story progresses? He seems farther away from finding his son, when in reality these are the necessary steps to FIND Nemo.

All looks as if it is lost. Marlin goes to give up, but his unlikely ally encourages him to go on and swim down in the deep to find the mask. Marlin has a chance to give up. He could at this point go home and give his son up for lost, but that would make a seriously sucky story. Marlin is a control freak who is ruled by his fears. He has to learn to be the master of his fears in order to rescue his son. Hemust press on in order to find Nemo. He swims down into the abyss as all good heroes should.

Marlin WANTS to find the mask, but then he and Dori soon realize it is nothing but blackness and they cannot see to find the mask. All seems lost. Ah, but then they spot a pretty light in the darkness…which turns out to be an angler fish that wants to eat them both.

Marlin wants to find the clue (mask).

Angler fish wants dinner.

Do you see how every break the protagonist gets comes with a new test? This is why it is so critical for us to at least start out with our story’s log-line. What is our story about? Learn more about log-lines (BIG story goal), here.

If the screenwriters didn’t know that the overall goal was for a neurotic fish father to swim to Sydney, Australia to rescue his son from a dentist’s fish tank before Darla the Fish-Killer’s birthday…this would have been a booger to plot. In ways it still is. How do we get Marlin from the Great Barrier Reef to a dentist’s office in Sydney? This is where setting sub-goals (scenes) makes life easier. When we know the ending, the main goal then it is far easier to plot the course.

Each scene needs a key wheel—an antagonist—to provide the opposition that will drive forward momentum.

Bruce the Great White and fish-addict in recovery is not Darla the Fish-Killer (the BBT), but he does keep Marlin from his journey…finding Nemo, so he IS an antagonist. In retrospect, Bruce’s intervention was fortuitous in that they never would have been in the area of the ocean where the one clue—the mask—was dropped.

Every scene needs an antagonist. Scenes MUST have conflict. No conflict? Not story. No forward momentum. We must always take a good hard look at our scenes and ask the tough questions. Ask, “What is it my protagonist wants? Who is in the way?”

If no one is in the way, then who can we put in the way? Conflict can even be as simple as allies disagreeing about a course of action—chase after bad guys or call the police and play it safe? Will the Elves take the Ring of Power to Mount Doom or will the Dwarves?

If everything is happening easily and all our characters are getting along? That’s a formula to bore a reader. Scenes where we have our protag thinking? That isn’t a scene, that’s a sequel. If a character is thinking, it better relate to something that just happened (a scene) and what to do next (next scene).

A “scene” that has characters talking about other characters is contrived information dump, not a scene. We can offload information in dialogue, but that cannot be the only purpose. Scenes are sub-goals—action blocks—that lead to solving the final problem.

I have a class coming up in a couple weeks, Creating Conflict and Tension on Every Page if you want to learn how to apply these tactics to your writing. Use WANA15 to get 15% off.

Does this clear things up that might be a little murky? What are some of your favorite movies that demonstrate these same story tactics?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.

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  1. #1 by LucyPireel on August 1, 2013 - 8:11 am

    Great post again. You mention things I must admit I don’t often think about, not with intend that is. You know that stuff about scenes and forward motion to it and action and such, but I’m a lousy plotter and my first drafts are always just that. Only after a few reads I start to weed out and fill in, or pace and move forward. Oh, well, I guess as long as the end result is great it doesn’t really matter how I get there. But good to be reminded on this matter!
    Thanks. :-)

  2. #2 by stephseclecticinterests on August 1, 2013 - 8:25 am

    My hubby loves “Finding Nemo” and used Bruce as his name at day camp. :D

  3. #3 by Brett on August 1, 2013 - 8:41 am

    I suppose I’m more of a character and image writer, so I’ve always had a hard time with plots. This is a really helpful way to look at it; I’ll have to do more research. And Nemo is a great example. Thanks for sharing.

  4. #4 by MikeW on August 1, 2013 - 9:40 am

    Good plotting all boils down to giving this experience to the reader:

    “Grab shell dude!”

    –Crush

  5. #5 by Kristen Johnson on August 1, 2013 - 9:56 am

    Thank you for this. Plot is something that I’m weak at, so this break down is very helpful.
    Thanks

  6. #6 by Lloyd A. Meeker on August 1, 2013 - 10:06 am

    Hi, Kristen – you inspired me to sign up for your “tension on every page” class, but I get a message that the discount code is not valid. Is there something else I should do before I register? Thanks.

    • #7 by Author Kristen Lamb on August 1, 2013 - 8:24 pm

      Email aim @ WANA intl dot com. I’m on vacation but my great WANA peeps can get that fixed for you.

  7. #8 by cynthiagrstacey on August 1, 2013 - 10:11 am

    This makes so much sense. I was having trouble getting from point A to Point B in my story and now I realize how to fix it. Thanks, awesome post!

  8. #9 by Poodlepal on August 1, 2013 - 3:02 pm

    Definitely, Nemo is a classic action movie, with an antagonist of some sort in every scene: Darla, whale, shark, anglerfish, mines, commercial fishing vessel, etc. Many romances I’ve read have scenes with no conflict at all–it’ll just describe a balloon ride or a picnic or something (and no, the balloon doesn’t crash or the salmon doesn’t go bad). Are there exceptions to this rule in some genres, or are these books just not that good?

  9. #10 by Daniel Escurel Occeno on August 1, 2013 - 4:36 pm

    BRAVE with Princess Merida is my favorite cartoon movie. Star Movies Asia started showing animation movies and I decided to watch CARS. I really liked it and CARS 2 had a good storyline. Because of it I decided to watch Brave and I really liked it. The queen mother becoming a mother bear because of witchcraft made the movie with the toughness of Brave learning to be a princess.

  10. #11 by Tracy on August 1, 2013 - 7:59 pm

    Excellent post- and I just thought that it was a great movie! I’ve got stickies with notes from the post and I signed up for your class. I need more tension and a bad guy and clearer goals….. and I’m a pantser so this was very helpful. Thanks Kristen.

  11. #12 by andrewknighton on August 2, 2013 - 2:45 am

    It’s a daft thing, but I ‘d not previously thought about the fact that each scene needs an antagonist. I get too wrapped up in the idea that my overall story has one, and treat that as enough, so this was useful for me – thanks.

    Plus Finding Nemo is such a lovely film. I first saw it in a cinema full of small children, and their excitement added to the pleasure of watching. It’s the only time I’ve ever been happy to have a date interrupted by squealing kids.

  12. #13 by nancyrae4 on August 2, 2013 - 7:36 am

    This is so helpful. Never thought of watching kid’s movies for writing info.’ll watch Nemo for antognist/protagonist action, and my family will be amazed!

  13. #14 by jodenton445 on August 2, 2013 - 6:17 pm

    Awesome post. So much great information and the examples you use to clarify concepts make them so much easier to understand. Thank you so much!

  14. #15 by Katie Cross on August 3, 2013 - 3:08 pm

    I needed that log line article today. Thanks Kristen!

  15. #16 by Athena Brady on August 5, 2013 - 1:49 pm

    I had to watch that film over and over as it was my grandaughters favourite film at the time. We had to sing all the songs especially “under the sea” as that was her favourite, great memories. I love the way you use it to make your point, fabulous post Kristen, thanks for sharing.

  16. #17 by James Cornwell on August 5, 2013 - 5:27 pm

    Wow, I so needed this article today! Just got back from SCBWI in L.A., and my brain’s full of ideas, but this is providing the other needed element: FOCUS! Thanks

  17. #18 by Lauren Craig on August 28, 2013 - 8:43 pm

    Reblogged this on Blog of a College Writer.

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