By Jody Hagaman and Jenni Stahlmann
Does your family love a good movie night? What if you could turn your family movie nights into fun, thought-provoking family discussions? Understanding some of the basics of plot development can do just that.
Most plots have some of the same basic elements, and when you understand them, you can have some really deep conversations about how the film used those elements.
In any story, first you have the world in which the story takes place. So, let’s use my favorite example Finding Nemo. It’s one of my most beloved Pixar movies, but it’s also a great model for explaining story elements because almost everyone is familiar with the movie, and it has clear examples of each element.
The world in Nemo is obviously the ocean, but if you were having a conversation with your family about this world, there’s a lot to this setting that is perhaps not so obvious. For starters, you could ask, what does this world tell us about the movie? What does it convey without coming right out and telling us? For one thing, it’s quite a paradox, isn’t it? It’s beautiful — full of bright and vibrant colors, a place where light can dance and sparkle and perform in amazing ways. It’s also treacherous. Danger can arrive on the scene in a moment’s notice, transforming the beauty of the ocean into horror and the light places into deep darkness.
The setting in Finding Nemo tells us something special about the entire story — things are not always as they seem, and even when they are, there are still two sides to many things, and a situation can flip from one extreme to another in a moment’s notice. For example, Dory is disturbingly forgetful, but her ability to read (something that relies exclusively on memory) is the key to their entire quest. A shark — one of the ocean’s greatest threats — has sworn off eating fish. The 150-year-old turtle (ancient by most standards) has the energy and youthfulness of a vibrant, young surfer dude. And the paradoxes go on and on and on. See how this could be an interesting way to discuss a film?
What else does the ocean tell us about the film? More than perhaps anything else, the ocean is vast. It’s quite literally unfathomable (the word fathom is a nautical measurement). The very world in which the movie takes place conveys the hopelessness of Marlin’s quest. Without saying a word, the setting causes us to feel Marlin’s sense of desperation by its inherent vastness.
The Main Character and His/Her Goal
Whenever we ask the question, “Whose story is Finding Nemo?” we typically get the quick response, “It’s Nemo’s story!” But then we ask, “Who is “finding” Nemo?” and that’s when the light bulbs go off. “Oh! It’s Marlin’s story!” This is a fun question to ask after any movie: “Whose story is it?” As with Finding Nemo, it’s not always immediately obvious.
Every main character in a good story has a goal. In fact, if you can’t quite put your finger on the main character’s goal, even after the movie is over, you probably didn’t enjoy the movie much. When we care about the main character (maybe even relate to the main character) and we understand his/her goal, then we are deeply invested in whether or not the main character achieves the goal.
When Finding Nemo opens, Marlin suffers an unthinkable tragedy, losing his wife and all but one of his 400 children. As a result, his primary goal in life is to keep that one remaining child — Nemo — safe. Until something happens that changes the trajectory of his life (and kicks off the story).
The Inciting Incident
When Nemo gets captured by the diver, the story of Finding Nemo truly begins, and in the process, Marlin’s goal is transformed. Instead of keeping Nemo safe, Marlin’s only objective becomes to find Nemo, and all of his paranoid safety precautions go out the window in this relentless pursuit. Nemo’s capture is what we would call the inciting incident of the story. It’s the thing that sets the story in motion. It’s the reason that this particular story is being told. Had Nemo not been captured, there would be no need to find Nemo.
The inciting incident is the moment when the main character is thrust into the action of the story, and it could be a fun family discussion figuring out what that point was. Often, as is the case with Finding Nemo, the inciting incident changes the main character’s goal, which is another powerful conversation starter: “Did the inciting incident change the main character’s goal?”
Often a story takes time to establish the world and acquaint us with the main characters before the inciting occurs, and so it can be tricky to figure out exactly what event set the story in motion. For example, in the movie The Goonies, the story first established the relationship between the main characters and described their desperate (and unjust) predicament, about to lose their homes (and all of life as they know it, including their close connection to each other) to a country club expansion project. The inciting incident occurs when they stumble upon a treasure map in Mikey’s attic and decide to go on a quest — a last ditch effort to bond before being torn apart.
Great conversation can happen after a family movie night if you ask the question, “What do you think the inciting incident was?” It might be obvious, but it could also be subtle and might even spark a fun and healthy debate. You can also ask if the inciting incident changed the main character’s goal or if in the course of the film other events changed the character’s goal. In the movie Cars, Lighting McQueen’s goal was to get to California and win the Piston Cup. But time and experiences in Radiator Springs changed that.
Once the story is set in motion, the central problem or conflict is introduced. A conflict can either be internal or external, and there can be multiple conflicts for the main character along the way, often in the form of obstacles or challenges. There are many different kinds of conflict used in a story, and it can be fun and engaging to try to figure out which ones were at play in the movie you watched. You could even keep an index card in the remote control basket with a list of these to prompt your discussion.
There are person versus person (character versus character) conflicts. These are often in the form of the protagonist (the main character — sometimes called the hero) versus the antagonist (the force opposing the main character — sometimes called the villain). Think of Simba versus Scar in The Lion King or Luke versus Darth Vader in Star Wars.
There is also person versus circumstances. This is the case in Finding Nemo. You could even say that the antagonist of this movie is distance itself. Then there’s person versus society, a super common central conflict in most dystopian stories. Think The Hunger Games or The Giver.
The next three conflict types are similar. There’s person versus nature as in the movie Twister where a group of storm chasers track a particularly violent outbreak of tornadoes in a mid-western town. This is similar to the conflict of person versus the unknown, which can be a supernatural or extraterrestrial force, a common central conflict in science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. Also similar to these is person versus machinery (or beast). As in The Matrix, it can be some kind of evil artificial intelligence or it can be dinosaurs gone awry like those in Jurassic Park.
Another conflict type is person versus self, which can happen when a character is battling two competing desires (often one good and one evil) such as Frodo does in The Lord of the Rings or battling two very opposite personas (think Batman). Carl Fredrickson in the Pixar movie Up is a great example of this conflict style. He’s still mourning the loss of his wife, but when he finds a letter from her to go find his own adventures, he has to decide whether or not he’s going to consent to a new opportunity.
Last of all, we have person versus fate or a divine force. Evan Almighty and The Shack are good examples of this. Often, in the face of this kind of conflict, the only thing a character can do is go with it. What can frail humanity do in the face of divine intervention?
Throughout the rising action, questions are raised that the audience wants answered, and that’s another thing your family could discuss. “What questions did the movie raise for you that held your interest as you waited for answers?” “Were the answers satisfying?” “Were there any questions left unanswered, and if so, how do you feel about that?”
Some people call this the climax, but I don’t like that as much because often, there is more than one turning point in a story. In The Lion King, Simba faces a turning point after the hyenas drive him away, and he finds himself alone in a vast wilderness. Another turning point happens when Pumba and Timon find him and welcome him to join their “hakuna matata” way of life, and yet another one happens when he returns home to rescue his people from Scar’s oppression.
A turning point tends to happen when the main character faces an intense part of the conflict. And most often, right after a turning point, the character faces a new world (even if for just a brief time). When Nemo is captured, it’s a turning point in his story, and he confronts a new world in the dentist’s fish tank. Sometimes the turning point brings about a new emotional world. For example, a character might have a big fight with his best friends, and for a time, he’s left feeling depressed and alone.
This is another one of those literary terms that I don’t love because falling action sounds like the action is winding down, but very often, this is an exciting part of the story. For example, the falling action in Toy Story 1 includes Buzz and Woody’s escape from Sid’s house and their rocketing into Andy’s car to be reunited with their owner.
In essence, the falling action includes all the steps a character has to take to get to the resolution, and those steps can be pretty exciting. They can also make for great family conversation.
The resolution of a story doesn’t necessarily mean a happy or even a neat and tidy ending, but it should mean that, at the very least, all the questions that were raised during the film are answered. We learn whether or not the main character has reached his or her goal. In the movie Cars, Lighting McQueen does not win the Piston Cup, but he wins something more important, friendship and honor.
Talking about these things as a family, draws us closer as we gain unique insights into how the people in our household think, what they value, and what makes them tick. It stimulates critical thinking, and instills in our kids a desire to be active participants in art forms rather than mindless consumers.
In these strange times of on and off quarantine, understanding basic plot elements can transform our time indoors into lasting memories, personal growth, and deep bonding experiences.
Jenni and Jody are Mr. D Live teachers who teach a self-paced Advanced Writing course.