A book called Save the Cat! helps me the most when I'm struggling to nail down a plot. It's written for screenwriters, but regular ole novel writers can find priceless nuggets of wisdom as well. My favorite nugget of wisdom is the explanation of story beats, or the basic structure of successful stories.
Last time, I wrote about a Pixar movie I love, and why I believe it is so powerful. Today I want to talk about story beats, and how Finding Nemo (mostly) fits in. Spoiler alert: I don't like Finding Nemo. I could never articulate why, however, until I learned about story structure. Then everything fell into place for me.
If you want to learn more about story beats and structures, I highly recommend Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder.
Opening Image: We recognize the danger of living in the ocean, and why it would terrify Marlin, as we see his wife and babies (all but one!) annihilated by a bigger fish.
Theme Stated: Marlin tells Nemo, and us, that staying safe and not taking risks is the best way to live your life.
Set-Up: Nemo goes to school for the first time, and Marlin is having a hard time with the prospect of his increased freedom. Nemo's friends dare each other to go further and further into the ocean.
By this point, Snyder says that all the main characters should be introduced or at least hinted at. But... Finding Nemo is going to wait to introduce one of its main characters.
Catalyst: Nemo gets "fishnapped" by the dentist.
Debate: Can Marlin find and save his son?
This is where Marlin finally meets Dory, as he swims around desperately trying to follow the boat that took Nemo away.
Break Into Two: Marlin decides to team up with Dory, and work with her to find Nemo.
B Story: Nemo's time in the dentist's office serve as the B story of Finding Nemo. I guess we see Nemo grow into his own person (fish?) away from his father? He learns to trust himself and take some risks? Well, I thought he already showed that he was willing to take risks when he touched the boat, but whatever. At least the scenes in the fish tank are generally funny. We meet the B story characters, and they trust Nemo and encourage him, which makes them the opposite of Marlin. Okay. I'm 90% on board.
Fun and Games: All kinds of crazy things happen to Marlin and Dory as they travel together. This is the "looking for Nemo" part of Finding Nemo. This is where Pixar delivers on the premise of the movie, which is that a homebody fish must leave the safety of his home to find his son. The wacky adventures happen here.
Midpoint: This is where the stakes are raised. I'm not entirely sure what the midpoint of Finding Nemo is. My guess is when Nemo finds out that the dentist's niece is a fish-killer, and he's intended as her next
Bad Guys Close In: More challenges for Marlin and Dory as they try to get to P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney. Things get harder. Likewise, over at the dentist's office, the escape plan is not going well, and the terrifying niece has arrived.
All Is Lost: This is the "false defeat," the darkest point of the movie. Marlin, having made it to the dentist's office, thinks that Nemo is dead. He has failed.
Dark Night Of The Soul: Marlin leaves Dory, completely crushed. Dory, lost and forgetful, despairs.
Break Into Three: Gill helps Nemo escape, and Dory helps him find Marlin. It's great that the A and B stories have come together, but... Marlin doesn't do much.
Finale: Dory gets captured in the net. Nemo uses the lessons he learned in the tank (determination! self-efficacy!) and Marlin uses the lessons he learned on his journey (trust others! don't give up!) to save her.
And then there's the bit that drives me crazy. Marlin thinks that Nemo is dead again. We already hit that beat in All is Lost. Now they're just repeating themselves. For me, this scene would be so much stronger if Nemo came out victorious right off the bat and father and son shared a moment together reflecting on how they've changed.
Final Image: Marlin allows Nemo to go off to school without him, no longer painfully overprotective.
So there you have it. Finding Nemo mostly fits into these solid structural beats, except where it doesn't. For me, those are the worst parts of the movie. Too bad I didn't read Save the Cat! until 12 years after the movie came out. It would have saved me a lot of time trying to explain why I dislike it so much.
If you are struggling with plot or pacing, try applying this story structure to your book to see how it fits. Are you hitting all the right beats, in the right order, to build to a satisfying finale? Whether your story is told chronologically or not, getting the beats right is still important for overall reader satisfaction.
Agree or disagree, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.