Telling a Story from the Inside Out


Hi, I’m Michael. This is Lessons from the Screenplay. A popular piece of advice for writers is to “write
what you know.” While I do think a story’s emotional authenticity
comes from the storyteller’s own experience, I don’t like the stagnation this phrase
encourages. Instead, I prefer: “write what you want
to know.” Because, in many ways, a story is as much a journey for the person writing it as it is for the characters in it. Such was the case for Pixar’s “Inside Out.” It took their team a lot of introspection
to arrive at the emotional truth that is the core of their story. So today I want to look at the process of
writing this film. To examine how creating some of its most powerful
moments required the writers to explore vulnerable
places within their own psychology. And show how trying to answer a simple question
can lead to the discovery of a creative premise and an emotionally honest theme. Let’s take a look at “Inside Out.” In my previous video I talked about how character
arc should be an expression of the story’s theme. But as a writer, how do you find the theme
you want to explore? Often, it can help to think about it in the
form of a question you want answered. For example, the question that led to “Inside
Out” came when the film’s director, Pete Docter, noticed something about his daughter. According to Meg LeFauve, who wrote “Inside
Out” with Pete Docter: “The director, he had a daughter.” “And she was so happy all the time, and was
so joyful.” “And then she turned eleven.” “And suddenly she was quiet and she wasn’t
smiling…” “And he sat at breakfast and he wondered,
‘What happened to joy?'” “And then he thought: I’m going to make
a move about that.” From this question, he came up with the idea
of the story taking place in the mind of a young girl and having her emotions being characters in
the film. But asking the question is only the beginning. The theme is expressed when you answer it. To answer the question “What happened to joy?” they needed to figure out the protagonists’s character arc, which required asking even more questions. “We always want to answer the same questions
for any movie that we start.” “What does the character want?” “What does the character need?” They quickly decided that Joy’s want is
for Riley to be happy. But figuring out her need proved more difficult. The writers realized that pairing her up with
someone would help express her need, so they partnered Joy with Fear. Joy: “Stop!” “You have caused enough trouble.” But the lessons she learned while on the journey
with Fear didn’t seem to answer the question. “Pete Docter, the director, says that when
he was an adolescent he was mostly afraid.” “So he wanted to explore fear.” “But his problem was that when they got back
up to headquarters, he didn’t know what he wanted to say about fear.” This is one of the many reasons the writing
process is so difficult. This question came from Pete Docter’s personal
life, so I’m sure it seemed logical to try to answer
it based on his own experience growing up with fear. But sometimes the right answer requires uncomfortable
self-reflection. “Hi. Pete here. I’m out walking in the woods because I’m
stressed.” Realizing that the film wasn’t working,
Pete Docter took a walk in the woods, allowed himself to be vulnerable, and started asking himself some questions. “I started thinking, ‘Ok, what if I lost everything. What would mean something to me?'” “And like most of us, I think, the answer
is relationships.” “The people that really mean something deeply
are those that I have cried with, that I’ve been pissed off at, that I’ve
experienced fear with.” “It’s all the aspects of emotions that bond
us together.” And only then was he able to finally figure
out the answer to his original question. “So that gives me this idea.” “That maybe joy, as much as we all want it
in our lives, is not the answer.” “The answer is actually sadness.” And now that he had the answer, Joy had a
character arc and the film had a theme. As much as Joy wants everything to be happy
all the time, to have healthy relationships she needs to embrace sadness. So how do you bring the audience along on
this journey? The first step is to bring them into
Joy’s point of view. In order for the audience to discover Sadness
the same way that Joy does, they have to be able to empathize with Joy’s
beliefs in the beginning to the story. But there were two obstacles in the way of
that. The first was that Joy was a jerk. JOY: “So weak.” “No way we’re going to that!” FEAR: “Joy.” JOY: “We should spit in that girl’s face.” OTHERS: “Whoa!” They originally made Joy angry and entitled,
hoping that by giving her this flaw there would be opportunities for humor. But she pretty much just came off as unlikeable. JOY: “Francis. That rat-faced creep.” JOY: “We ought to break his legs.” OTHERS: “Whoa! Yikes!” But even after they toned that down, they realized the audience might not immediately
identify with Joy and her aversion to Sadness. To solve this, they made Sadness as annoying
as possible. “Sadness! You nearly touched a core memory. And when you touch them, we can’t change
them back!” “I keep making mistakes like that. I’m awful…” “Nooo, you’re not.” “…and annoying.” “Well… uh… “You know what? you can’t focus on what’s
going wrong.” “There’s always a way to turn things around,
to find the fun!” And Joy’s need to fix things was a solution
to another obstacle they ran into, which is that incessantly happy characters
are annoying. “You have to make it very clear that Joy’s
chipperness is her solution to her vulnerability.” “If you don’t have the vulnerability behind
the ‘ha-ha-ha’ you’re just annoyed at her.” The writers included several moments where
we see Joy deal with doubt and worry by forcing happiness back into the situation. FEAR: “Dad just left us.” SADNESS: “Oh, he doesn’t love us anymore.” “That’s sad.” “I should drive, right?” “Joy?” “What are you doing?” “Uh, just uh, gimme one second…” “You know what I’ve realized?” “Riley hasn’t had lunch!” By showing that Joy’s incessant happiness
was a defense mechanism, and by making Sadness as annoying as possible, the Pixar writers allowed the audience to
empathize with Joy and see things from her point of view. With this connection made, the story could
finally begin to explore the importance of sadness. “So you’ve set the belief system, and then
act two is literally psychologically saying to them, ‘Is that true?'” “You’re trying to break their psychology,
you’re trying to bring something to consciousness.” Act one clearly establishes that Joy believes
being happy all the time is the right way to live. So in act two the writers start to poke holes
in that belief system. One of the clearest examples is when they’re
trying to get to the train station, but Bing Bong’s rocket is pushed into the
memory dump. “Riley can’t be done with me.” Here, both Sadness and Joy have the same objective. They want Bing Bong to lead them to the train
station. But by having them use different tactics, the story demonstrates to the audience and the characters the lesson that needs to be learned. Joy impatiently tries to make Bing Bong feel
better the only way she knows how— by forcing him to be happy. “Hey, who’s ticklish, huh? Here comes the tickle monster…” No response. “Hey! Bing Bong, look at this! Dohoioih!” She makes a silly face. Nothing. “Oh, here’s a fun game! You point to the train station and we all
go there!” “Won’t that be fun? Come on, let’s go to the train station.” When this tactic doesn’t work, Sadness sits
next to Bing Bong and patiently empathizes with him. “I’m sorry they took your rocket.” “They took something that you loved.” “It’s gone, forever.” “Sadness, don’t make him feel worse.” “Sorry.” “It’s all I had left of Riley.” “I bet you and Riley had great adventures.” “We were best friends.” “Yeah.” “It’s sad.” Bing Bong puts his head on Sadness’ shoulder
and CRIES. Sadness keeps her arm around him until he’s
done. “I’m okay now.” “C’mon, the train station is this way.” This shows Joy that she might be looking at
life the wrong way— that happiness isn’t always the answer. This idea is pretty unconventional, especially
for a kid’s movie. As a culture we tend to constantly seek happiness
and joy, and look at sadness as something to be avoided
at all costs. But this moment rings very true to me, and I think it’s because it’s actually based
on experiences from Meg LeFauve’s life. “My son went to what’s called an attachment
preschool, where they’re not teaching ABCs, 123s, they’re teaching emotional intelligence.” “Let your kid have whatever emotion they’re
having right now. And just meet them where they are.” “And then you would just keep narrating it,
and they would talk, and you’d narrate it.” “And then they’d pass through and toddle
off and be happy or angry whatever next emotion is coming up.” But Joy doesn’t fully learn the lesson here, as later in the film she chooses to leave
Sadness behind when she finds a way back to headquarters. “I’m sorry.” “Riley needs to be happy.” “Joy?” She’s still refusing to let go of her old
beliefs, and this selfish choice is met with catastrophe. “Ah!” “Joy!” Joy realizes that despite her best
intentions, she’s found herself at her lowest point yet. It’s the same point that Pete Docter found
himself in when he realized the film wasn’t working. He thought wanted to talk about fear, but
it wasn’t what he needed to talk about. And for both he and the character of Joy, it took arriving at this dark, painful place
for them to realize the truth. “Mom and Dad…” “The team…” “They came to help because of Sadness.” “Joy, as much as we all want it in our lives,
is not the answer.” “The answer is actually sadness.” Joy’s character arc mimics Pete Docter’s. And her realization is powerful and authentic
largely because it was inspired by the director’s own discovery of the importance of sadness. “The mysterious thing about telling stories
is that it ends up changing you.” “As a storyteller, the research that you do, the almost meditation-like focus on a theme that you’re dealing with.” “It ends up seeping into your own system and
changing the way you look at the world.” Knowing the mechanics of storytelling is important. But it’s also important to remember that the
ultimate goal of telling a story is to share something. And I believe the way to ensure that your
story is generous and not simply a vanity project is to for it to be emotionally authentic—which
is rarely an easy thing to do. As Meg LeFauve says… “There should probably be, as a writer—now,
I’m just talking about myself, personally…” “A point in the process when you’re writing
that to write this scene…” “You feel like you’re going to throw up
because it’s so emotional. It’s so digging into something in your psychology.” “In other words, you’re asking the audience
to have a cathartic experience… odds are you probably need to have one when
you’re writing.” This is something the team at Pixar fully
embraced, and the result is a film that deeply resonated
with many people, both kids and adults. The writers allowed themselves to be vulnerable,
went on a journey into their minds, and returned with an emotional truth to share
with us. The power of the film didn’t come from a
clinical, outside-in approach, but rather, from the inside-out. Hey guys, Michael here. I hope you enjoyed this video which was sponsored
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