The Revisionist: Is “The End” really the End? Part II

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Beating up your main character

Last week I wrote about the first of two epiphanies I’ve had with regards to a story’s end. It can sometimes be difficult to know when you’ve pushed your story right to its real conclusion – it can be difficult to know whether you’ve stopped short.

This Q&A with Jeff Goldmsith podcast featuring Inside Out co-writer Meg LeFauve beautifully presents what’s meant to happen during the third and final act.

If you haven’t seen Inside Out, please do. It’s a really clever animated film that focuses on the emotional turmoil of an 11-year-old girl who’s going through the double-whammy of hitting puberty and moving across country. That’s a lot of emotional upheaval, particularly at the age of 11! We spend much of the movie inside Riley, the main character. Not just inside her head, but inside her emotions.

Joy is the emotion that usually steers Riley’s ship. But she’s got Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust as co-pilots. The movie takes place on parallel planes, with the audience able to see what’s happening externally to Riley – the horror of crying in front of her new class! – but also what’s happening inside Riley, as the different emotions fight for control.

LaFauve talks about taking the time in Act I to set up a character’s belief system. Think about “Finding Nemo,” she says. In that film, a clown fish is violently separated from his overprotective father and the two spend the entire movie trying to reunite. Marlin, Nemo’s Dad, must confront his fears about life off the reef in order to save his son. Nemo, with the help of an aquarium’s worth of exotic ocean creatures, must find a way to break out of a dentist’s office if he has any hope of returning home.

Act I is all about how dangerous it’s believed to be off the reef: we see Nemo’s mom and siblings taken out. We see Nemo dragged away by a diver. We see his father absolutely freaking out. Marlin’s belief system – which keeps Nemo close to home – is that life off-reef is riddled with danger.

Act II is about testing that belief. In Finding Nemo, it’s all about throwing rocks at Nemo and his Dad to test their beliefs. Marlin hangs with sharks. He rides with turtles. Nemo stands up to a bully. He’s been led to believe that his little fin won’t get him far and that belief is tested when he has to swim like mad to keep himself out of the filter. By the end of Act II, both Marlin and Nemo are ready to change their minds.

The climax comes when something happens that’s so bad, that’s so overwhelming to the character, that they seem to fall back onto their old belief system. Except that’s now a very shaky foundation. All that they’ve seen and experienced has put fatal cracks in that belief system. The old way of doing things won’t work.

With Inside Out, Joy believes Riley is a happy, well-adjusted child whose main setting is Joy. She brings Joy, she experiences Joy, she gives Joy. Act I sets out that belief system – Riley is best when Joy is at the controls, therefore Joy should be the only one at the controls. If another emotion finds itself at the control panel, Joy is quick to take back control. She’s quick to fix things and the other emotions seem pretty content to let her do that.

What transitions us into Act II is that Sadness starts touching things. She’s messing things up. She’s tainting memories. She’s doing seemingly irreparable damage. Joy needs to hit the reset button and undo what Sadness has done – and she needs Sadness’ help in order to do it. So off they go, trying to get at Riley’s memories before they’re all painted blue, or simply lost.

Act II is about putting Riley in situations where, over and over, Joy has to see that Sadness needs her moment. She just needs to feel what she’s feeling. She can’t be Joyful all the time. But it takes a lot for Joy to see what’s right in front of her.

LaFauve says it’s a monster task to change someone’s belief system. “You’ve got to just keep hitting them over the head,” she says. “You have to beat the crap out of your main character, which isn’t something that many writers want to do. Often we identify with the main character and so we intuitively keep them safe. Everyone else will have problems, but they’re just floating through. What is their problem? What is their choice? What are they doing? You’re trying to break their consciousness, because that’s the way something else in their consciousness can rise.”

She says it’ll feel like a death – because in fact something has died: the belief.

That’s the climax. When your character comes to a new realization. But LaFauve and many others would say, that’s not the end. Don’t stop. Now it’s time to show that your character really embodies their new belief system.

“For me, it’s an action in the climax because it’s no longer about talking, it’s about what will you do in your behaviour, it shows something you never would have done in Act I,” she says.

The test that Marlin’s belief system has truly changed is that he trusts his son to take a chance while trying to rescue Dory from a fishing net.

The test that Joy’s belief system has truly changed is that she relies on Sadness to get them back to Riley’s brain. In Act I, she won’t let anyone else at Riley’s control panel. By Act III, she’s actively handing over the controls and saying here, Sadness, it’s your turn. No one touch this but Sadness for a while.

In both cases, we need that little bit extra to make the climax feel meaningful. So take a look at your own project. Has your character’s belief system been clearly illustrated? Has it been thorough, repeatedly, unrelentingly challenged? Have they been faced with something that’s broken that belief? Ask yourself, has your character been given the chance to prove that they’ve changed or been changed?

There has been SO MUCH written about these two movies, so dive in:

(Photo courtesy of Skitterphoto.com)

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