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By Christopher Osterndorf · August 30, 2018
Inside Out is easily one of the best Pixar films ever. A story about a young girl named Riley whose emotions run amok when her family moves from the Midwest to San Francisco, it has basically everything you want from the legendary animation studio. This movie is funny, smart, sweet, original, and moving enough that you’re almost guaranteed to cry multiple times. Plus, the way it personifies human emotions is so effective, the film is actually being used to help to teach real children about their feelings.
At the 2016 Academy Awards, Inside Out unsurprisingly took home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. However, the film’s inventive script also received a much-deserved nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Since the Script Lab recently caught up with one of the writers, Meg LeFauve, for our 2018 Online Summit, now seems like the perfect time to take another look at what makes Inside Out tick.
One of the things that makes Inside Out so effective is that it shows how small things can have a big impact. The story of a girl whose family moves to an unfamiliar place, forcing her to make friends at a new school and leave behind her old life, might sound comparatively small next to what we’re used to seeing on the big screen. Yet Riley’s experiences resonate not in spite of their smallness, but because of it.
This scene finds Riley’s emotions being set off by her father disappearing to go to work, and then soon after, by the pizza place that puts broccoli on her slice. Again, these are tiny details, but they work because a) we’ve all been there, and b) they add up in the world of this story. Inside Out shows us that sometimes, the littlest amount of plot is also the most effective. Instead of spending long scenes doing world-building and providing backstory, it gives us just enough and then trusts us to feel something based on our own experiences growing up.
For screenwriters watching, the key takeaway is that the less exposition-heavy scene-setting you have to do, the better. Moreover, if you can write anything that rings true to the universalities of childhood, you’ve probably got something that will connect with people.
Part of the function of keeping the action in this scene simple is also to advance the story as quickly as possible. This isn’t to say that anything feels rushed, but the rate of storytelling is so efficient, there’s not a single second for the audience to even be kind of bored. In fact, this whole sequence runs just under a minute.
Think about how all of this unfolds. Riley is sad her dad has to leave for work. Joy sees sadness wanting to take over after this happens, and reminds Riley she is hungry. Riley goes to get pizza, which ends up being the biggest let down yet. Her emotions walk away defeated.
What’s amazing is that this happens in probably about the same amount of time it took you to read that. There’s no unnecessary dialogue, no extended debate, no beat that stretches too long. Yet nothing is unclear either. The writers here are masters of conveying as much information in as little time as possible.
There are many reasons for doing this, including the fact that Inside Out is, ostensibly, a children’s movie, and that audiences prefer content that tends to be fast-paced and quick-witted. However, this is also a good lesson for writers trying to get their scripts read by executives/agents/managers/
What’s great about this scene is that none of the characters ever have to come right out and state who they are for us to understand them. Both inside and outside Riley’s head, the writers use little moments to reinforce character, rather than big speeches.
We know Riley’s dad is a workaholic based on the way he answers the phone. We know that as much as her mom loves her, she’s not quite clued in to how much her father’s departure is affecting Riley, based on her reaction. We know that Riley is trying as hard as she can to make the best of this situation, based on the way she perks up when the idea of pizza comes into her mind. And of course, we also know how she feels about her new surroundings as soon as she sees the foreign, icky pizza they have in San Francisco.
Inside Riley’s head, the characters show themselves even quicker. When the pizza arrives, they all react the same way, but not without staying true to their characters. Fear is dismayed. Disgust simply walks away. Joy is confused. And anger is, of course, livid, exclaiming, “Congratulations, San Francisco, you’ve ruined pizza! First the Hawaiians, and now YOU!” This kind of dialogue tells us all we need to know about this character, in what might otherwise feel like a throwaway moment in the movie.
Joy and Sadness’s interaction earlier is also telling. Sadness is determined to take the wheel as soon as she sees Riley is getting depressed. Joy is determined to fix things, no matter how improbable that may be.
Characters are not only defined by how they act in the major set pieces of your story. Character is as much built through small, seemingly disposable interactions like the one in this scene. While this sequence may not be anyone’s favorite in Inside Out, it’s a perfect example of how the writers convey so much in this movie without ever shoving what they’re saying down your throat.
Chris Osterndorf is a freelance writer from Milwaukee who studied cinema at DePaul University in Chicago. When he’s not watching movies, he’s writing them or writing about them. He’s especially partial to romantic comedies and crime films. He currently lives in Los Angeles.