What "Finding Nemo" Can Teach Us About Story Action

Storytelling is in our blood, it binds us together as humans. On some intuitive level, everyone understands narrative structure, even little kids. All good stories have a clear beginning, middle and end. Ever try to skip parts of a story with a toddler? Even they can sense on a gut level that something is wrong if we miss a fundamental part of the story. Thus, often when I am teaching new writers how to understand narrative structure, I use children’s movies. Frequently the narrative structure is far clearer, as well as the Jungian archetypes that are present in all great fiction. Additionally, all fiction can be boiled down to cause, effect, cause, effect, cause, effect. But, beyond that, novels are broken into scenes and sequels. For those who missed this post a few months ago, I highly recommend you go here.

So how do we know when to cut a scene? How do we knew when to begin and end chapters? How do we know what to trash and what to keep? Structure and conflict are like two gears.

Gears cannot turn unless there is another key wheel turning the opposite direction. No opposition, no power, no momentum. Same with a story.

All scenes have action. Action is more than a car chase or a bomb being diffused. Action does not mean a “bad situation.” All stories must have one main story goal, a core problem that must be resolved for the story to end.

Find Nemo.

I love studying children’s movies because they make it very easy to see and understand fundamental story structure.

In the Pixar film, Finding Nemo, what is the story goal for Marlin (the Clown fish father and protagonist)? Find his only son. How do we know when the movie is over? When Marlin and Nemo are reunited and safe at home, right?

Who is the Big Boss Troublemaker in Finding Nemo? The BBT is the character responsible for the story problem. The BBT is Darla the Fish-Killer, who we, the viewer, don’t even see until Act II. Darla is the horrid little niece of a dentist who likes to go diving. The dentist (Minion) collects little Nemo from the ocean as a birthday gift, beginning the adventure of a lifetime for Marlin and Nemo.

In Normal World, Nemo and Marlin live in a sea anemone. Overprotective father Marlin finally allows little Nemo to go off school (pun intended), even though everything in his life revolves around keeping his son safe. This decision to let Nemo go to school is the inciting incident. If Nemo never went to school then he would never have been taken by the diver dentist.

The turning point into Act One is when Nemo is taken. That gives the clear story goal and the journey of the story is clear—Finding Nemo.

Today we are only going to look at scene antagonists who drive the action.

Obviously Marlin will not find Nemo right away. That would make for very boring fiction. No, there are a series of sub-goals that must be met to find his son.

Marlin takes off after the boat, but then fails to catch up.

He loses the boat and all seems lost, when he runs into another fish, Dori, who says she knows which way the boat went. Marlin follows, renewed in the chase and hopeful he will find Nemo, but then his new ally turns on him wanting to fight. She is unaware why Marlin is following her. Marlin soon realizes the only link to finding his son is a fish ally who suffers short-term memory loss.


We, the audience, think the journey is over, but then she tells him she does remember where the boat went. Marlin wants to go after his son, but then Bruce the Great White interrupts.

At first Marlin and Dori look doomed, but then Bruce collects them to join him in the Fish are Friends Not Food meeting (think shark AA—Fish Anonymous). So instead of Marlin being able to continue on his journey, he must stop to attend this Shark FA meeting. He has to play along lest he get eaten and not be able to continue his journey. To make matters worse, the FA meetings are held in a sunken sub that is surrounded by mines. So we have outside obstacles—mines—and character obstacles—the Great White addict needing a Fish Friend for his meeting.

Marlin wants to look for his son. Bruce wants a fish friend to attend his FA meeting. This is what Bob Mayer teaches as a conflict lock. Please check out Bob’s books if you want to learn more.

At this point, Bruce is not Marlin’s enemy, but see how he is the antagonist? Bruce’s wants are in direct conflict with Marlin’s. Only one party can get his way. Marlin is held back from achieving his goal.

Through a fun series of events, Bruce ends up losing it and going after Marlin and Dori with the fervor of any addict as his shark buddies try to keep him from totally “falling off the wagon.” Marlin and Dori swim for their lives and while running, Marlin spots the diver’s mask (The diver dentist who took Nemo dropped his mask). The journey, otherwise, would have ended, but a wild twist of fate has renewed the search.

They have a clue and apparently Dori, the Forgetful Fish Ally that Marlin was going to dump at the first opportunity, can READ. He needs her.  But they must escape Bruce and get the mask.

They escape Bruce by detonating all the underwater mines, but then both Marlin and Dori are knocked unconscious. They awaken and realize that they are pinned under the sub, which is now sitting precariously off an undersea trench. The mask and only clue to finding Nemo is wrapped around Dori. As they try to look at the mask, the sub starts to slide and they lose the mask.

Scene goal. Marlin wants to get the clue, but then the submarine sends them fleeing for their lives. Just as they grasp for the mask, it drops down into the deep.

See how Marlin is progressively worse off as the story progresses? He seems farther away from finding his son, when in reality these are the necessary steps to FIND Nemo.

All looks as if it is lost. Marlin goes to give up, but his unlikely ally encourages him to go on and swim down in the deep to find the mask. Marlin has a chance to give up. He could at this point go home and give his son up for lost, but that would make a seriously sucky story. Marlin is a control freak who is ruled by his fears. He has to learn to be the master of his fears in order to rescue his son. Hemust press on in order to find Nemo. He swims down into the abyss as all good heroes should.

Marlin WANTS to find the mask, but then he and Dori soon realize it is nothing but blackness and they cannot see to find the mask. All seems lost. Ah, but then they spot a pretty light in the darkness…which turns out to be an angler fish that wants to eat them both.

Marlin wants to find the clue (mask).

Angler fish wants dinner.

Do you see how every break the protagonist gets comes with a new test? This is why it is so critical for us to at least start out with our story’s log-line. What is our story about? Learn more about log-lines (BIG story goal), here.

If the screenwriters didn’t know that the overall goal was for a neurotic fish father to swim to Sydney, Australia to rescue his son from a dentist’s fish tank before Darla the Fish-Killer’s birthday…this would have been a booger to plot. In ways it still is. How do we get Marlin from the Great Barrier Reef to a dentist’s office in Sydney? This is where setting sub-goals (scenes) makes life easier. When we know the ending, the main goal then it is far easier to plot the course.

Each scene needs a key wheel—an antagonist—to provide the opposition that will drive forward momentum.

Bruce the Great White and fish-addict in recovery is not Darla the Fish-Killer (the BBT), but he does keep Marlin from his journey…finding Nemo, so he IS an antagonist. In retrospect, Bruce’s intervention was fortuitous in that they never would have been in the area of the ocean where the one clue—the mask—was dropped.

Every scene needs an antagonist. Scenes MUST have conflict. No conflict? Not story. No forward momentum. We must always take a good hard look at our scenes and ask the tough questions. Ask, “What is it my protagonist wants? Who is in the way?” If no one is in the way, then who can we put in the way? Conflict can even be as simple as allies disagreeing about a course of action—chase after bad guys or call the police and play it safe? Will the Elves take the Ring of Power to Mount Doom or will the Dwarves?

If everything is happening easily and all our characters are getting along? That’s a formula to bore a reader. Scenes where we have our protag thinking? That isn’t a scene, that’s a sequel. If a character is thinking, it better relate to something that just happened (a scene) and what to do next (next scene).

A “scene” that has characters talking about other characters is contrived information dump, not a scene. We can offload information in dialogue, but that cannot be the only purpose. Scenes are sub-goals—action blocks—that lead to solving the final problem.

I highly recommend reading Bob’s books for more about understanding antagonists and conflict. Then, watch movies and practice. Break apart movies. Who is the BBT? Who are the antagonists for each scene? What purpose does the antagonist serve other than standing in the way of the goal? We will talk more about this next week. I know these are lessons we’ve had before, but a good refresher never hurt anyone.

I LOVE hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of February, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of February I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I had a rough weekend. My son had an accident and was injured pretty badly. Will announce winner later this week. Sorry for the delay.

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.


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  1. Love Finding Nemo!! Thank you for breaking all I this down in a way that made it easy to see. This is a lesson one can’t hear too many times.

    I hope your little Spawn is feeling a little better and that you are as well. Those pictures looked awful. I can’t even imagine how difficult that had to be for you. We are all here to offer you support in whatever way you need it. You are not alone either.

    • Neil O'Donnell on February 27, 2012 at 9:01 am
    • Reply

    Wishing your son a speedy recovery

  2. Hi Kristen,

    So sorry for your son’s accident, wish him a quick recovery.

    This is such a great analysis you have shared about finding Nemo. Such a simple yet compelling storyline. I especially like the emphasis you have given that Scenes MUST have conflict. No conflict? Not story. Best of all the trouble maker, doesn’t have to be a villain. It can even be a friend with misguided priorities or even with misfortune that has befallen them.

    I remember a scene in a Daniel Steel novel,”The Ghost” where Sarah a protagonist, is forced to travel across the seas without her maid who gets scared at the last minute when she realizes, the boat they will use is too small and that getting shipwrecked is very likely. At that time a lady traveling alone was frowned on. This makes the suspense even more pregnant.

    I will take up your habit of analyzing children’s movies. Interesting just how much we can learn from kids stuff 🙂 Thanks.


  3. Kristen, great post as always. I think that in a way Dori is actually the main though abnormal BBT in the story, because she always gets in trouble not only herself but the clownfish too, which creates a conflict and moves it forward :)))
    I love that film, always think about that Dori’s friend/foe duality and how well it works as a fiction tool

    1. Dori is the largest antagonist, but she can’t be the BBT, because it isn’t her action that creates the story problem. The BBT is the creator of the core problem that needs to be resolved by the end of the story…that’s why it is Darla the Fish-Killer. But, as you see in FN, the BBT often isn’t present very much and much of the conflict is generated by allies.

      1. I agree with you, BBT as Darla is almost non-existent in the story, so you need to use secondary antagonist. But Dori if not BBT is still a big trouble maker lol

        I think since Darla is barely in the story (I didn’t even remember her name) the real BBT to me is HUMAN GREED and SELFISHNESS and how it’s destructing nature.
        To me, FN was quite a literary piece, a lot to think about

  4. Hey, Kristen –

    I don’t know if you’ll have a chance to read this with everything that’s going on with your poor little one (still sending prayers your way; don’t take the codeine yourself, tempting as it is, LOL). I’ve had a question on my mind about BBTs since Christmas, when we were watching “A Muppets’ Christmas Carol.” Ebenezer Scrooge is the protagonist, but isn’t he the BBT, too, because he was the one who caused his own problems to begin with? Or is the BBT the 3rd ghost, Death? Just wondering; no rush on that.

    Hang in there! Lots of {{hugs}}

    1. The BBT is the Hardened Heart. The reason the ghosts are sent is to save Ebenezer from the hardened heart–his thoughtlessness toward his fellow humans and his unfeeling attitude toward suffering–that would eventually spell his doom in the afterlife. The three ghosts are actually mentor characters (allies). Their intervention is to free Ebenezer from his indifference and to reveal the softened heart that loves, feels, and is compassionate. We know the ghosts have been successful because at the end, Ebenezer embraces Christmas, which is a holiday dedicated to love and charity. This is how we know the BBT has been defeated.

      Thanks for the encouragement.

  5. This is one of the best of your blogs. Even when faced with family crises, you are still able to churn out blogs. You are an amazing woman, wife, and mother.

    1. Thanks. Well, the Wee One is watching Cars and there isn’t much I can do that hasn’t been done. I’ve cleaned his wounds and given him pain medicine so if I don’t get back to work I will get depressed and angry and life is too short for that nonsense.

  6. Thanks for this. I’m going to go through every scene of my novel to make sure there’s an antagonist in every one. I’ll probably blog about this either today after my job interview or tomorrow because I’ve had other writers recently criticize me for listing the MC’s sister as one of the antagonists. The sister’s not a bad person, but her goals are different from my MC’s goals, and she has a way of forcing the MC to take a good look at herself which creates change– sometimes good and sometimes bad.

  7. Great refresher post, Kristen, and I’m actually shocked that you were able to post after your traumatic weekend. How’s you baby boy doing? I’ve been thinking about him and you ever since I saw those pictures. You truly are incredible for posting this after what you went through this weekend.

    1. I had to do something or I was going to just cry and drink heavily. Sigh. It is what it is and thank God it wasn’t worse. The Spawn is playing in the living room and watching “Cars.”

    • Sean Medley on February 27, 2012 at 10:50 am
    • Reply

    Outstanding post. I’m finding more and more insight and clarity from your blog and am SO glad I came across it. I was already doing some hard looking at my “finished” novel and this is really forcing me to open my eyes further to meet my goal of publishing this summer.

    Hope your son has a speedy recovery!

    • Ed on February 27, 2012 at 10:59 am
    • Reply

    You had me as soon as I saw that this post was about Finding Nemo. I’ve always thought that the reason Pixar succeeds so phenomenally as a studio is because they have excellent writers who are not only imaginative but understand good storytelling (and can do it with heart, too!).

    Thanks for unveiling the inner workings of a much beloved movie. Even though I just watched it recently, I kind of want to go watch it again. 😉

  8. I love this movie. It is such a great teaching tool. Without Darla, Nemo wouldn’t be in any danger – the other fish in the dentist’s tank have lived there happily for some time. Without Darla, Marlin wouldn’t have to hurry and there’d be no sense of urgency. We can see the guilt Marlin feels, letting Nemo go to school against all his fears – especially after he lost his wife and all their other children. Then, the worst actually happens! Or, Marlin *thinks* it’s the worst. But Nemo is out there and he can be saved before THE worst really does happen. The guilt resonates with me because I’ve felt that too, wanting to be there every moment of every day for my kids when that’s simply impossible. They have to go to school, they have to be with Granny, they need other people to be there, to know, to enjoy and it’s the right decision to share them – just as it was the right decision for Marlin to send Nemo to school. I love how the makers of the movie let us know it was, too, when Nemo again goes off to school (with the wonderful little sea-turtle he’d never have met if his father hadn’t taken that first step. “Totally.” ). It is a movie good for the heart, especially when Marlin realizes that Dori’s right: If nothing ‘ever’ happened to Nemo, life would not be much fun.

    Thanks for reminding me of that, today, Kristen! I was away this weekend at a leadership seminar (much traveling without internet), but I was praying for your family. I was heartbroken for you this morning when I learned what had happened, and yet so thankful that God held The Spawn in the hollow of his hand. You are so right when you say it could have been worse – but it wasn’t! Remember to breathe and that you did the right things. -Peace.

    1. Thanks and it is actually ironic that I was writing about Nemo…and then my critter gets injured. I totally understand Marlin. I needed time to rest and was supposed to go to a conference so I got my brother and sister-in-law to watch him. I let go of control and then look what happened. It is hard to just let go and realize we cannot control everything and sometimes bad stuff just happens. Thank you for your prayers.

  9. Kristen, great post. LOVE LOVE Nemo – yes! a great story to use as a reference for writing. Every scene in Nemo has a goal – a mini story arc under the full arc.
    And also, hope your son is okay and recovers soon. Sorry to hear of that.

  10. Great post. What I love about these animated children’s movies is how they play to 2 audiences so well. My kids watch FN and follow Marlin on this adventure to save Nemo and laugh about all his ‘allies’ like Dori, Bruce, Crush the sea-turtle, the whale, the pelican…their favorite part are the ‘rats with wings’. But I watch it and get a whole other level of meaning than they do – excellent storytelling. I’ve found many animated movies to do this so well. UP! was one of the best for that IMO. Hug the Spawn – tomorrow is a new day.

  11. Kristen, reading this post I would have never known what an ordeal you were dealing with “behind the scenes”! You are amazing. Thank you for this post, it is just what I needed to read today. And I hope Spawn is enjoying Lightning McQueen (or, as my little guy calls him, Lightning NaQueen) and recovering. I’ll be thinking good thoughts for you both!

    • vanillamom on February 27, 2012 at 12:15 pm
    • Reply


    first, most importantly, sending mega-healing whammies, thoughts and prayers for your son. I hope that things take an uptick for the positive soon. Very soon. Immediately.

    As to the blogpost? Good meat there. Thank You. I have much to ponder, and grow with. You’re like Miracle-Gro for writers…


  12. So sorry about your little one. Great post. I’ll spread the word.

  13. As a WANA Mad Ferret (oh, the images that conjures), thank you for this timely re-visiting of scene. Our critique group has been discussing the anatomy of scene but probably we’re just wanting to drive our stories forward without antagonists, as if we could.

    As for you and yours, sending energy for everyone’s highest good.


  14. Great analysis of “Finding Nemo.” Another great children’s movie is “Up.” It’s a perfect hero’s journey.

    1. I LOVE Up. One of my fave movies of all time.

  15. Probably had conflict explained to me a bazillion times. Your post made it crystal clear and fun to follow. Thanks for the education. Your blog should be mandatory reading in writing courses.

  16. Oh, this is so clear! Thanks, Kristen!! (Now where did I put my “Plotting with Conflict” notebook? And Bob’s books?? Somebody needs to take a day to Organize.)

    I will definitely be checking out “Up.”

  17. Thanks for this eye opening post! I always learn so much from you. You have such a way of making it so interesting and informative in a way that helps even the newest writers out there see the light!

    Hoping for a speedy recovery for your son! Bless his little heart!!! (and yours, too). Hang in there!

  18. Enjoyed the post. Wishes for a speedy recovery for your son!

  19. Thanks for this post. I liked seeing how characters can be temporary antagonists, even with an overarching BBT. I also liked the comment about Scrooge’s BBT being his hardened heart.

    I hope your spawn heals quickly.

  20. As always, an excellent post. More importantly, however, I hope your son is okay and is on his way to recovery.

  21. So… I’m at a conference last weekend (you totally should’ve been there ~ the ‘social media guru’ they had was lacking in her skillz) and a writer was telling me about her book. It was nice, but when I asked where her conflict was, she stared at me with a blank face. I wrote down you blog address and told her to look up all your posts on story/structure/conflict/BBT. I really hope she did.

    Best advice ever. Easy to understand and who doesn’t love Nemo?

  22. And reposting blogs from ‘months past’ helps newbies like myself who weren’t fortunate enough to catch them the first time round!
    Bob’s got a post on his blog about conflict too which I need to get on and read next. In the online course I did with him last year, I wrote down all his prompts about conflict, and I refer to them constantly. So I’ll add your info to my pile. Thanks!
    Yvette Carol

  23. Oops, pressed ‘send’ too soon.

    I hope Spawn is feeling better super quick. It’s no fun being sick, especially when you’re little and don’t understand.

    Speedy healing and big hugs to him!

  24. Only now do I get what “scene and sequel” mean. Turns out, I was getting that right naturally.

    And I cannot imagine plotting a story without knowing how I want to end it. I wouldn’t even endeavor to write a story I don’t already “know” in my heart. The way i do it, I just have to weave in some good plot twists so that my climax/theme/Act III is as profound as possible, and the journey fun to travel.


    Hope the spawn is feelin better and splurging on popsicles.

  25. praying for your son ((hugs))

  26. Praying for your son. Hoping he recovers quickly. This was a great article, I learned a lot about story action – never thought of looking for examples in children’s movies, but it makes sense.

  27. Reblogged this on amberdover and commented:

    Happy Hear the Writer Roar! Tuesday God bless and Remember The High King Lives! ~Amber Dover

  28. Kristen, I owe you big time. Big time. Another brilliant post.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    And I look forward to reading your book.

  29. So sorry about your son. Hope he feels better. I loved the post. You are so remarkable at teaching us lessons through the simplest things.

  30. Finding Nemo is one of my favorite children’s movies. I am sorry to hear about your son, and am sending healing prayers and positive energy your way. Take care of YOU and your family…we can wait on the winner announcements…

  31. Extremely helpful and concise, Kristen. Shared this post via Twitter. I also have both your books linked in the Writer’s Toolbox on my blog.

    1. Thanks CJ, and thanks for taking time to comment AND share the love. Writers untied…um, UNITE!

  32. Kristen, I am finding that putting the storylines of events I have actually lives through, or witnessed intimately in people close to me, into the personnaes of imaginary creatures and adapted animals works great for me. I start by outlining the actual chain of events, putting off the correct side spots the peripheral actions that influence the main storyline. As I do so, I seem to automatically know what characteristics to make primary in the various “actors”. This is how I am doing it now and seemingly, it is working. Will constantly seek to learn more here, of course!

    • James Loscombe on February 29, 2012 at 12:25 pm
    • Reply

    Very, very useful, thanks Kristen. I have gone back to my current WIP and looked at the protagonist / antagonist situation. I’ve made a few changes that I think will make it much better.

  33. The example of Dori as a friend/antagonist is such a great way to illustrate that concept!

    But the thing I love most about the storytelling of Finding Nemo is the background–it took them literally years to nail this story down in an effective way, even working together as a team of talented storytellers. I wish I had a story department!

    1. I didn’t know that Jordan. Somehow I take heart in that information! If it takes Hollywood a team and a few years then I can take my time 🙂
      Yvette Carol

  34. I’m sorry to hear about the Spawn’s accident. I hope he gets well soon.

    I have to confess that I haven’t seen Finding Nemo. Yet. After this post it’s a must see. And you’re absolutely right that the best children’s movies have such clear story structures. I love the little older Disney movies and pretty much everything from Pixar.

  35. This is the BEST post I’ve read about antagonists and storyline. EVAH. good grief, I’m printing this out…it clicked!yay!

  1. […] What “Finding Nemo” Can Teach Us About Storytelling […]

  2. […] K. Sorrells reminds us of the joys of research. Once you’ve gotten started, Kristen Lamb tells us what Finding Nemo can teach us about story action; Jill Kemerer talks about how choreography can help a scene move; and Juliette Wade examines how to […]

  3. […] I knew I loved Finding Nemo and now I really know why, let Kristen Lamb explain: What “Finding Nemo” Can Teach Us About Story Action […]

  4. […] What Finding Nemo Can Teach Us About Story Action from Kriten Lamb. Super insightful stuff! […]

  5. […] What Finding Nemo Can Teach Us About Story Action by Kristen Lamb […]

  6. […] #4 Not Enough Scene Antagonists—Your story needs a core antagonist, yes. But most of the conflict will actually come from allies, love interests and threshold guardians. In Finding Nemo, Darla the Fish-Killer (the BBT) creates the story problem, the abduction of Nemo. She also provides the stakes because she’s known for shaking her fish to death. BUT, we only see her a couple times in the movie. Dori, the fish with memory issues, provides a lion’s share of the conflict that ups the tension, delays the mission and forces Marlin (a control-freak) to change and learn to trust. For more on this, here’s my post. […]

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