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Finding Nemo in the three-act structure.

As complex as film narratives sometimes are, many of them can be easily broken down once students understand the basic elements of classic narrative structure. SAM HIGGS explains how Pixar's beloved Finding Nemo can be used to reveal some fundamental principles of screenwriting and further students' analysis and creation of narrative texts.

As a screenwriting tool, the three-act structure has often been criticised for being arbitrary. Some critics suggest that the idea of the structure exists only because people force it to. (1) The narrative of a film is a complex entity. For such an elaborate organisation of characters and events to fit so neatly into this basic paradigm surely undermines the intricacies so carefully constructed by the screenwriter. However, as an educational tool for teaching the basics of film narrative, this efficient method of streamlining complexities is just what we need.

In the classroom, the three-act structure can be used as a guide to direct students to various story elements in a film, including cause-and-effect, and character establishment, motivation and development. Although some films fit into this structure much more easily than others, once students understand how it works, they will be able to wrangle over the inciting incidents or second-act plot points of narratives as elaborate as those of Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004).

When introducing students to what screenwriting guru Syd Field calls 'the paradigm', it is best to apply it to a film that clearly adheres to it. (2) Pixar's Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich, 2003) is great for this, and it is also a text that most students will be familiar with. Through this practice, students will be able to understand the elements of film narrative.


In his preeminent text Screenplay: The Foundation of Screenwriting, Field breaks a film's timeline into three 'acts'. In Act I, the 'Set-Up', 'the screenwriter sets up the story, establishes character, launches the dramatic premise'. Act II is the 'Confrontation' whereby the protagonist must overcome obstacles to 'achieve his/her dramatic need'. Act III is the 'Resolution', 'that unit of action that resolves the story'. (3)

In order to recognise the three acts, one needs to look at a film's narrative holistically. Have students plot the story across a single timeline and the distinct thirds should readily present themselves. In the case of Finding Nemo, the acts look like this:

* ACT I: SET-UP After an altercation caused by clown-fish Marlin's (Albert Brooks) insecurities, his son, Nemo (Alexander Gould), is kidnapped by a scuba diver and Marlin must leave the reef to find him. Marlin has no idea where his son is, or how he is going to find him.

* ACT II: CONFRONTATION Marlin must navigate the ocean, facing obstacles and adversaries along the way, to get to the address that Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) reads on the diver's dropped mask. Marlin knows where to go but not how to get there.

* ACT III: RESOLUTION Marlin is in Sydney Harbour. He must find Nemo, but he must also face some other challenges, including repairing their broken relationship. Once this is done, they can return home.

Each act is a chapter in which the story follows a distinct progression, and the protagonist goes through a different stage of development. In order to get from one stage to another, a specific event needs to occur to redirect the action. These events are the plot points and they occur at those turning points between Acts I and II, and Acts II and III. (4)

Once students have identified the acts, they will be able to determine the plot points. In Nemo, Plot Point 1 is when Dory determines the kidnapper's address, giving Marlin the information he needs in order to find his son. Plot Point 2 sees Marlin escaping from the mouth of a whale, a moment that not only gets him to Sydney, but also teaches him an important lesson in trusting others, giving him the tools he needs to ultimately complete his journey.

Another way to assist students in the breakdown of the three acts is to literally break the film into thirds by running time. Screenwriters working to the three-act structure know that in a ninety-minute script the first act should be wrapping up at around page thirty (approximately thirty minutes into the film). Nemo, which clocks in at 100 minutes, has its first act end at around the thirty-four-minute mark. The second act ends at around minute seventy. When a film conforms neatly to the paradigm, this method will give students distinct windows of time in which to isolate the plot points, and allow them the opportunity to identify these important cause-and-effect moments as parts of narrative structure, rather than just events in the story.

* Choose your own text for analysis. Stick to a film that has a linear narrative and a single protagonist. On a large sheet of paper or a whiteboard, draw a timeline where one centimetre represents one minute, and plot out significant moments in the story.

* Discuss and determine the three acts in your narrative by defining the first and second plot points. What is happening to the protagonist at these moments that makes them so significant?

* Highlight each act in a different colour. Label them 'Set-up', 'Confrontation' and 'Resolution', and discuss what occurs during each act that adheres to these labels.


The first ten to fifteen minutes of Act I are integral. This is when an audience is able to meet the protagonist and get a feel for how they will be spending the next couple of hours. This part of the first act has been given a number of different labels--for example, 'the opening sequence'--but the one that seems most appropriate was coined by mythologist Joseph Campbell and later adapted for screenwriting by Christopher Vogler: 'the ordinary world'. (5)

The ordinary world is where we find the protagonist at the beginning of their journey--what their life is like before they embark. In most cases, like Marlin's, the protagonist's world is just what the label implies: ordinary. Not always ordinary for the audience, but ordinary to the protagonist.

Marlin's ordinary world is his picturesque and risk-free coral reef, where he shares an anemone with Nemo. He is a single father due to an unfortunate barracuda attack that took Nemo's mother and siblings. This attack has also instilled insecurities in Marlin, whose overprotectiveness prevents him from allowing Nemo to live a normal life, and is threatening to drive a wedge between the two fish.

Like Marlin's, every protagonist's ordinary world comes with some baggage. There must be room for improvement. Even when the protagonist's ordinary world seems perfect, like Lightning McQueen's (Owen Wilson) in Cars (John Lasseter & Joe Ranft, 2006) or Shrek's (Mike Myers) in Shrek (Andrew Adamson & Vicky Jenson, 2001), there will be lessons that must be learnt in order for them to improve themselves, such as 'life is better with friends'.

What is being established here is the protagonist's primary obstacle, something Field refers to as his or her 'dramatic need'. (6)

The protagonist needs improvement, whether they know it or not, and without the need for change, the story would have nowhere to go.

* Watch the first ten minutes of your chosen text to explore

your protagonist's ordinary world.

** What is your protagonist's life like at the beginning of their journey?

** How is the protagonist established? What kind of a person are they? How is this shown?

** What is 'wrong' with the protagonist? What about them may need improving?


Their world is no longer ordinary when the protagonist receives a call to adventure. Screenwriters sometimes refer to the moment when the protagonist leaves their ordinary world as the catalyst, but most know it as 'the inciting incident'. (7)

The inciting incident is that first cause that creates the effect that sets the rest of the narrative in motion. It gives the protagonist a problem that must be dealt with--something to drag them kicking and screaming from the comfort of their ordinary world and off on a well-needed adventure. Shrek's, for example, is the takeover of his normally peaceful swamp by fairytale creatures. Neo's (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999) is a phone call from Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), followed by a visit from Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) confirming that his ordinary world is very far from ordinary.

Students can spot Marlin's inciting incident a mile away: Nemo gets kidnapped. It is instantly recognisable and another reason why this film is a great text to use when studying narrative structure. As Field suggests, 'The inciting incident anchors us to the edge of our seats, and lets us know that we're in for an incredible adventure.' (8) It's that moment in the film when an audience becomes fully engaged. When teaching cause-and-effect, what could be more clear-cut?

When students understand that a major incident kicks off the story about ten or twenty minutes into a film (Finding Nemo's hits at around minute fourteen), they will be keen to investigate other examples. Other Pixar movies' inciting incidents are just as easy to identify--Buzz's (Tim Allen) arrival in Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995), for example, or Lightning McQueen becoming lost in Cars. Once students get the hang of it, try some less obvious examples. Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985) is a good one (no, it's not when Marty [Michael J Fox] goes back in time), as is Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977) (is it when Luke Skywalker [Mark Hamill] meets Obi-Wan Kenobi [Alec Guinness], or is it when he finds his aunt and uncle murdered?). This will foster some meaningful discussions about character motivation and the main underlying principles of the narrative.

* Add the inciting incident to your timeline. What led you to identify this moment as the inciting incident?

* What might be the implications of this event for your character's life? Aim to list at least three.


The character arc begins at the inciting incident. Here, the protagonist comes to a fork in the road. Sometimes the character must choose which road to go down, but other times they are propelled. Marlin's motivation is clear--he must leave his coral reef to follow his son's captors. As a father, he has no choice. Other protagonists--the title character (Ellen Page) from Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007), Luke Skywalker, Neo--are given a choice, and every one of them is going to take that red pill lest they stay stuck, sad and ordinary, in their ordinary world.

Herein lies the opportunity for students to recognise character motivation, and whether that motivation is internal or external. There are a great many examples of external motivators in films where the protagonist is forced to act by an outside source: an alien attack, weird science, crime or a natural disaster, for example. Purely internal motivators tend to exist in the realms of the romance, drama and sports genres, where the protagonist is motivated from within, by love or by ambition. Marlin's initial motivation is external (his son is kidnapped), but what forces him to act is internal (his love for his son). In fact, most protagonists that are prompted by external motivation ultimately act due to internal motivation--to save themselves, a loved one or the world.

The second act sees the crux of the protagonist's arc. Here they will learn the lessons that they need to learn in order to achieve their primary objective. Finding Nemo is Marlin's goal, but it would be a very flat character arc if he went back to his ordinary world unchanged, with the same baggage. Besides finding Nemo, Marlin must overcome two problems in order to become a better father: he must conquer his own fear of the unknown, and learn to trust others.

The first obstacle he faces in droves, and by the end of the second act he is bouncing across stinging jellyfish without a care. These obstacles exist purely to test and challenge the protagonist. The sharks, anglerfish and whales are what Vogler and Campbell call 'threshold guardians': 'Instead of attacking these seemingly hostile powers head-on, journeyers learn to outwit them or join forces with them, absorbing their energy rather than being destroyed by it.' (9) The second obstacle--learning to trust--is Marlin's primary objective. If he doesn't resolve this one, he can never rekindle his relationship with his son. This obstacle will require a bit more help.

The protagonist, in one way or another, will need some help from a mentor, and mentors come in all shapes and sizes. Although Campbell's 'wise old wizard' is still a commonly played trope--Obi-Wan, Dumbledore, Gandalf--mentors, whose role it is to teach the protagonist, don't always come in the traditional form. (10) How they teach can vary--think Shrek's Donkey (Eddie Murphy), or Lightning's Mater (Larry the Cable Guy).

Dory is Marlin's mentor, as she teaches him how to trust others. Marlin learns this lesson reluctantly, however--in a moment of high drama at the turn of the third act, he submits to Dory's insistence that she can speak whale and must be swallowed by the creature in which they find themselves. As a result, their lives are saved and they reach Sydney. The lesson is made even more evident at this moment when he lets slip, 'You think you can do these things but you just can't, Nemo!'--echoing what he had said to his son the moment before Nemo touched the boat and was abducted.

Here, we can see Marlin's arc in its entirety. This line of dialogue demonstrates how Marlin has changed over the second act, and it gives both audience and protagonist the confidence to know that he is ready to achieve his primary objective at the story's climax.

* Draw a second timeline running parallel to the one that you drew previously. Plot the protagonist's arc from the inciting incident to the climax.

* What forces your protagonist to act at the inciting incident? Are they motivated due to an external source, or is it because of their own internal objectives?

* Highlight the moments in the narrative when the protagonist has learned a lesson. This may be when they have discovered something new, or have had to overcome some obstacle.

* Who are your protagonist's mentors? What do the mentors teach them?

* Who are Marlin's other mentors in Finding Nemo? What do they teach him that help him to achieve his primary objective?


The climax is generally pretty easy to spot. It's that epic crescendo that comes near the end of the third act, where the hero and villain face off in a duel, or the lovers finally come together in a passionate embrace. The crux of the climax, though, is that the protagonist must achieve their primary objective in a meaningful way. As Robert McKee suggests, the climax 'is not necessarily full of noise and violence. Rather, it must be full of meaning.' (11) Anyone who has rested on the edge of their seat towards the end of a good film knows that.

At the climax, all truths are revealed. The protagonist's primary objective is out on the table. This is the time that they must take all of that valuable knowledge that they have gathered over the course of their journey and put it to the test.

The climax of Marlin's story comes not when he is first reunited with

Nemo, but soon after. Before they swim back to the reef, Marlin first needs to demonstrate how he has changed, and show his son some trust. Dory becomes stuck in a net full of frantic fish that begins rising to the surface. With their friend's life on the line, Nemo, using the knowledge that he has gained during his own arc in the dentist's fish tank, insists that he can save her. At this point, the old Marlin continues to hold him back: 'I am not going to lose you again!'

Vogler summarises what he and Campbell call 'the resurrection':

Heroes have to undergo a final purging and purification before reentering the Ordinary World. Once more they must change. The trick for writers is to show the change in their characters, by behaviour or appearance rather than by just talking about it. (12)

Marlin shows that he has changed by letting go of his son. 'I can do this!' yells Nemo, still frustrated by his dad's overprotectiveness. 'You're right,' replies Marlin, after a moment of reflection. 'I know you can.' It is an act that not only saves Dory and the lives of dozens of fish, but also saves Marlin and Nemo's relationship.

After we've had a moment to reflect and make sure everything's going to be alright, then comes the happily ever after. Screenwriters know this period as the denouement. According to Vogler, after the plotlines have been 'knotted together to create conflict and tension, [...] usually it's desirable to release the tension and resolve the conflicts by untying these knots'. (13)

Marlin and Nemo return to the reef, new and improved. Like at the beginning, Nemo wants adventure, but now Marlin eggs him on instead of holding him back. At the very end, the two share a loving embrace--a moment that might have felt awkward at the beginning--and there is a sense of contentment.

The denouement provides closure. As the ordinary world shows what the protagonist's life was like before their journey, the denouement shows what it will be like going forward.

* Add the climax to your story's timeline. Discuss what happens to demonstrate that this moment is the climax. What truths are revealed at this moment, and how are they arrived at?

* Review the character arc and the lessons that the protagonist learned over the course of the second act. Discuss how these lessons assist them during the climax.

* Plot the denouement onto your timeline. What loose ends are tied up?

Sam Higgs has been a secondary school Media teacher for the last nine years, and a regular contributor to A TOM for the last five. He blogs about eLearning and media-related things.


(1) See, for example, James Bonnet, What's Wrong with the Three Act Structure', The Writers Store, <>, accessed 31 October 2016; and Film Crit Hulk!, 'Hulk Presents: The Myth of 3 Act Structure!', Film Crit Hulk! Hulk Blog!, 7 July 2011, <>, accessed 31 October 2016.

(2) Syd Field, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, rev. edn, Bantam Dell, New York, 2005, p. 21.

(3) ibid., pp. 21-6.

(4) ibid., p. 26.

(5) Christopher Vogler, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters, 2nd edn, Pan Books, London, 1999, P. 15.

(6) Field, op. cit., pp. 40-1.

(7) See Linda Seger, Making a Good Script Great, 3rd edn, Silman-James Press, Beverly Hills, 2010, p. 65; Field, op. cit., p. 97; and Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, Methuen, London, 1998, p. 181.

(8) Field, op. cit., p. 130.

(9) Vogler, op. cit., p. 4.

(10) ibid, pp. 47-56.

(11) McKee, op. cit., p. 309.

(12) Vogler, op. cit., p. 203.

(13) ibid, p. 222.
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Date:Apr 1, 2017
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