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6 minute read

7 Tips On Emotional Storytelling, Pixar-Style, From The Writer Of "Inside Out" And "The Good Dinosaur"

Meg LeFauve wrote on both 2015 Pixar movies. Here she talks to Co.Create about developing characters, the power of vulnerability, and more.

[Photos & Videos: courtesy of Walt Disney Studios]

Earlier this year, Funny or Die put out a video suggesting that Pixar movies are created for maximum tear-extraction in a Sadness Lab. A lot of people who alternately laughed and ugly-cried through films like Up and Toy Story 3 found it funny. So did one of Pixar’s most talented screenwriters, whose very existence disproves the video’s thesis.

"Somebody sent it to me," confirms Meg LeFauve, who wrote on both Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. "It's hysterical."

Meg LeFauve

The Funny or Die video is obviously ridiculous, but it raises a salient point. Big, sloppy cry-moments occur so frequently in the Pixar catalogue, they seem to be the result of meticulous reverse-engineering, rather than an organic byproduct of pure storytelling. It’s an idea LeFauve dismisses out of hand, though. "If you are trying to tell the best story and get into an intimate, personal, vulnerable, authentic moment," she says, "that kind of emotion is going to arise naturally."

That kind of emotion is certainly in generous supply in both Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur, the unprecedented one-two punch of Pixar movies that arrived this calendar year. In the first, a young girl displaced in a new town has to learn it's okay to feel sadness sometimes; in the other, a young dinosaur tackles a similar lesson about fear. The common DNA both films share, besides that elusive alchemy that makes Pixar movies rewatch-worthy staples, is LaFauve, who wrapped up work on Inside Out one day and immediately found herself in a writers room on Dinosaur the next.

With The Good Dinosaur newly in theaters, and Inside Out now on Blu-Ray, Co.Create talked to LeFauve about how to write an emotionally driven narrative the Pixar way—without the help of a Sadness Lab.

To Find The Right Ending, Be Flexible About All That Precedes It

For both movies, the director and the writers really worked together, carding and spitballing, to find an ending. It's kind of akin to breaking a story in television, where many, many ideas are coming out and we're putting them up on cards and seeing how it works and then changing accordingly—and then, from that, an ending comes. But your ending and your beginning might both be kind of both evolving. You are constantly moving back and forth between the two to figure out what is the journey of the main character. So sometimes the endings are the hardest and sometimes they're the easiest and the beginnings are the hardest, you never know where the challenge will land.

Connect With Characters Through Their Vulnerability

Riley [from Inside Out] and Arlo [from The Good Dinosaur] are both around the same age and they're both coping with a loss that feels bigger than what they can handle. So it's really looking at how I felt when I was 11, or Pete [Docter, who directed Inside Out] or anybody in the room, and what that felt like then, or what loss feels like to us now. That kind of vulnerability always says a lot about a character and who they are specifically. At the same time, it’s also about calibrating emotions so that they're not just that singular emotion all the time.

Themes May Develop Out Of The Plot, Or Vice Versa

It's different for different people and different brains work differently. Some creative brains really like to start with the plot and go down into the inside and other people, like myself, I always start with theme first—what are we really talking about, what are we saying. So I tend to build from the inside out, but it's actually very helpful in the room when you're collaborating this way, that there's other people in the room who are building from the outside in and can start throwing from that direction, creative ideas.

Let Character Design And World-Building Inform The Writing

On Inside Out, a lot of the characters had been designed already when I came on. The emotions [the personifications of Joy and Anger, etc, who lead the film] were designed, and I could see Riley. That's incredibly helpful. And if the voice talent is cast, it adds an entire new ability to hone in on character because once Amy Poehler is on board, you can really write to Amy Poehler, which is a delight. But for Dinosaur, it was the opposite. I knew Arlo and I knew Spot, and they changed a little bit, but they were who they were. A lot of the other characters, went through big changes. We had the experience where one of the character designers was doing the Rustlers, who are raptors, and he gave them mullets—and so suddenly they became more rednecks. And that is coming just from the creativity of the character designers.

It can go both ways. I'll go into detail about how a character looks if I think it's really important to the storytelling. For instance, Butch the T-Rex, I wrote him to have scars and be very large. You're writing his character in a certain way that starts to show the designers what he’ll look like. But for something that you can really let these amazing character designers just go have fun with, it's often a good thing to let them do that. Things like the family of opossums who comes out to watch Arlo build his lean-to? A great storyboarder named Rosie [Sullivan] came up with that. It’s a kind of world building that’s happening all the time. But at the same time, I am always balancing that world building with the more human, intimate, emotional story—that's the other pole of that.

Inside Out, 2015

The Most Relatable Villain Is Yourself, Or Nature

I came on Inside Out, Pete [Docter] was not leaning towards any villains. I think at one point there was the idea floated that those Forgetters are villainous in trying to grab the core memories so Riley would forget them. But it just never really caught Pete's imagination and it really wasn't what he wanted to focus on. And as a storyteller, I love that more complex idea. And so Pete Sohn [the director of The Good Dinosaur] decided very early that you'll have characters that Arlo will come into conflict with and challenge him for sure. The villain is, if there is one, you want it to be nature. The movement of nature and the idea that nature is something to be respected—that was the antagonist of this movie.

Inside Out, 2015

Kids Understand Complex Emotions More Than You Might Think

We don’t write to a kid’s experience of the film, or to the parent’s. At Pixar, the only bar is: Is this the absolute best story we can tell? I think the idea is, and I agree, that if you're telling the best story, it will reach many different people at different levels at different times in that story. Pete [Docter] and I had discussions about kids and Inside Out, about what they understand and what we found is that kids understand almost better those ideas about emotions and the complexity of our experience. My son is a special needs kid and I've gotten letters from other parents in the special needs community of what an incredible impact Inside Out is having in terms of helping children who couldn't express what was going on inside now suddenly have a way to do it. So it’s just been an incredible experience to help bring that into the world.

Just Keep Writing, Just Keep Writing

What Pixar taught me is to just keep writing even when I’m out of ideas. I learned that if you just keep going back to the well, it will uncork and there will be more. For me, personally, the worst thing that can happen is a shut-down where I am literally not able to physically write. And I think the other way that I got unstuck once or twice is I realized, especially for my own personal writing more than maybe at Pixar, that if I don't write this story this character will never exist—they will never be in the world, they will never get a chance to tell their story. So I had a responsibility to sit down and fight to get the story out for that character. That really helps my brain shift so it's not about me and my ego and what I'm able to do and not do; it's for the character and letting their story be told.

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