Not many people tend to think of films as an ideal place to pick up great writing tips. Even less consider “kids movies” to be a valuable source of information on story craft. The fact is however, there is no better place to learn about “show don’t tell” then a well-crafted film aimed at a young audience. Complex issues must be presented in so seamless a fashion that even the most distracted youngster will be able to follow along effortlessly.
When it comes to claustrophobic writing, ie a story that takes place within a confined setting, there is much that can be learned from Pixar’s Finding Nemo. From the moment that the young clownfish is dumped in a tank in a dentist’s office, one can begin observing how the writer’s behind this film are able to craft a story within a very small physical space. Here are a few points one should keep in mind when writing claustrophobically which Nemo’s writers knock right out of the park:
Quickly Establish the Boundaries
If much of the story is going to take place within a small space, the audience needs to be informed immediately about the boundaries. How large is the room/location where the story will take place? What are the obstacles keeping the character from leaving? What are the possible penalties of venturing outside? Pixar does a brilliant job of establishing the boundaries moments after Nemo is dumped into the tank. Within seconds, he runs into all four walls, giving the audience an instant “mind map” of the space he is contained in.
Present a Contrast
While not absolutely necessary, it is sometimes helpful to establish a contrast to the character’s confined setting. This helps further underscore the claustrophobic tension, and increases the audience’s desire for the character to be freed. In the case of Finding Nemo, Nemo’s cramped habitation is contrasted literally by the vastness of the ocean as perspective switches from the deformed fish to his anxious father who journeys halfway across the sea to save his son.
Make the Most of Every Detail
When you’re working in a small environment with limited stimuli, it is important to make thorough use of every detail at your disposal. If a character spends the entire story in a single room, describe the walls, ceiling, door, even the chinks in the floorboards. In Finding Nemo, nearly every conceivable object in the tank becomes a crucial part of the plot, including the filter, kelp, and even the pebbles which line the bottom of the tank.
Create Dynamic Characters
When it comes to claustrophobic writing, much hinges on dynamic characters. Since there is little to no exterior stimuli to engage the reader, characters must dominate each and every scene. Note the incredibly unique personalities each member of the “Tank Gang” possess. The interconnection of these characters creates enough of an engaging story that the audience quickly forgets the cramped surroundings.
Confrontation of the Confinement
Finally, the main character must at some point confront or at least seriously question the confinement. The character must respond to the tension of the claustrophobic setting, which the audience is now thoroughly familiar with, by either breaking free or choosing to remain where he/she is. In Finding Nemo, the writers cleverly craft a scenario in which the audience feels relief at Nemo’s escape from the tank, yet at the same time tension at the potential dangers which now exist “on the outside.”
Claustrophobic writing must be handled correctly as it inherently requires an investment of emotion from the audience. Humans as a whole rebel against the idea of confinement and generally experience anxiety when confronted with small spaces. By simply observing the clever crafting of Finding Nemo’s use of this writing style, one can pick up many useful tricks of the trade.