Finding Dory: What Makes a Sequel Work?


Finding Dory is a sequel that is worth your time — even if you don’t remember all the details of Finding Nemo, (released thirteen long years ago, in 2003).

The reason: Like all good sequels, and all good works of genre, it delivers the same thing as before, only different.

Like Nemo, Dory is the story of a search for absent family. It contains many of the same Hero’s Journey plot elements, and many of the same sorts of antic chase scenes.

Yet Dory still explores new territory, and does so with bravery.

Like the film Me Before You, Finding Dory addresses the issues of the differently abled. The main character, Dory, has memory issues; Destiny, a whale shark, is severely nearsighted (as someone who would be legally blind without glasses, this resonates); Hank, the octopus, has lost a tentacle; and Bailey the Beluga has sustained a head injury and cannot echolocate.

Of course, Nemo himself has a short fin.

Unlike Me Before You, however, Dory is unlikely to create controversy, (  ) as the story’s underlying message is one of persistence, resilience and the power of optimism to keep us bouyant in the face of adversity.

Dory’s writer, Andrew Stanton, must know how easy it is to become discouraged: In 2012, his live action directorial debut, John Carter of Mars, was a flop.

Coming back to Pixar to create the sequel to Finding Nemo should have been easy for Stanton. According to him, it wasn’t.

“I had always seen Dory as a tragic character,” he has been quoted as saying. “I had always assumed she had spent most of her life wandering the ocean being ditched or accidentally ditching other people and had this compounding sense of abandonment. I figured she had developed this superpower of being the most optimistic, nice, fun person to be around so maybe the next person — or fish — she meets won’t leave her.”

So how do you write a children’s movie about a tragic character who is unfailingly optimistic and kind?

The answer is: You don’t. Like Toy Story, Wall-E, and Finding Nemo, Finding Dory is not a children’s movie. It is an animated movie, which children tend to like, and there is no explicit sex or violence in it, which parents do not like to see in the films they show their young children.

But Finding Dory’s story is structured along the lines of a psychological thriller. Like Girl On a Train, we have an unreliable narrator who must discover clues and fill in the gaps in her own memory in order to solve a mystery in her past.

In real life, a person who cannot form short term memories would not be able to recover long-term memories, but Dory’s character feels authentic, in large part because her struggle does have a real life analog — the cognitive declines of old age and dementia.

So Dory randomly recalls childhood memories or quirky facts, while she struggles to recall what just happened a moment ago. She is charismatic and creative, but has difficulty performing simple spatial tasks, and is constantly in danger of losing, not only others, but herself.

It is this last aspect of Dory which sets her story apart from Nemo’s. In Finding Nemo, Marlin, Nemo’s father, was the character whose goal provided the spine of the story. According to Stanton, Marlin’s defining goal was this: To prevent harm. To prevent harm to his son, and to any one else he cared about.

Dory’s goal is different. She may be looking for her parents, but her great overarching goal is simply to hold on to herself. How much can she forget without forgetting the essential connections that form her identity? In the film’s darkest moment, where Dory confronts her greatest fear, she nearly gives into despair — losing what Stanton calls “her superpower” of optimism. This scene is done with such subtlety and stillness that it elevates the entire film.

If this makes the film sound serious and preachy, it’s not. There are moments of delirious fun, including an oblique Cthulhu reference early in the movie and Hank the octopus’ brilliant physical humor and gruff asides (he is voiced by Ed O’Neill, who is known for many other things, but whom I will always adore as Relish the Troll King from Tenth Kingdom). There’s also a touch tank that is depicted as the final circle of Hell, a lonely clam who won’t shut up, and a cameo appearance by a same sex couple of women with a baby. (There seems to be some dispute over whether the couple are meant to be lesbians. I choose to believe they are, because it’s about time.)

In his 2012 Ted Talk, (just after the release of the ill-fated John Carter) Stanton lays out some guidelines for good storytelling. It’s very worth watching (if only for that first crude joke):

I suggest turning on the subtitles so you can jot down some notes. Here are some of his key points, in my own words:

Storytelling has guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Instinct will often guide you as well as analysis. (That’s how he and his friends started out at Pixar.)

Storytelling is joke telling. Everything you’re saying from the first sentence to the last is leading to a singular goal (the punchline). David Mamet agrees: In his book, On Directing Film, he states that the model for drama is the dirty joke.

Storytelling without dialogue is the purest andmost inclusive storytelling. David Mamet talks about telling the story through a series of uninflected images. A shot of a baby bird on the beach. A shot of the ocean. A shot of a big wave coming. A shot of the older birds running away. You tell the story in the cuts (the juxtaposition of images) and let the viewer make the connection. (Mamet is citing Eisenstein’s theory of montage:

The audience actually wants to work for their meal; they just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. The reason: We’re born problem solvers. We’re born to deduce and to deduct, because that’s what we do in real life. This leads to what Stanton calls the Unifying Theory: Don’t give the audience 4, give them 2+2 and let them make the connection.

The appeal of puppies and kittens (and cartoons and animation): Puppies and kittens can’t completely express what their thoughts and intentions are, and it’s like a magnet. We can’t stop ourselves from wanting to complete the sentence and fill it in. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud discusses how abstract forms (such as comics and cartoons) can create greater audience identification and have a more universal appeal than realistic characters. We humans may not be as color blind as we would like to be yet, but we can all see ourselves in a blue fish.

Creating Characters that Make People Care: You want to create a character that a reader or viewer will care about, but you also need to create an arc. How to reconcile these often contradictory goals? Stanton suggests that you don’t need to start a character at one end of the spectrum (selfish) and travel all the way to the other end (selfless) in order to create an arc. We all have conditions. Figure out the one condition that a character must see met in order to function…and then take it away.

Last but not least, Stanton does not give in to the temptation to preach about the impact of climate change, overfishing and pollution on our oceans. (Dory does get stuck in a plastic six pack ring, but it is not a major plot point.)

Stanton’s final words of wisdom: “I’m a very selfish storyteller. I just want whatever works to help tell the character’s story. I don’t have a secret agenda.”

Visual Storytelling Workshop

I’m going to be holding a workshop on Visual Storytelling Techniques (using cinematic and graphic novel storytelling methods to make your prose more vivid, dynamic and compelling) at Fiction Fest this September, in Norwalk Connecticut, courtesy of the Connecticut chapter of RWA. There are other fabulous sounding workshops by folks like Barbara Samuel, Kristan Higgins and Damon Suede.

What is Romance?

What is romance, and does there have to be a happily ever after?

Originally, a romance was a tale of chivalric love and adventure, in which the hero (always male) never consummated his passion (for a female).

These days, when most people discuss romance stories, they are referring to the genre of novel that burst onto the publishing scene in the 1970’s. Romance comics have an even longer history: They date from the mid-forties.

Romance Writers of America, with the help of writer Jennifer Crusie, came up with this definition of genre romance: A romance is a love story that has an emotionally satisfying, optimistic ending. In an earlier draft, Crusie had suggested “A romance is a love story that ends in emotional justice,” in much the same way that mystery novels end with a sense of moral justice.

You can read Crusie’s full post about defining genre romance here:

Lately, two romance authors have released books that end in death rather than marriage, and reader response may lead to a redefintion of the genre.

Some readers are ready to embrace the “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” ending in romance. In an article originally published on and then reprinted on the Huffington Post, Noah Berlatsky explains why she prefers the possibility of an unhappy ending: “The thing I love about romance novels is the way they insist that love and happiness are important and real and true. You can show that insistence by defiantly giving your audience the happy ending. But you can also do it by acknowledging that some stories don’t end that way, while still honoring the impulse to believe that they should.”

You can read her full article is here:

Romance authors have been challenging other conventions of the genre by writing about male-male pairings and female-male-male menages, but other conventions remain. For example, love interests tend to meet very early in the narrative in order to telegraph the identity of the key couple. Also, adultery and cheating remain mostly taboo.

Here are some other romance conventions.

In a beauty and the beast story, it is never the female who is the beast.

In male female pairings, the stories are told from the female POV or from the female and male POV (in that order).

The main characters’ romantic love must be expressed sexually.

Male/female romances should end with pregnancy or the promise of children in the near future.

I’d love to read stories that subvert these conventions.

For example,how can the main couple express the sensuality and intimacy of their love if they don’t consummate their love physically? In Anne McCaffery’s classic SF novel The Ship Who Sang, the heroine is basically a human brain encased in a spaceship; the hero is her pilot. In Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing comic book series, Abigail Arcane faces the issue of consummation as well, because she loves a swamp creature who is vegetable, not animal. Both writers come up with marvelously creative and satisfying solutions to the question: If sex is not the ultimate intimacy, what other kind of payoff could there be?

And speaking of sex, can erotica be funny? Back when Sex and the City was the hot show about female friendship, Chick Lit novels explored the glamor of working in Manhattan. Now, Broad City (created and written by alums of the improv group Upright Citizen’s Brigade)  offers a deliciously raunchy take. (Forget working in an art gallery, like nineties girl Charlotte: Artist Abby cleans out clogged toilets for a health club.)

As for me, I look forward to reading stories that explore the mystery, adventure, weirdness and occasionally the horror of romantic love, in all its iterations.

What about you? Would you read a book with a heroine in her 50’s — or older? Would you read a story about a recovering drug addict? Would you be stick with a hero or a heroine who committed adultery? And last but not least…does the story have to end with the promise of forever in order to work?