Inside Out Story Structure

Inside Out is a Pixar animated film released 2015. This film is one of Pixar’s most popular. Inside Out is therefore fascinating from a writing point of view because it an example of the big battle-free myth form, which we haven’t seen much of until recently.

Inside Out And Neurodiversity

All children must learn at some stage how to recognise and name their own emotions. This is harder for some than others. Even among the neurotypical population, a surprisingly large number of people have difficulty identifying how they feel.

Therapists who work with neurodiverse kids love Inside Out. My ADHD daughter’s occupational therapist recommended I rewatch this film with her and discuss the emotions according to a program called “The Zones Of Regulation”. These zones are designed to be a non-threatening, non-judgmental way of describing states of mind:

Blue Zone: Used to describe a low state of alertness. The Blue Zone is used to describe when one feels sad, tired, sick, or bored.

Green Zone: Used to describe the ideal state of alertness. A person may be described as calm, happy, focused, or content when he or she is in the Green Zone. The student feels a strong sense of internal control when in the Green Zone.

Yellow Zone: Used to describe a heightened state of alertness. A person may be experiencing stress, frustration, anxiety, excitement, silliness, or fear when in the Yellow Zone. The student’s energy is elevated yet he or she feels some sense of internal control in the Yellow Zone.

Red Zone: Used to describe an extremely heightened state of alertness. A person may be experiencing anger, rage, explosive behaviour, panic, extreme grief, terror, or elation when in the Red Zone and feels a loss of control.

Characters Of Inside Out

How do the characters map onto The Zones Of Regulation?

Blue Zone: Sadness is obvious, because Sadness is literally coloured blue.

Green Zone: This is Joy when she is focused on solving a problem. Confusingly, Joy has blue hair. Conveniently, Joy’s dress is green.

Yellow Zone: This is Joy when she is jumping up and down with glee. This is also Disgust, who is coded green in Inside Out. Fear, coded purple in the film, also goes into the yellow zone.

Red Zone: Anger is literally coloured red. But as the neurodiverse population knows well, there’s more to heightened emotions than just anger. My ADHD daughter is frequently in this zone when she is elated, e.g. at the school disco.

Two Main Characters In A Hollywood Film

Though pretty common in novels, it is very unusual in Hollywood to have two main characters. The safest, most financially successful Hollywood blockbuster has a single main character who we follow throughout the film. Who are the two main characters of this film?

  1. The main character of the real world thread — the little girl
  2. The main character of the fantasy world inside the little girl’s head — Joy

There are a number of stories in which a character tells a story about someone else, in which case there’s a main character of each thread. For instance, in Million Dollar Baby, the Clint Eastwood character is the star of the main story, but Morgan Freeman is the star of the narrated, metadiegetic level of the story. (Note: Hillary Swank is not the main character of either thread. She exists as a tool for the narrative arc of the men.)

Story Structure Of Inside Out

Inside Out gives us two full stories running in parallel to each other, intersecting. Stories like these demonstrate why the concept of ‘subplot‘ isn’t useful — each thread is its own full story, and one would not do its job without the other.

Two storylines with two separate main characters means two separate desires. These two different stories stuck together are structured together so that it appears the the audience that there is one single storyline.

What Makes This A ‘Female Myth’ Story?

First, take a look at the traditional mythic structure. (When I say ‘traditional’, I only mean the last 3000 years. Battle-free myths prevailed before that.)

Now take a look at big struggle-free mythic structure.

Take note that it’s not the gender of the main character that determines whether a mythic story is structured male or female. Though I did notice the gender-neutral name of Riley — Riley is not specifically coded as feminine. If the animators changed the look of her and nothing else, Riley would make an equally believable boy. That said, most main characters of male myths are gendered male, and vice versa.

A big struggle-free myth is partly about what is not in the narrative.

What is ‘missing’ from a big struggle-free myth? In a ‘normal’ story the writer aims for the strongest opponent possible, creating the greatest amount of conflict. That’s not how a big struggle-free myth works. In a big struggle-free myth there is no physical conflict with the big monster type of opponent.

Sure enough, the plot during the middle of Inside Out lags a little. Each time I’ve watched Inside Out, I’ve fallen asleep on the couch, just after the midway point. (My daughter didn’t — for kids, the amazing spectacle of hijinks inside the brain is enough to sustain their attention.) There’s a case to be made that perhaps big struggle-free myth stories should be shorter than your average male myth story. But will audiences buy a ticket to something that lasts one hour, or one hour ten, without feeling ripped off? If the big struggle-free myth form is to exist equally among the corpus of entertainment available, the entire structure of Hollywood probably needs to change first. That said, audiences are hungry for this kind of story, as proven by the earnings. The big struggle-free myth is very new to a modern audience, and writers should be hyperaware that they’re going to foil expectations. Battle-free myths need to be better written, more engaging and probably have higher budgets than run-of-the-mill male myth forms in order to compete.

Theme And Ideology Of Inside Out

What’s the difference between the premise and the reason for writing?

PREMISE: After moving interstate, a girl learns to live with some difficult emotions for the first time in her life.

I imagine the writers wanted to do something like this:

Show that it’s impossible to be joyful all the time by creating two side-by-side plots, with one thread taking place in a realistic modern day San Francisco, and another fantasy world inside one girl’s head, homanculi-ed with representations of the major human emotions. The outtake sequence will show that everybody has the same range of emotions inside their heads, too.

Inside Out expresses a modern view of psychology. While fairytales gave us a good/evil binary, in which characters were born good or bad, later stories kept the binary but attributed evil to ‘possession’ or child abuse. Last century offered stories like The Iron Giant. In order for that story to work, the author first set up a binary of good versus evil. However, the story is typical of its era: The Iron Giant has been designed with evil intent, but in the end he can choose to use his powers for good. Hence the Superman references sprinkled throughout. Superman is the archetypal ‘Use your powers for good’ character. (The much later, 1999 film adaptation of The Iron Giant winks to the audience on this point, by creating a character who wears a yin yang dressing gown.)

The modern view of human psychology is that there is no single ‘self’. We are all capable of being all sorts of things, depending on the time and place. Moreover, these emotions are not inherently ‘good’ or inherently ‘bad’. Like the psychologists who have come up with therapies for neurodiverse kids, Inside Out is careful to steer clear of value judgement.

[Inside Out] also reflects some of the most important truths about what it means to be an individual person.

The first of these is that there isn’t actually a single, unified you at all. Your brain is not a little world full of anthropomorphic creatures, of course. But it is made up of various different, often competing impulses. You are simply how it all comes together, the sum of your psychic parts.

This, however, is just the first crack at the myth of the enduring, unified self. What the film also shows is that each of these parts is impermanent. Riley’s personality is represented by a series of islands that reflect what matters most to her: friendship, honesty, family, goofiness and hockey. But as life becomes difficult, each of these in turns threatens to crumble. And that is how it is in the real world: as we grow and change and life takes it toll, some of the things that matter most to us will endure, others will fall away and new ones will come in their place.

Julian Baggini, The Guardian

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