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A Story within a (Toy) Story

In great movies, structural principles apply to more than one level: story, act, sequence etc.

Once you understand how drama functions, you can apply it to EVERY level of the story.

Earlier we have looked at how the Mentor Sequence in The Untouchables was conceived as a mini 3-act story.

Today we’ll go a step further and see how Pixar plays with the Hero’s Journey story stages.

It is no news that the guys at Pixar know their Journey inside out. But you may be surprised to see how accurate the paradigm is followed.

As a matter of fact, by the time we reach the Inciting Incident (Call to Adventure) in Toy Story 2, you will have seen two almost complete hero’s journeys.

Let’s focus on the first one.

The film opens with Buzz Lightyear approaching the planet of the Evil Emperor Zurg.

The following three minutes are a textbook example of the Second Act within the Hero’s Journey, or stages 5 to 9:

5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD

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Buzz enters the atmosphere. He crosses the Threshold into the Special World, which is the planet of Zurg.

Insofar the Crossing of the Threshold symbolises the Hero’s decision to act, this has already happened (in Toy Story 1) as we know what Buzz’s mission is: ‘to defeat the evil emperor Zurg’. In other words: we don’t need to see the scene in which Buzz commits to the journey. We know his character and purpose.

6. TESTS, ALLIES & ENEMIES

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Before he embarks on his mission to find Zurg, he has to pass a number of Tests: 1) fly through the belt of asteroids unharmed, 2) land safely and 3) dodge the falling debris.

While he records his mission log (Ally?), he is surrounded by enemy droids (Enemies), protecting Zurg’s stronghold.

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The tests continue as we commence the …

7. APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE

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While Buzz is looking for a way to enter Zurg’s headquarters, a Cave Guardian in the shape of a video camera notices him. Buzz has to eliminate the Guardian before he can proceed.

Now a secret entrance opens up. When Buzz jumps in, he crosses the Second Threshold. The approach continues underground. More tests follow, one of which is the crossing of the abyss (to the tune of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, a reference to Kubrick’s 2001).

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Now we have a brief scene from Zurg’s POV: “Come to me, my prey!”. This is the ‘antagonist high point’, which always immediately precedes the Hero’s lowest point, i.e. the Ordeal.

9. THE REWARD

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In this journey, we see the Reward before the Ordeal: the ‘Source of Zurg’s Power’ – a battery – is floating in a magnetic field. It is clear that this is the item Buzz is after. But first he’ll have to face Zurg….

Note that a similar technique – revealing the Reward before the Ordeal –¬† is used in The Incredibles, where we see the video projection in the Cave, showing the information the Incredibles need to fight Syndrome in Act Three. But first they have to survive the Ordeal.

8. THE ORDEAL

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In the Ordeal, Buzz and Zurg fight. A proper Ordeal confronts the Hero with death. Here it seems frighteningly literal, when Zurg blows off Zurg’s head and torso – a scary image.

The Second Act has come to a down ending, without Buzz reaping the reward. Only now do we enter the real story of Toy Story 2 and realise it was only a video game; a story within the story and and entire Hero’s Journey Act Two in only just over 3 minutes!

So, what’s there to learn?

When beginning writers talk about structure, most of the time they mean the 3-act structure and they don’t get any further than that.

The screenwriting industry is hellishly competitive. I believe it would increase your chances of selling your work or getting a writing job if you understand how you can make stories exciting by using structure creatively WITHIN the Act, the Sequence and the Scene.

Is there a danger that all films will end up the same? It depends on what your criteria are. If you find that all Pixar movies  are the same, then yes. If you find that all Cameron movies are the same, then yes.

Anyhow, the audience doesn’t seem to mind.

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Further reading

If you’re ready to do your own analyses, check out Myth & the Movies. In this book, Stuart Voytilla identifies journey stages within 50 major movies of 10 different genres. He drills deeper than just the story level.

Do you know of any other mini-journeys? Share them with us in the comments!

About the Author

Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in international movie rights acquisition, script development and production. He has trained and consulted to filmmakers all over the world, including award-winning screenwriters, and Academy Award nominees. Karel founded this website, as well as Logline.it!, ranks among the most influential people for screenwriting on social media, and speaks more than a handful of European languages (which should come in handy in his present hometown of Sydney, Australia).

Comments 1

  1. What I love about the mini-hero’s journey opening Toy Story 2 is how it pays off with a hilarious ironic counterpoint in the third act. It even playfully satirizes Star Wars with a Luke-Vader son-father domestic idyll! Those who complain that adhering to 3-act structure is cookie-cutter scriptwriting forget that the rules are there to be broken or subverted, which Toy Story 2 does brilliantly.

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