by Stephanie O’Brien
Whether they’re trying to market themselves as educational, to support a viewpoint the writer holds, to enrich their audience, or simply to try to sound deep, many stories attempt to teach their audience a lesson, or to have a “moral of the story”.
Some stories succeed brilliantly.
But all too often, the narrative gets warped around the lesson to the point where it becomes unrelatable or unrealistic, or the lesson is so obvious that it makes people say “I already know that”, which prevents the reader from giving it any further thought.
The movie Inside Out didn’t do that. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the best educational stories I’ve ever seen, mostly because it tricked me.
Here’s what Inside Out did right, and how storytellers everywhere can use its secrets to improve their own writing:
* * * * Spoilers * * * *
In the early parts of Inside Out, the story convincingly portrayed Sadness as disruptive and incompetent. She turned could-have-been-OK moments into tear-stained ordeals, went limp at times when she needed to take action, and generally seemed to make things harder for everyone around her.
She didn’t seem to improve any situation she laid her hands on, and even though I already knew that all emotions are important messengers that should be paid attention to, I found myself getting annoyed with her, and wishing she’d stop messing things up.
Pay attention; this part is important.
The story didn’t initially make it obvious that it was teaching a lesson.
In fact, it deliberately tried to make its audience have the reaction it would later encourage them not to have.
If the story had started out by saying “Paying attention to ALL of your emotions is important”, I probably would have nodded and said “yup, got it”, and never learned anything about myself from watching the movie.
But because it portrayed Sadness’s seeming uselessness so convincingly, and in such a relatable way, it got a reaction. And the fact that I HAD that reaction at all told me that I had some beliefs that weren’t quite aligned with what I knew about emotions.
It was a real eye-opener for me, both about myself, and about how to convey knowledge through storytelling.
I began to look closer at the way Inside Out was structured, and I made a list of the things that made the moral of the story so convincing and the lesson so profound.
Here are the lessons that storytellers can learn from Inside Out:
1. If you want to encourage your audience not to do something, have a character do it, with realistic results.
The consequences should flow naturally from the character’s behavior, their environment, and the people around them.
Having the universe randomly and inexplicably dump on them for their misdeeds is sloppy and unrealistic, and won’t help your audience to understand the real-world effects of the mistake you’re pointing out. So keep it plausible and natural.
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2. Don’t make it immediately obvious that the character is making a mistake.
If your audience can guess the lesson right away, they’ll probably think “I already know that”, and start tuning out.
But if they can identify with the character’s mindset or behavior, or at least think it’s OK, it will be all the more jarring and eye-opening when you reveal the results of their choice.
3. Make the lesson a natural part of the story.
If the characters’ behavior seems out of character, or you have to bend over backward and warp your plot to create the scenario that’s used to teach the lesson, it will hurt the quality of both the lesson you’re teaching and the story as a whole.
For best results, the lesson should be part of the natural flow of the story, not a distracting detour or a plot tumor.
4. Make it relatable.
The best lessons are the ones that match, or at least closely resemble, a scenario in which the audience could realistically find themselves.
If the moral of the story is something that could theoretically apply to the audience’s lives, but the way in which the characters apply or experience it would NEVER happen in real life, it won’t have as much impact.
5. Teach something that hasn’t already been taught, or teach it in a new way.
Unless your target audience is 5-year-olds, it’s best to avoid having a moral that’s so obvious that it makes people say, “come on, every decently-raised kid over the age of 6 knows that”.
That said, if you can teach it in a new way, or give more in-depth, specific and useful insights than most stories give, even a basic and generic lesson can become deep and useful.
For example, most people know that bullying is wrong – not that that stops some people from doing it anyway. Therefore, having that as the moral of a story is a great way to be generic.
But if you portray your characters using effective and little-known methods to deter the bullies, and/or use the portrayal of the bully characters to give insights into WHY kids bully each other, then your readers might learn something that they didn’t know before.
This is a great way to make an old lesson new, to add depth to your story, and to enlighten your readers at the same time.
6. Don’t shoehorn a lesson in just for the sake of looking deep.
Maybe there isn’t a moral to your story. Maybe it’s just for fun. And that’s fine.
In my personal opinion, it’s better to have a story with no lesson than to cram a lesson into the story just for the sake of having one.
Stephanie O’Brien has been writing novels since she was twelve years old and has published three of them on Amazon’s Kindle. When she isn’t writing novels and running her marketing business, she’s usually creating comics, music videos, and fanfiction. If you’d like to get more writing tips, or to check out her books, art, and videos, you can visit her website. You can also connect with her on Facebook or on Twitter.
Great post! Inside Out was definitely an intelligently written movie. And I also would rather a story be genuine rather than come across as disingenuous because of a lesson shoehorned in there. Most people like to read / watch stories for entertainment primarily, and the lessons tend to be a secondary bonus.
Insightful! I think these ideas may be useful even in stories that don’t have a “lesson” for the reader, because there will still be characters who need to learn a lesson in a way that feels natural.
Part of the reason that the Joy/Sadness lesson in Inside Out works so well is that Joy goes through a fundamental shift in perspective. Her wrong perspective (even though it seems right) early on contributes to the main conflict, and acting on her new perspective at the end is what resolves that conflict. It seems a great framework for character arcs in general.
This is great. I loved the 6 areas you’ve pointed out. I’m writing a really good example of this educating blog of how parents deal with kids dealing with grief. I can honestly say I’ve used 1-5 of your suggestions and I’m really loving the reactions I’ve had from my test group. Of course, there is magic, a dragon, and kids. I hope number 6 is not an issue.
Enjoyed your thoughts on this- yes — the “lesson” can warp the story if done wrong.
Will check the movie out.