Digging for the Story’s Core: Pixar’s Brave

Picture your first draft as the Earth. Deep below the surface, there’s liquid magma, hidden from view. In editing your script, you drill down beneath the surface, looking to break through all the layers of character, plot, and visual imagery to get to that core.

That’s where the unifying ideas are. Once you’ve broken down into the core, you’re allowing that magma to rush up to the surface, passing through all the other layers. A strong core idea is already buried inside even the first draft of a script, and only by searching inside what’s already there can you find it.

Unlike the digging in this analogy, the actual act of searching for the core is about making new connections. Looking at ways that character, plot points, dialogue, etc. can connect to each other, and what lies behind those connections.

Take, for example, the movie Brave.

In this scene, Merida acts on her plan to win the archery competition, defeating her suitors and avoiding an arranged marriage.

This is not a movie about a princess who doesn’t want to get married, as many of the trailers made it appear to be. This is a movie whose core idea is about repairing a damaged relationship between a mother and daughter, and this idea comes across in all aspects of the scene.

First, there’s the content of the scene’s conflict. Yes, the archery contest decides who (or if) Merida will marry, but the tension of the scene is not based on if she is skilled enough to succeed. We have seen in previous scenes that she has a Gladwell-worthy amount of practice with her bow, and that it is a prized possession. We see that she has chosen this competition with the intent of winning it, and her confidence further suggests that the tension is not about if she can win, but if she will choose to win. Pushing the idea that this is about her choice to the fore front is where the tension in the scene actually comes from: Merida continuing to fire arrows as Elinor rushes toward her, telling her to stop.

There’s also the visual elements at play in the scene. In order to get the freedom of movement she needs to fire the arrows, Merida tears apart the seams of her dress. This is a dress that was put on her by her mother in a previous scene (in which Elinor ignored Merida’s complaints about how it was too tight). Not only is this dress a physical representation of Elinor’s control over Merida, but its tearing also represents Merida’s desires to escape from that control, even by careless, violent means.

This tearing of fabric to represent a damaged relationship is further strengthened in the next scene, where Merida slices through a tapestry of her family, cutting through the portion of the image where her and her mother are shown holding hands. This echo of the ripping fabric connects it to the core of the story about mending the relationship between Merida and Elinor.

There’s more that can be teased out of this scene. Consider how Merida and Elinor are together on the dais, but on opposite ends, separated by Fergus. When Merida chooses to transgress against the spirit of the competition and against her mother’s will, she disappears from the dais and moves away from her mother. As her mother tries to get her to stop, she moves closer to Merida, attempting to close the distance. Fergus himself is used as a battleground for the conflict between mother and daughter, as Elinor tries to keep Fergus from laughing at Merida’s jokes about the suitors.

This scene is one example of when a story’s core bubbles up through all the other aspects of the writing. There are strong connections between individual actions and details, all relating to a central idea. At the same time, these connections don’t all immediately draw attention to each other, as they’re grounded in character relationships and natural logistics. The core idea is there for the audience to discover, but not at the expense of leading them to stop paying attention to the dramatic action.

Keep those things in mind when looking for how to bring out the core of your own writing. Don’t just look for what best represents a theme, look for elements that are logistically and dramatically necessary to the plot, or that already exist as an aspect of the characters that can be focused on. Look for existing elements that have some kind of connection to each other or echo one another and find ways to make that stronger. Look for the foundation that already exists and build from there.