Story Analysis Case Study: Pixar’s Soul


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As Seen On

This week we’re taking a close look at the recent Pixar movie Soul to find out what makes this story tick.

What is Soul all about?

Soul is a 2020 Pixar / Disney animated feature, written by Pete Docter & Mike Jones & Kemp Powers. It’s directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers. And it’s now nominated for the Academy Award for best Animated Feature Film.

The story follows a middle school music teacher named Joe Gardner, who seeks to reunite his soul and his body after they are accidentally separated, just before his big break as a jazz musician.

Let’s take a look at how the screenplay for Soul is put together. We’ll use some of the tools we might use while breaking our own stories so you can see these tools aren’t just a way to analyze an existing story, but useful for figuring out a story you’re trying to create, as well.

1: Clarity Statement

Movies tend to be about one person’s attempt to accomplish one thing and the transformative experience that is for them. That’s really the core of the story. So it’s a good place to start in order to get very clear on what this thing is that you’re trying to build.

For Soul, a basic description is:

It’s about a jazz musician trying to reunite his soul to his body.

Simple, right? Yet that basic description tells us what the movie is essentially about. While it doesn’t go into detail (and it’s not supposed to), it still gives us a sense of the main conflict and we know what we can expect to see in the movie.

We can then use this simple sentence to find the organic structure of the story:

In Act 1 the goal is created.
In Act 2 the goal is pursued.
In Act 3 the pursuit of the goal is resolved – the goal is achieved or not.

For Soul:

In Act 1, we see how jazz musician Joe’s soul becomes separated from his body.
In Act 2, we see Joe try to reunite his soul with his body.
In Act 3, we see whether Joe reunites his soul with his body, and how he does it.

We still have a lot to figure out, including specifically how each of these big swaths of story play out. But for now, this tells you what needs to happen in each of the main parts of the screenplay. This is the structure of your story in very broad strokes.

And I say this often but that’s because it’s true: this all might look too simple to be useful, but don’t dismiss it so quickly. These simple, basic steps will get your story started on the right foot so you don’t end up with major issues later.

2: Matching plot to character

Character arc and plot need to have a cause-and-effect relationship in order to feel believable and organic. Thinking about character arc can also help us identify theme, since they’re so closely related.

In Soul, Joe is a jazz musician who is obsessed with getting his big shot. He believes his music is his purpose in life and the only thing that makes his life worth living.

Which, the movie posits, is an unhealthy way to live. Joe’s missing out on living life to its fullest because he thinks his life will really start once he “makes it.”

So he’s a guy who needs to learn that lesson – how to appreciate and enjoy life fully. To stop and smell the roses. And the plot of Soul pairs Joe with 22, a soul who is brand new to Earth and the pleasures of living, and is able to take it all in without any baggage (or obsession). The plot of the movie forces Joe to work with 22 in order to get his own soul back. And seeing life through 22’s eyes causes Joe to learn the lesson he needs in order to be a happier, healthier person.

That’s the type of relationship you want your plot and protagonist to have. Plot events act on a character and force change. The changing character makes choices that drive plot direction.

When plot and character are designed to intertwine effectively, it makes the story feel more meaningful because we can see how those elements are working on each other and effecting change.

3: Major plot points

The major plot points give definition to the big shape of your story. They each have a specific purpose to fulfill, and they work together to create the exciting, emotional ride of the story.

And you can see how the plot points relate directly back to that basic description in the clarity statement. It’s something to remember as you’re figuring out your own story. You’re not reinventing the wheel at each development step. You’re using what you already have to learn more about the story, to move forward simply by getting more and more granular.

The major plot points in Soul:

  • Inciting Incident: Joe falls into a manhole and finds himself being transported to the Great Beyond.
  • Break into Act 2: Joe makes a deal with new soul 22 to work together to activate 22’s Earth Pass, which 22 will then give to Joe so he can resume living.
  • Midpoint: Joe and 22 learn what they need to do to get Joe back into his body and get a ticking clock for when it can happen. Meanwhile, the accountant for the Great Beyond vows to bring Joe’s soul back where it belongs.
  • Break into Act 3: Joe recommits to his goal of getting his shot on stage that night, and he and 22 set off to get Joe the suit he needs in order to do so.
  • Climax: Joe helps 22 reclaim his spark and prepare to live life on Earth, forgoing his own second chance and proving that Joe has learned his lesson about what it really means to live.

4: Story template chart

As mentioned last week, this chart gives us a simple way to look at a whole story and see if all of the parts are working together:

And here it is for our Soul example:

(And here’s a PDF version, in case you want to take a closer look.)

You’ll notice in Soul, the protagonist isn’t ready to embrace the lesson learned at the Break into Act 3 (as compared to last week’s Bridesmaids example). And that’s perfectly okay.

Act 3 is about resolution, of both the plot and the character arc. So in any case, we’ll see the protagonist struggling to fully embrace the thematic lesson in Act 3 in order to resolve the character arc. But that struggle may look different for different characters and different stories.

Reading screenplays to learn screenwriting

A lot of people talk about how important it is for aspiring screenwriters to read screenplays. Good advice, but incomplete. Reading passively won’t teach you much. If you really want to learn by reading, you have to read to learn. That means reading analytically, examining and processing what you’re consuming. Always asking yourself, “Does it work? If so, how? If not, why not – what’s missing?

Even if you’re not a fan of animated movies, Soul is a screenplay worth reading and analyzing. (And here it is, if you’d like to do your own case study.) As you read, remember to ask yourself what’s working (or not) and how the effect is achieved.

(Note: I’m planning to do more script and movie analysis articles as I prepare for something cool I’ll be announcing in a few weeks. So let me know which movies you’d like to see broken down like this and look for more case studies coming your way.)


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.