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December 8, 2022

Breaking Down Finding Nemo Using The Three Act Structure

Finding Nemo is one of the most beloved Pixar films of all time. It's a funny and heartwarming story that follows a father fish as he searches for his missing son, Nemo. So, what is Finding Nemo about? 

Let’s find out by breaking down the plot, theme, and Finding Nemo fish characters according to the three-act structure. 

What is Finding Nemo all about?

Finding Nemo is a 2003 American computer-animated adventure comedy film produced by Pixar Animation Studios and released by Walt Disney Pictures. Written and directed by Andrew Stanton with co-direction by Lee Unkrich, the film stars the voices of Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould, and Brad Garrett.

Marlin beaming with joy at his son Nemo deep in the coral reefs where they live.
Marlin is inseparable from his clown fish son Nemo.

 It tells the story of an overexcited clownfish named Marlin who travels across the ocean to rescue his son Nemo after he is captured by humans. Along the way, he meets Dory, a friendly but forgetful fish who helps him on his quest.

What are the main themes in Finding Nemo?

The main theme in this movie is friendship. There are many different forms of friendship, but one thing they all have in common is that there are two sides to it: giving and receiving. For example, when Marlin loses his son Nemo he goes through a period of grief where he does not want to admit that his son might be gone forever (giving). But eventually, Marlin has a change of heart and decides that he must find Nemo again so as not to lose him forever (receiving).

Another major theme in the movie is family. Family can mean different things depending on who you ask; however for most people it's defined as someone who cares about you no matter what happens or where you go.

Now we’ve broken down the main themes let’s look at the main characters in Finding Nemo.

Main fish characters in Finding Nemo


Nemo is a clownfish, and he is the main character of the movie. He is the son of Marlin and Coral. At the beginning of the movie, Nemo gets lost when his father mistakes him for a sea turtle.


Marlin is a clownfish and the father of Nemo, our protagonist. He is very protective of his son, often going to great lengths to ensure that he stays safe. Though Marlin has many flaws—he can be overly dramatic and tends to get carried away by his emotions—his love for Nemo is strong.

 It's also worth noting that Marlin is voiced by Albert Brooks, who was nominated for an Oscar for voicing this character.


Dory is a Pacific regal blue tang, who suffers from short-term memory loss. She is the main character in the film Finding Nemo. She was voiced by Ellen DeGeneres in the original film and Pixar's sequel Finding Dory (2016).

We can argue that Dory is a foil to Marlin, questioning his logic and helping him find Nemo.

Marlin looks angrily at Dory as they pursue Nemo through the ocean.
Marlin and Dory are the heroes of Finding Nemo and are also character foils of each other.

Plot breakdown of Finding Nemo 

Now let’s break down Finding Nemo according to the three-act structure to see how the plot of Finding Nemo operates. 

Act I

The hero

In the first act of Finding Nemo, we see Nemo, our hero, in his usual circumstances. He is attending school and being raised by his father.


The setup occurs when we see that there is a conflict between Nemo and his father Marlin. Marlin is overprotective of Nemo and is worried that Neomi will get eaten, as his mate - Coral - and other children were.

Main theme 

We can see therefore from the off that the main theme of Finding Nemo is going to be that of family. 

Call to action

The call to action which sends Nemo off into the unknown is when he is captured by a fisherman with a speedboat on his first day of school. 


Marlin’s worse fears have come to fruition and reluctantly Marlin must embark on a long journey to rescue his son.

Act II 

B-Character story

Marlin sets off on his journey and straight away meets Dory. The B-Character story arc begins. Now Marlin has a companion to help him on his journey. 

Fun and games

Dory has short-term memory loss, meaning she cannot remember anything that happened more than a few seconds ago introducing fun and games into the mix as we laugh at her unsuitability to be Marlin’s partner. 


In the Midpoint, it seems Marlin and Dory may be about to secure a premature victory when they encounter shark Bruce who abstains from eating fish. They discover a diving mask from the boat that captured Nemo. However, the mask hits Dory giving her a nosebleed and sending Bruce wild with excitement that he might get to eat fish. 

False all is lost (1)

Whilst it may seem that all is lost for Marlin and Dory, we switch perspectives to Nemo who is safe in a fish tank and already hatching an escape plan. We realize he is pretty capable and resourceful himself. 

External to internal

The external to Internal moment is this juxtaposition between Nemo and Marlin which makes us realize that perhaps Nemo doesn’t need to be rescued. 

All is lost (2)

A series of crises propel Dory and Marlin into a second all is lost moment. They almost lose the mask and in trying to retrieve it are attacked by anglerfish. They are then stung by jellyfish and are knocked unconscious again.


The fix

When they awake Dory and Marlin are in the Eastern Australian Current with a bunch of cool turtles. Marlin is initially frustrated and thinks they are stuck at a dead end. The turtles can relay Marlin and Dory’s message about Nemo across the ocean. A pelican relays the message to the tank where Nemo is. 

Dory and Marlin are eaten whole by a big whale who shoots them out when they reach Sydney so they can be reunited with Nemo.

The finale

Nemo’s plan to escape the tank is foiled when the dentist installs a new high-tech filter. So Nemo ups the stakes by playing dead. 

Dark night of the soul 

The writer has adjusted the timing of the dark night of the soul and moved it to the third act when Marlin and Dory arrive just in time to see Nemo, thinking that he is dead. 

In fact, it’s all a ploy to enable Nemo to escape via a drain. Marlin, thinking Nemo is dead, begins his trip home without Dory.

Dory bumps into Nemo but can’t remember him until she realizes the drainpipe is in Sydney. After briefly being captured by another fishing trawler, Marlin and Nemo are reunited and head home. 

Closing image 

Marlin, now more confident, and Dory, having found a friend in Marlin, watch Nemo go off to school. This time Marlin is less afraid that something will happen to Nemo and understands he can fend for himself. 

How can we apply what we’ve learned about Finding Nemo to our scripts? 

Finding Nemo very cleverly combines the external with the internal conflict. Although we think this is an external adventure story about rescue Marlin must first resolve his internal conflict before he can complete his external mission. 

Think about how your internal conflict works with your external conflict and how you illustrate your characters’ internal conflict visually. 

If you want screenwriting software that can assist you in writing your best work be sure to download Arc Studio today. 


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Breaking Down Finding Nemo Using The Three Act Structure
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen using Arc Studio. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Readers' Digest and Newsweek, amongst many other publications. He has just finished his second novel for young adults, set in a boarding school. He holds a BA in English from Loughborough University.

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