About a year ago, I watched a video called “How Pixar uses music to make you cry.” I was intrigued. Very intrigued.

But I’m not a musician, so I shuffled it to the back of my brain.

A year later, I was re-reading Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, a book that makes me cry. Every. Single. Time.

Miller is often described as a “lyrical” writer, and I could come up with at least five reasons why the adjective suits her. But on this particular read, I realized something. She was using the old Pixar trick! She had found a way to translate it into writing, and sure enough, it made me cry like a baby.

Here’s how it works (in musical terms):

Step one: You take a happy scene. You put happy music with it.

Above: Imagine the sweet little diddy that goes with this moment.

Step two: You repeat this a few times. Basically, you’re training us up like Pavlov’s dogs.

Step three: You write a really horrible, heartbreaking scene, and you INSERT A BAR FROM THE HAPPY MUSIC into the sad soundtrack.

Up - Carl & Ellie - YouTube

Above: Cue heartwarming music?

With that piece of happy music, even if it’s only a few notes, you remind us of the good times, and our loss seems that much deeper. (To get the full effect, I recommend watching the video).

There you have it. Heartbreak in a bottle.

The literary application is really not that different.

You follow the same steps, substituting a phrase for a bar of music.

In Song of  Achilles, that phrase is “this and this and this.”

The first use of “this and this and this” doesn’t appear until page 50, which is appropriate, since the narrator has led an unhappy story up until page 50. The phrase springs up at the same time that his friendship with Achilles “[comes] all at once, like spring floods from a mountain.”

Patroclus raves over his new friendship:

I found myself grinning until my cheeks hurt, my scalp prickling till I thought it might lift off my head. My tongue ran away, giddy with freedom. This and this and this, I said to him. I did not have to fear that I spoke too much. I did not have to worry that I was too slender or too slow. This and this and this! 

We hear an echo of the phrase again, 130 pages later, in a moment of joy that stands out as storm clouds gather around the two heroes:

Achilles was looking at me. “Your hair never quite lies flat here.” He touched my head, just behind my ear. “I don’t think I’ve ever told you how I like it.”

My scalp prickled where his fingers had been. “You haven’t,” I said.

“I should have.” His hand drifted down to the vee at the base of my throat, drew softly across the pulse. “What about this? Have I told you what I think of this, just here?”

“No,” I said.

“This surely then.” His hands moved across the muscles of my chest; my skin warmed beneath it. “Have I told you of this?”

“That you have told me.” My breath caught a little as I spoke.

“And what of this?” His hand lingered over my hips, drew down the line of my thigh. “Have I spoken of it?”

“You have.”

“And this? Surely, I would not have forgotten this.” His cat’s smile. “Tell me I did not.”

“You did not.”

“There is this, too.” His hand was ceaseless now. “I know I have told you of this.”

I closed my eyes. “Tell me again,” I said.

It’s a more intricate, drawn out version of the childhood “this and this and this!” and like Patroclus, we long to say, “Tell me again!”

At last, on page 367, the phrase comes back to haunt us. Achilles is dead, and Patroclus recalls him:

But the memories well up like spring-water, faster than I can hold them back. They do not come as words but like dreams, rising as scent from the rain-wet earth. This, I say. This and this. The way his hair looked in summer sun. His face when he ran. His eyes, solemn as an owl at lessons. This and this and this.

We are overwhelmed by the emotional association we have made with that simple phrase. “This and this and this” should mean joy, security, love. Now, it means loss. Loss. Loss.

Like I said. Heartbreak in a bottle.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:

6 Profound Ways to Write “I Love You”     OR      Dress Up Your Prose with Poetry



8 thoughts on “How Pixar breaks hearts (and you can too)!

  1. I did not know of the referenced story, but the way you introduced your insight makes me want to read it. I admire your writing and discussion of writing styles. I am an older woman who has always enjoyed literature and a read that brings me right into the thoughts and circumstances of the characters. Thank you for my learning experience.


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