Pixar Rules of Story #4 – The Story Spine
by romana klee
Once upon a time there was ____. Every day, ____. One day ____. Because of that, ____. Because of that, ____. Until finally ____.
In Rule 4 Stephan Bugaj introduces the “story spine”, an example of basic story structure that takes us from set-up through a series of events to a finale.
Once upon a time there was a Giraffe.
Every day she ate lovely green leaves in the sunshine.
One day the tree was no longer there.
Because of that she had to walk for miles to look for a new tree.
Because of that she got lost and wandered aimlessly.
Until finally she bumped into a friendly boy Giraffe who showed her where the nice trees were.
It offers a simplification of the typical 3-Act structure promoted by many of our our favourite writers, such as Snyder, Field and McKee.
With many of these structures we are taught about the basic need to plot a change. So we may start out with a character in their Status Quo position, to whom something happens (the inciting incident some might say) propelling them into a New World in a state of change and flux until finally, via conflict and more change, they settle into their new life a different person. For better or worse – that bit is up to you!
However, Stephan feels that the story spine has a weakness in that it doesn’t suggest any of this conflict or change. To use it for anything other than very simple, rough outlining or brainstorming a story would be problematic for effective story-telling.
While I recognise its limitations, I don’t necessarily see it as a weakness. As long as the writer is aware of its shortcomings, they can utilise it to their advantage when planning a story. We already know from Rule #1: Characters you Admire that we need conflict to generate interest and empathy with our characters. By introducing character and conflict to the simple “story spine” template we can begin to flesh out our worlds. Of course, you will have to move on to more complicated structures such as beatsheets and treatments as you flesh your stories out, but you also have to start somewhere.
Again, this rule is really a tool. You can’t expect to pin an entire movie idea on the story-spine, but you can try it as a basic foundation for a story or to brainstorm some ideas and think of it as somewhere to start hanging the bones of your tale.
In my own prep I often find it a useful way to starting thinking about my broad plot and how I want the story to develop. I also find it can be a useful tool when considering my logline. A short and simple Story Spine, can help nail a concise logline and identify all the specific components that will make a logline interesting and compelling. Of course, YMMV – in isolation it won’t solve all story problems but, as part of my writing arsenal, it becomes a powerful development tool. Used in its simplest form, it can help focus the mind as I start to expand on the story world and think about the events that lead us out from the Old World, to the New.
Have you ever used the Story Spine in your prep work? Do you think you might try it?
Do you think stories can easily be reduced to such a simple structure?
Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #5 – How do you cut?
Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!
And, if you missed it, check out Rule #3 – Your Theme will Out!
(Sadly no picture from Alex Eylar this week, but there are more to come!)
Also check out this video of Trey Parker and Matt Stone talking about their writing process and the curse of “and, then” which should help you when thinking about your Story Spine.
(I’m having trouble embedding this video, but do check out the link)