If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Story spine

Introduction to story beats and the story spine.

Video transcript

(clicking) - Hi, I'm Derek Thompson, and I'm a story artist here at Pixar. I'll be your host for this third lesson on storytelling, which is focused on story structure. I'm joined by some colleagues. - My name's James Robertson, and I'm a story artist at Pixar. - My name is Mary Coleman, and I'm the Head of Creative Development. - I'm Kevin O'Brien, and I'm a story artist. - My name is Robert Grahamjones, and I'm an editor here at Pixar. - Remember in lesson one when Val told us that, in simplest terms, a story is a series of events. - It begins. (light music) Something happens. (dramatic music) And it ends. (light music) - [Derek] But between the beginning and end of a story, many things will happen. The ordering of these events, known as the structure, can have a dramatic impact on how an audience responds to a story. Let's get a little bit more detail about structure from our Pixar friends. - I think about story structure as pouring the foundation for a building, and that if you don't have that solid, concrete foundation to support the pillars and the struts and all the weight-bearing elements of the building, the whole thing can collapse. So I think that it's essential. I remember interviewing writer Mike Arndt. We were talking about the importance of dialogue, because I loved his dialogue in Little Miss Sunshine. He said, "Well, dialogue's just wallpaper." I thought, "Really? "Your dialogue's amazing." He said, "If you put the wallpaper up, "but the wall's in the wrong place, "then it was a complete waste of your time." - You may gain something very valuable from just sitting down and just writing a story from the beginning. But to me, it's important to structure your story. Like when you give a speech. You tell the audience what you're going to tell them. Then you tell them. And then you wrap it up and you remind them of what they've just been told. - When you are just starting a story, it can seem daunting to figure out how everything will fit together, or how a story should flow. So it's helpful to find simple ways to think this through. One way to do this is by coming up with the most important moments in your story, which we call story beats. This is the first of many bits of terminology we're going to introduce throughout this lesson. It's helpful to know these words, but don't let them overwhelm you. You can always refer to the glossary at the bottom of this lesson if you want a refresher. Beats are the kinds of things you'd mention if you described what had happened yesterday in 30 seconds. - When we are trying to define our story beats, let's say we're writing up a beat outline, or putting index cards on a wall with distinct beats, we try to challenge ourselves not to get into detailed plot, but to identify the beats based on whether the protagonist is making a clear decision, right or wrong, or there's a clear cause and effect. - So that A happens, and therefore B happens, so that it drives the story. Like a character walks across the street as a beat. They stop to pick up a thing as a beat. They almost get hit by a car, which is a beat. - In Toy Story 2, when Buzz Lightyear discovers that there is in fact another Buzz Lightyear, when he looks at the whole array of toys, that is a story beat. Buzz has realized there is another Buzz in the world. - The reason that's important in the process is that if you get too caught up in the plot details, the how of it instead of the what's happening, you can lose track of the thread of the structure. The beats are building that structure. - Another way to think about this is using something called a story spine, which was popularized by improv instructor Ken Adams. He noticed that most stories can fit into the following simple pattern. Let's try to fit one of our films into this Story Spine. I was thinking about Finding Nemo. Once upon a time there was a fish named Marlin, who loved his son Nemo more than anything. Every day Marlin tried to protect Nemo from the ocean, which he feared. Until one day Nemo was taken away by a scuba diver. Because of this, Marlin had to leave the safety of his home reef in order to find his son. Because of that, Marlin ran into sharks, jellyfish, and other dangers. Because of that, Marlin was forced to take a leap of faith. Until finally, Marlin learned to let go of his fear and trust that Nemo had what it takes to free Dory from the fishing net. Ever since that day, Marlin gave his son Nemo the space he needed to learn on his own. The moral of the story is, parents need to let go in order for their kids to grow up. Notice how the story spine allows us to compress a complex film into a series of simple beats. In the next exercise you'll have a chance to try this out. You can fit your three favorite films into the story spine, as well as generate spines for stories you may want to create.