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

Story structure is like a building foundation, and story beats are important moments in a story. A story spine is a simple pattern to organize a story. It helps us understand a story's flow and create our own stories.

Want to join the conversation?

  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user E
    This isn't relevant but...I know 10 facts about you: Fact 1: You are reading this. Fact 2: You can't say the letter 'm' without touching your lips. Fact 3: You just tried it. Fact 4: You're smiling. Fact 6: You're smiling or laughing again. Fact 7: You didn't notice I missed fact 5. Fact 8: You just checked it. Fact 9: You're smiling again. Fact 10: You like this and you're going to comment. Fact 11 your thinking about following me. :)
    (29 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • primosaur sapling style avatar for user .
    What if your story is very complex and with many sub-plots. How do you divide it efficiently and fit it into the spine?
    (10 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine seed style avatar for user 3llafish
      If you have sub-plots, you should have a main plot that all the other complex parts revolve around or that the audience can use as a sort of anchor. I would say use the story spine shown above for the main plot, and with the sub-plots, weave parts of them in at different parts of their own spine. For example, in Finding Nemo, one sub-plot along Marlin and Nemo's story is Gill. Instead of telling Gill's entire story alongside Marlin and Nemo's, the writers took a part of Gill's story where it intersected with Marlin and Nemo's and told that part, then used dialogue to tell Gill's backstory and give him motivation for his actions after he's already introduced. Basically, tell the main plot chronologically but have fun with the structure of the sub-plots.
      (11 votes)
  • starky tree style avatar for user Me
    I know this probably doesn't have to do with the beats, but I just came up with this so I want to find out if it works: Before writing my story, I'm writing the characters of the story. I write the names of the characters in little boxes, and then I write four details about each character.

    Once that's done, I focus on the big things that happen to the main character(s)

    A big thing that happened, the details of it, and how the character responds, or what's the result?

    And also if this doesn't work for you please tell me and give me all the suggestions you want.
    (10 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • duskpin tree style avatar for user Me
      That's actually a really good way of tackling it. I think a lot of people struggle with creating dynamic characters (myself included) so it's really good that you have this system for creating characters. Good job!
      (3 votes)
  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Anya
    the story spine process works well foe movies but what bout longer stories such as a book series? should the process be lengthened, repeated, or should i use a different process entirely?
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • starky sapling style avatar for user Medina
      I understand what you mean. I prefer to make plots for comics, cartoons, and books too.
      My advice would be to make the MAIN story spine, then make smaller ones for each book or season. You can even use this exercise for units as small as chapters or episodes! :D

      Here’s an example from Avatar the Last Airbender:
      1 once upon a time the fire nation ruled the world with injustice
      2 every day they oppressed the other nations
      3 until one day the Avatar was found
      4 and because of that he had to learn to bend all four elements
      5 and because of that he was able to free many villages from influence of the fire nation
      6 and because of that the fire nation tried to defeat him
      7 until finally the avatar and his friends defeated the evil fire king, Ozai
      8 and ever since then the four nations lived in peace and harmony
      (5 votes)
  • starky sapling style avatar for user JH
    Can a story have more than one story spine going on? For example, different characters. They have their own life, do their own things yet cross paths.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • female robot ada style avatar for user Katey Gordon
      Hi JH,
      Of course it can some great examples are Star Wars, Marvel , Once Upon a Time etc. many of these stories have main characters yet a different story spine or moral lesson for each character.
      Let's look deeper into the Star Wars the force awakens
      Rey- She stays on Jaku hoping one day her family would be there to pick her up the thing is she can't stay in the past and this all happens when a robot and Finn show up it awakens Rey's destiny which is her future not her past because the people she hoped would be there to take her off Jaku will not come back but Finn did.

      Finn- He once on the dark side kept running he wasn't wanting to be a hero but what he doesn't realize his destiny was to be one even he doesn't see it yet.

      Kylo Ren- Lost to the dark side from his troubled past with parents who sent him away fearing he may end like his grandfather you can see he has his own moral in this story including somehow a mystery girl is connected.

      These characters had different lessons yet they all crossed paths here are some questions

      Why would Rey come to meet Kylo Ren?
      Why did Finn help Poe escape ?
      Why in a particular chance did Finn meet Rey?
      Why did Rey have Luke's Lightsaber?

      One story spine wouldn't probably be able to compete all these characters each character had there own morals, challenges​ etc. Yet they crossed paths and now the bigger story continues perhaps over time we will understand more but for now we conclude that each character had there own story spine and journey yet together they created a bigger story all because they crossed paths and what the characters​ don't realize they all have impacted each other in big ways perhaps Rey will help Kylo Ren or defeat him, Maybe Finn will stop running away and start being a hero and have courage , maybe Poe could be a Leader of the ressistance each character can help each other become who they are destined to be.
      (11 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user marlo.fowler
    How many "Because of that..."'s can be in a story before it is too long or over complicated? I want to make sure my characters grow gradually so that drastic changes have big effects on the world and audience.
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Anushka Singh
    Write an original short story that begins with the words: “It was raining hard that night. In my hurry to get into the house, I didn’t notice the black car parked across the road. I realized something was wrong when……….”
    Also it would be great if you could give tips on how to include the element of irony
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby blue style avatar for user JujuArt
      Well, irony is when you expect one thing but get something else, like if a cat is chasing a dog. Irony isn't always funny, but it can be. To include it... hmm, I guess it depends on the story really, but a comic relief character can sometimes fulfill that purpose. :) hope this helped!
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user ethan.lifestyleschool
    why is this so compilated like wow i dont want to be a writer but maybe just maybe but this is still interesting
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user karma frazier
    Are we going to animate at all?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user wilkenangelica12
    Is it hard to make all the buildings?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

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.