Week 1 - Storytelling
January 6 - Introduction
January 7 - Why we like stories
January 8 - Why we tell stories
January 9 - Your perspective
January 10 - Worlds/Characters
Week 2 - Characters
January 13 - Warming up
January 14 - Internal/external
January 15 - Needs/Wants
January 16 - Obstacles
January 17 - Arc
January 18 - Stakes
🔒 Week 4
🔒 Week 5
🔒 Week 6
🔒 Week 7
🔒 Week 8
🔒 Week 9
🔒 Week 10
🔒 Week 11
🔒 Week 12
Hour 360-404 | Story spine
Remember in the first week when I said that, in simplest terms, a story is a series of events.
And it ends.
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.
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 a writer. We were talking about the importance of dialogue, (because I loved his dialogue). 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 I'm going to introduce throughout this week. 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 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 it's nice to see them. 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 a 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 (at a point) 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. Tomorrow you'll have a chance to try this out. You can fit your three favorite stories into the story spine, as well as generate spines for stories you may want to create.
Here's a list of definitions.
You can submit your ideas in the Comments section below, or write them down in your story journal.