I found Kurt Vonnegut‘s theory on the structure of stories really interesting. In my simplistic view, I always pictured stories as a linear flow chart with chevrons for the beginning, middle and end rather than a wave that ebbs and flows with highs and lows. The video got me thinking about story structure. I started thinking about the movie I watched the night before, a Disney movie called Planes. It’s a Pixar movie so I wanted to analyze it BEFORE reading about 22 Rules Pixar uses in storytelling.
I summarized the movie using the story spine.
Once upon a time…Dusty Crophopper is a cropduster plane He’s got a steady job (albeit not that exciting) and friends so he’s probably about average.
Every day…He dreams of being a racer.He wants to race in the “Wings Across the World” race with the world’s fastest planes. His friends have mixed feelings. One is super supportive and provides novice coaching. The other is concerned that Dusty just isn’t made for racing.
But one day…With the encouragement of a friend, Dusty seeks out a coach from Skipper, an old veteran fighter, who gives him the training he needs. Similar to Cinderella, Dusty starts getting incremental good fortune and moves up the story curve.
Because of that…The first “peak” in good fortune comes after Dusty has an amazing run at the “Wings Across the World” qualifier. But…he finishes sixth and doesn’t qualify. The story drops Dusty down the curve of ill-fortune (lower than he was originally since he worked so hard and came so close).
Because of that…But, good fortune comes around again when Dusty finds out that one of the racers was disqualified so he makes it into the big race.
Because of that…Dusty is pushed to the limits and experiences highs and lows (several more peaks and valleys than Cinderella) throughout the race.
Until finally…Dusty, the underdog, triumphs.
And in the end…becomes a model to everyone who wants more out of life than what they were built for.
In reflecting on the shape of movies, I realized that I love the stories that end on a high with a definitive happy ending. However, the peaks and valleys of Planes (or similar movies) are what pulls us in and gets us engrossed in the story. We project our own personal situation and experiences on the characters so you want to see what happens. This ties into Pixar’s Rules:
#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
Without the ups and downs, the story (and life) is boring.