Let me pitch you my analysis of rule twenty-two of “Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling” (that aren’t really Pixar’s), which is the final rule in the series.
#22: What's the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
Based on my analysis of rule sixteen, this absolutely crucial piece of advice may seem like it is just a restating of that rule (which is also related to rule three), or perhaps it seems like a generalization of the schema in rule four.
In some sense it really is a restating of rule sixteen, in that the stakes a key to the essence of the story. If you don't know the stakes (which in order to do you must also know your character arcs and theme), you don't have the essence of your story.
And the variations on the story spine presented in my analysis of rule four can be an excellent way to express the essence of your story.
However, the most useful way to think about this rule is about is to ask:
What's your story pitch?
Too many writers (myself included for many years) look down upon the pitch as merely a crass sales tool; something that producers make us do because they are cruel and heartless titans of industry who just don't understand our artistic souls. But this is the wrong way to think about the pitch (and the wrong way to think about producers).
The (roughly) two minute "teaser pitch" is exactly what this rule is telling you to come up
with when it asks you to find the most economical telling of the essence of your story. And it's doing so as strict story development advice, not business advice.
A good pitch strips-away the inessential details, no matter how great those may be, and refines the entire story down to its compelling essentials:
- Title and genre
- Who the story is about (the protagonist)
- Where and when the story takes place (the setting)
- Her want and how it isn't met (the core conflict)
- The plot outcome if the protagonist fails (the external stakes)
- Her need and what will happen if it isn't realized (the internal stakes)
- What about her character and philosophy is being tested (the thematic question or philosophical stakes)
- The most crucial turning points in the story (the inciting incident, the midpoint twist/kicker, and the low point)
- The final resolution (of the plot, character arc, and thematic question)
And it does this in about three sentences. (Note: People very frequently confuse a pitch with a logline, which is just one sentence and is all about conveying the conceptual "hook" in hopes of getting someone interested in hearing the short pitch, and then hopefully the longer pitch. A logline isn't the most economical telling of your story, it's just a statement of the core concept.)
To do that in three sentences, often a lot of set-up words are left out, and some of those elements are conveyed more through subtext or implication than direct statement. For example:
"Blade Runner is a future noir in which Deckard, an ex-cop once known for hunting rogue androids, is dragged out of retirement when a murderous group of military androids shows up in his city intent on forcing their designer to extend their short lifespans. But what Deckard least expected was to fall in love with an android, Rachel, and as he hunts the rogues Deckard begins to question his own humanity, and theirs. In his dogged pursuit Deckard drives away Rachel and is nearly killed by the dying rogue leader, Roy -- but a moment of mutual empathy between man and android earns Deckard a second chance at a life and love."
Whether or not you think my pitch is the best possible pitch for Blade Runner, and
whether or not you agree with my take on the frequently debated outcome and theme of the film, let's look at the pitch to see how it tells you the essence
of the story:
- The phrases "future noir" and "his city" explain the genre and setting.
- Deckard is stated to be the protagonist.
- The character's want to be left alone, and the conflict of being thrust back into the role of hunter, is summed-up in the phrase "dragged out of retirement".
- The external stakes are implicit in the phrase "murderous group of military androids" and "extend their short lifespans": these killing machine could become gods among men and avenge themselves upon all humanity.
- The internal stakes involve Deckard's humanity and his love affair with Rachel: which Deckard will win out, the hunter or the lover?
- The thematic question is "what does it mean to be human?", and in the pitch it is presented as the phrase "questions his own humanity -- and theirs".
- The turning points are: he's dragged back to hunt down the rogues (inciting incident), he meets Rachel and falls for her (midpoint "twist"), and he loses her and is nearly killed (low point).
- The resolution is that Roy dies and Deckard lives (plot), but now Deckard has found his humanity (character) and the audience understands what it means to be human in the first place -- it's not your origins, it's your character (theme).
When preparing yourself to write (or rewrite) your own story you don't necessarily need to phrase the distillation of the essence of your story as bullet points, a modified story spine, or even that pitch format (but writing it as a pitch will help you later when you go to sell it, or get people on-board to help make it).
How you choose to explore ideas and write down your summation is entirely up to you. But you do need to nail-down all of those elements at that level of specificity, and be able to clearly state them to yourself, as the foundation for creating a definitive draft of your story.
Of course, for a work in progress, all this may get revised with each draft. However, as part of each revision you should re-state those things to yourself with the changes clearly spelled-out. This will make creating the rest of the story a lot easier, because you'll know where your story is going, and who the character is that's taking it there.