Once upon a time there was was part four of my analysis of “Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling” (that aren’t really Pixar’s), a simple template for overall story structure, which you can use every day, and because of that you will explore a lot of interesting story ideas, until finally you need to set it aside and take a different approach.
(4) Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
This is called the story spine. It comes from the world of improv theater, and was created by Kenn Adams, not Pixar.
Here is the entry for it at the Improv Encyclopedia: http://improvencyclopedia.org/games//Story_Spine.html.
Pixar does offer improv classes and has a standing improv theater group that performs weekly, so many employees have been exposed to the story spine as a creative exercise.
It’s a fun, useful exercise for improv theater, and a great way to “riff on” structural ideas at a very high level since it is a simplified statement of an idea that many other systems and theories also elucidate: that a story is a change from an old status quo to a new one, “old world” to “new world”, through conflict.
You can find similar, but more expansive, ideas in the writings of Syd Field, Robert McKee, Blake Snyder, Chris Vogler, John Truby, Lew Hunter, David Howard, etc.
Each of their models is partitioned and phrased differently, and some are very formally rigorous while others are more flexible, but they are all saying the same basic thing: a story has a setup, change through conflict, and resolution.
Understanding some model of basic story structure is crucial for all storytellers, whether it’s this exact phrasing or not depends on how well it enables you to actually comprehend the principals. Filling in the blanks will only get you so far; you need to study and internalize the plot and character dynamics that the model represents.
Unfortunately the strength of the story spine, its simplicity, is also it’s weakness:
It’s too simple for many uses.
It needs more depth to be a guide for narrative drama. With this in mind, another way to rephrase the story spine would be to say that a story has:
- A setup that introduces the characters and the world.
- Action in the normal, status quo world that establishes the baseline of the characters’ prior lives.
- An inciting incident that disrupts the status quo and poses the thematic question in the form of a decision the protagonist must make.
- A series of escalating events, triggered by the decision the protagonist makes in each preceding event, that build into a climax.
- A climax, and resolution.
- Introduce the protagonist and her world.
- Present the protagonist with a critical, world-changing challenge.
- Litter the path to confronting that critical challenge with increasingly difficult obstacles.
- See how the protagonist overcomes the obstacles and takes on the big challenge.
Notice that I’ve added mention of the protagonist and conflict (and its escalation). A crucial flaw in the story spine as a model for all story structure is that its phraseology is all about outcomes. Character isn’t explicitly mentioned. Neither is conflict, escalating or otherwise. Story spine exercises can easily lead to things like this:
Once upon a time there was a piemaker. Every day people came to buy his pies. One day, they stopped coming. Because of that, he lowered his prices. Because of that, people came in droves . Because of that, he couldn’t keep up with the work. Because of that he had to hire staff. Because of that, production increased. Until finally, he owned the biggest pie company in the land.
The story is mechanical, flat, no tension, no escalation. I have no idea who the piemaker is as a person. And said piemaker isn’t changed by her “ordeal”. Overall it’s just not a very interesting piece of narrative.
Good stories are dynamic. Characters face challenges, and are changed by them for better or worse. There is conflict that escalates and releases, characters experience lows and highs, victories and defeats. Sudden (but motivated) changes in direction alter the nature of the challenges as well as escalating them. And set-ups may pay off at varying intervals. They are not merely a linear sequence of outcomes.
And the story spine provides no context to remind you about all that.
Adams created the story spine for improv theater, and that is a discipline unto itself, with its own goals and rules. Improv is useful for writers, directors and actors in other media as a great way to approach “riffing” on stories; to open your mind to possibilities rather than second-guessing them or obsessing over details.
But improv techniques can actually be a detrimental way to approach understanding and structuring finished narratives, because the goals of improv theater are different than narrative drama. Improv theater prefers stories that are single-threaded, wander until the climax, and are propelled through agreement or conflict resolution more than disagreement and conflict.
So I don’t recommend Adams’ story spine as a tool for anything other than riffing, or coming up with the most basic concepts for a story framework.
It’s a good way to structure a pitch, but not deep enough to guide you through the whole script by itself.
When it comes to structuring a narrative for film, (or TV, comics or novels) either of my rephrasings of the story spine above — or any one of the structure models offered by the authors I mentioned — are more helpful simplifications to work from.