Friday, August 31, 2012

The formula

In 2011, one of Pixar's story artists, Emma Coats, tweeted a series of 22 rules of storytelling. It's kind of genius I feel. See, I should start by saying I'm a HUGE fan of Pixar. For years when anyone asked me my dream job I would say "to work at Pixar." I knew it was just a dream but it was a good dream to have.

Anyway, one of the rules she tweeted was as follows....

Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

The first time I looked at it, I though 'nah, it's way more complex than that.' Then I looked a little bit harder. Actually no, it's not. It's not more complex than that at all because that really is a typical formula of a story. Whether it's a movie, a novel, a short story, a cartoon or a miniseries that is the typical story. Hey even TV shows follow this formula.

Take Grey's Anatomy for example because for some reason that's popped into my head. Every episode has lots of blood and medicine and general hospital craziness but each episode follows the formula.

Once upon a time there was Meredith Grey. Every day, She goes to work at the hospital with her lover and friends. One day a ferry boat had a big crash. Because of that, the doctors had to race to the scene and try and save all the people. Because of that, Meredith fell into the water and almost drowned. Until finally she's rescued and taken to hospital and survives and everything goes back to normal.

Sure there are repercussions of her drowning. She stays in hospital for a while. It brings Derek and Meredith closer together and then puts a wedge between them, but ultimately, the next episode will start all over. Another day at Seattle Grace with more drama and tragedy.

I had never really thought about how the simple the formula can look on paper. It can be really incredibly difficult to fill in the gaps. It can take weeks, months... even years to come up with really good material to fill the gaps. But the basic formula seems to stay the same.

Some authors have other formulas they follow, which often makes for a very different style of story. I'm curious to know what other formulas people use? Perhaps they miss a step or two out...

One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

Or repeat some steps

Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

What's your formula?


  1. Pixar would be an awesome job, right?

    I had seen that rule posted a while back, and it does seem too simple. I started plugging in all sorts of books/movies/TV shows... and they really do follow this formula. You establish the the MCs routine, disrupt it, then watch the MC try to pull the pieces back together.

    1. Pixar would be an AMAZING job! Such a dream!

      I agree, you'd never expect those few words to be the makeup of a story. When I first saw it I thought 'nah, no way' but you try to put any story to it and 95% of the time you have a match!