Plot: Step One

Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of writers who say they’re good at writing atmosphere, but don’t know how to write plot. They say they don’t even know where to start.

The basis of most plots is

1) Somebody wants something

2) They have obstacles

Jackie will keep the vases safe!

Oh no! People are trying to break the vases!

There are a lot of ways to make that more complicated (and more fun) but most of the writers I see struggling to make plot are struggling with step one.

In a lot of literary fiction, characters feel lost. They drift without having clear goals. This is intentional. It’s aiming to mirror the way people often feel in life. Most of the time, people don’t really know what they want.

But they at least have an idea. Lost in Translation is often held up as the artsy-feeling movie with no plot, but look at the tag on the poster. It still uses the word “want”: “Everyone wants to be found”.

Even without a clearly stated goal, characters can still have a desire for something. They might not be able to articulate it, and there might be more than one thing, but it’s there. Often it’s helpful to give them symbols.

Paradise Falls, from Up.

This is kind of like a MacGuffin, except according to Hitchcock’s definition a MacGuffin is supposed to have no meaning. I find it a waste to have anything in the book that has no meaning. So I think the MacGuffin should always DO something or at least make people THINK ABOUT something.

The Pulp Fiction suitcase doesn’t exert influence on the plot. Nothing happens because of the suitcase. We don’t even really know what it is. It’s the characters who cause action.

In contrast, the Green Destiny (the sword from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) does change the course of the story.

To reiterate: your character should have something that they’re trying to move towards. Now, to complicate, to mirror life’s uncertainties, maybe they should have another thing they want to move towards that takes them in the opposite direction.

Because, you know, choices.

Carl from Up, choosing between obligations to Russell and Ellie, symbolized by the sash and the chair.

Now that they want something, it’s time to put obstacles in their way! Next post continues onto plot, step two.

“I Want” Songs

Anti-Theme Songs are the ones that interest me most, but the most important song in a musical is usually the “I Want” Song. Described by Howard Ashman:

“In almost every musical ever written, there’s a place, it’s usually about the third song of the evening–sometimes it’s the second, sometimes it’s the fourth–but it’s quite early, and the leading lady usually sits down on something, sometimes it’s a tree stump in Brigadoon, sometimes it’s under the pillars of a garden in My Fair Lady, or it’s a trash can in Little Shop of Horrors, but the leading lady sits down on something and sings about what she wants in life. And the audience falls in love with her, and then roots for her to get it for the rest of the night.” (Waking Sleeping Beauty).

Ashman famously had to fight Jeffrey Katzenberg for the inclusion of “Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid. That song became one of the most memorable parts of the movie. It shows us who Ariel is and makes her instantly likeable.

From that point, almost all Disney musicals have had “I Want” Songs in the first act.

 

 

In fact, the step became a cliché. When Pixar set out to make their first movie, “I Want” Songs were one of the things they vowed to avoid. And then the studio told them to add one!

From Andrew Stanton’s TED Talk. Left side, what Pixar wanted. Right side, what the studio wanted.


In the end, Toy Story did not end up with an “I Want” Song. The clarification of Woody’s drive comes when he’s knocked off the bed, replaced by Buzz. It’s instantly clear how he feels and what he wants, without a song and dance.

But sometimes, a song and dance with a clear desire can be the best part of the story.

In the next post, I’ll discuss why a character’s desire is so important in driving plot.

The Anti-Theme Song

Hey folks! Novel manuscript completed, I’m back 🙂

Twenty years after The Lion King‘s release, many people still say “Hakuna Matata” as genuine advice. They usually don’t realize that was the OPPOSITE of the film’s message.

Consider the scene where Nala confronts Simba in the forest:

Nala: What wouldn’t I understand?

Simba: (Hastily) No, no, no. It doesn’t matter. Hakuna Matata.

Nala: (Confused) What?

Simba: Hakuna Matata. It’s something I learned out here. Look, sometimes bad things happen…

Nala: Simba!

Simba: (Continuing, irritated)–and there’s nothing you can do about it so why worry?

(Simba starts away from Nala, walking on a fallen tree. Nala trots back up to him)

Nala: Because it’s your responsibility.

Simba is similarly chastised by the film’s other mentor characters.

Mufasa: Oh, there’s more to being king than getting your way all the time.

Rafiki: Oh yes. The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it… or… learn from it.

Ignoring the past with “no worries” causes pain for others when Scar takes over. “Hakuna Matata” is the anti-theme of The Lion King, while the actual theme is about facing the past and taking responsibility.

Anti-theme songs are a useful too. A lot of musicals use this anti-theme of relaxing and inaction. They’re often the most popular songs in the story.

The most popular anti-theme song out now is “Let it Go” from Frozen. Elsa revelling in power alone, singing “turn away and slam the door” is in direct opposition to film’s real message of love’s importance, even using the opposite metaphor of “love is an open door.”

If these songs are the opposite of the stories’ messages, why are they so much fun? Two reasons.

1) Freedom. Is it really surprising that “no worries for the rest of your days” produces a more fun song than “face responsibility for the past?” Escapism has a strong allure. Other anti-theme songs are displays of power, since the characters don’t have to worry about the consequences of their actions.

2) They have to be. Stories are about choices. Eventually, the protagonist has to choose between the theme and the anti-theme. Unless the anti-theme seems attractive, it’s going to be an incredibly easy choice and the audience won’t care.

As I close, let me address a couple foreseen areas of confusion. How do you know the story’s real theme?

You need to determine the story’s value system. When do good things happen? When do bad things happen? What is shown as the path to victory?

The most obvious stories have the hero smack the villain on the head with an item that symbolizes one of their friends (Ex. Wreck-It Ralph). Other times, the hero is given a note or shouts a quote from a previous scene. One bizarre example is Jackie Chan’s last fight in Gorgeous, where he wins by smiling.

Another anticipated question: Well then, where are the real theme songs? You think “Love Is An Open Door” is a theme song? Fritz is a bad guy, sillyhead!

Sounds like a question for next time!

Learning from Miyazaki: Pacing

Minor Spoilers for Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle

Miyazaki is often praised for the spell-binding nature of his films. Here goes John Lasseter in the introduction to Starting Point.

His movies have balance–both fast and slow moments. You can even go back to Castle of Cagliostro and see it. That car chase up on the hill is still one of my favorite scenes. Just before the chase, Lupin’s car gets a flat tire and swerves to the side of the road. He climbs up on the roof and just sits there looking up at the sky. The clouds are going by, the wind is blowing, we’re shown a field of grass… and then you hear this GHEEEEEE sound. Miyazaki-san allows Lupin to react with a “What was that?” look before a car roars past him. It sets up the chase so beautifully because of the quiet moment before. That’s pacing.

A big part of pacing is contrast. I’ve chosen two examples from Castle in the Sky where we have a seemingly unnecessary slow-down before a moment of “action.”

First, we see Pazu need help fastening the amulet before jumping off the roof. Sheeta helps, and he gives her a smile. Then, boom.

Later in the film, Pazu fires a cannon to burst open a wall. On his first attempt, the gun jams. This brings us up short for a moment, so our attention can catch up and anticipate the blast.

Pacing isn’t just for action. It’s also for characterization–of the characters and the setting. Lasseter speaks of needing a slow moment after Jesse’s story in Toy Story 2 to let the impact of her story sink in. Miyazaki does moments like these after major revelations as well, but what stands out to me more is the minor actions he has us watch early on.

These things take time and effort to animate, but Miyazaki thinks its worth it so that we can see how these characters move. In this example, Sophie brushing her apron shows that she’s tidy. 

It should be noted that part of why these moments don’t lose our attention is because Miyazaki keeps a string of danger and mystery pulling us along. Both before and after we see Sophie in the hat shop, we also see the wizard’s castle and strange flying warships.

Of course, all the magic of pacing can’t be summed up in “fast” and “slow”. It would take several more posts to discuss all the possible beats that Miyazaki uses.

Here are two more kinds of beats Miyazaki uses well…

1) In The Anime Art of Hayao Miyazaki, I came across the term “white moments”, coined by Daniel Neyer, to describe moments “when the heart warms and expands”. This is given as a unique feature of Kiki’s Delivery Service, with the example of her father asking when she got so big, but I think white moments exist in all Miyazaki’s films. (More here.)

2) In Starting Point, Miyazaki gives special weight to scenes where a character is running, striving for something. He says this is difficult in animation because of the number of frames, and how you often lose the height of the step. I could give screencaps from Miyazaki’s films, but I think the best example of a “running” beat I’ve seen comes from Mamoru Hosada’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

There are several kinds of beats available to writers. The key is how you put them together, how they contrast and compliment. Today we’ve mostly focused on fast, slow, and push.

Next post, we’ll look at emotion: the kind of push/pull that has made young-adult novels so hot.

Flaws in the Disney Machine

Hello dead horse. I am here to beat you. Because I think it’s important and there are some parts of you that aren’t really that beaten yet.

“Did you know Disney films have a history of racism and sexism!?”

There is so, so much to talk about, and a lot of it has already been discussed elsewhere. (The 9 Most Racist Disney Characters, Head Animator Says Women Are Hard to Draw Because They All Look the SameMerida’s Stupid Offensive Makeover, etc.)

I echo their horror; however, in the interest of original content, I’m going to focus on some areas that haven’t received as much attention. Before diving in, I’d like to note that I consider myself a Disney fan: Winnie the Pooh, The Lion King, Lilo and Stitch, etc.

Disney’s Globetrotting

One of Disney’s greatest possible strengths is the diversity of locations they use for their films.

Map by reddit user translucentfish

This could, if done right, bring a vibrant array of cultures to the screen. It could unite people and spread magic. If you listen to animators talk about their work on The Emperor’s New Groove during the documentary The Sweatbox, it’s clear that’s how they see their work.

However, Sting disagrees. In a candid moment after they’ve revealed the then-current ending as “Kuzco gets a waterslide”, Sting addresses the camera:

“It’s a real concern of mine that I’m allied to this organization that seems to want to take the best of different cultures and suck them up and then spit them out to make something that’s like a hamburger.”

I encountered another way of phrasing this criticism in Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. They discuss three ways to write about a culture that is not your own: as an invader, as a tourist, or as a guest.

Invaders arrive without warning, take whatever they want for use in whatever way they see fit. They destroy without thinking anything that appears to them to be valueless. They stay as long as they like, leave at their own convenience. Theirs is a position of entitlement without allegiance.

This is the way that Disney writes about other cultures. They send artists to scout locations, but then pick and choose the details of culture that work best for their films. The worst example of this is probably Pocahontas (although the distinction for worst portrayal of First Nations people still goes to Peter Pan).

That’s from 1953, and perhaps unfair to today’s animators and story people, but still.

Disney’s goal is not to widen acceptance or understanding of the cultures they write about. Their goal is to make a film that is well received by their market.

Toys

And what a market it is. This Christmas, when I went to Toys R’ Us to buy a gift for my niece, I was a little horrified at the gigantic Disney Princess display that devoured the front of the store. I don’t have a picture of the exact display, but it was similar to this picture from the Toys R’ Us website.

fun note: all white, blondes in centre

The depiction of Merida pains me particularly, but the marketing to children of this image of femininity bothers me as a whole. As other bloggers have noted, it undermines any positive female characters they manage to create in their films because they’re eventually going to get reduced into photoshopped wide-eyed princesses with sparkles shooting out of their ears.

The thing is… people buy these toys. Despite videos of some kids complaining…

…there are other kids and parents who fully embrace this image. Which leads into another larger conversation I’m not ready to dive into right now. Are they making this stuff because people want it, or do people want it because this is what has been made for decades?

How can we convince them that people are also willing to buy things that are different? Like a doll of Merida that looks like the Merida from the film?

Who is Disney? Who is their Market?

One of the things I try to remember when raging against Disney stories is that Disney is not one person. Disney stories are made by a whole bunch of people who flow between Disney, Dreamworks, and Pixar. This makes it a little harder to blame all of past-Disney’s mistakes on current-Disney’s story team, which is actually improving.

There’s also a distinction between Disney’s filmmakers, and their toymakers, and their marketers, and their television shows. It’s unfair to expect any single person working at Disney to undo the entire Disney Machine.

Parts of the Disney Machine are producing pretty good stuff. Frozen is a solid step forward. It’s not where I want them to be yet, (see the article where the animator talked about trouble drawing women because they have to be cute) but I’m a believer that you have to reward steps forward in order to encourage further steps forward. It’s also a fun movie, plain and simple.

As another example, consider Disney’s current big shows for preschool:

Left: Jake and the Never Land Pirates. Right: Sofia the First

Jake and the Never Land Pirates has a diverse cast of kids! I feel like it’s one of the first stories set in the Peter Pan world that I actually support. It’s magic, it’s fun, it’s inviting. Sofia the First is… well, all the usual Disney Machine problems. I’m peeved it beat Bubble Guppies for the Annie Award.

The machine has already changed over time, and it’s improving. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’ll ever catch up to where I want it to be, because there are sections of the machine designed for a market that is very not me.

That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the things (or parts of things) the machine manages to produce that I like.

Next time I’ll look at someone who I think handled these issues (and others) much better, with a breakdown of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

Learning from Pixar: Ghosts

Spoilers! For almost all of Pixar’s movies! 

Traditional thought is that the first step in a story is the inciting incident: a break in the every day, something that starts the journey, the call to action.

However, many good stories have an important step before that: the ghost.

The ghost inflicts the wound.

Most often, dead parents inflict the sense of not belonging.

Ghost: a specific event in a character’s backstory that has left emotional, psychological, or moral damage. It haunts the character and drives them through the main story.

Wound: A character’s deficiencies that are causing pain to themselves and the people around them. Healed or deepened at the end of the story.

My previous post on Pixar’s simplexity was my most popular so far. Today we’ll look at the way they use ghosts to drive their films.

In the top example (Finding Nemo), we see Marlin left with Nemo after a shark attack has killed his mate and their hundreds of other eggs (ghost). This leaves him feeling scared and overprotective (wound).

The second picture (The Incredibles) shows how Mr. Incredible was forced out of the superheo line of work, by getting sued (ghost). He winds up in an office feeling alienated and needing validation (wound).

Picture three (Up) has Carl’s last moments with his wife Ellie. Her death (ghost) leaves him bitter, isolated, and rough (wound).

There are others…

Woody’s rip in Toy Story 2, Wall-E’s isolation, and Mike’s first trip to the scaring floor in Monster’s University.

but I like the first three I showed because I find them the most powerful and original. The cliché is for dead parents. Finding Nemo is a reversal: dead children. The Incredibles makes a ghost out of something organic to the film’s world, and in Up the power of Ellie’s passing is noted by everyone who sees the movie.

So how does a ghost work?

In the fiction workshops for my creative writing degree, two of the most ubiquitous comments were (1) Why does this character need to go through this story? (2) Your character is too perfect. Having a ghost addresses these concerns, as well as others.

Basically, the ghost is what has wounded the character, and the story is the healing process. Chronologically, it usually happens first, but we don’t always see it in the story, because the “story” usually starts when the healing process starts. That is, when they start the journey that is going to address their deficiencies, and probably cause their character to change. Ghosts are either flashback or prologue.

Since Finding Nemo, most of Pixar’s films have included a prologue to establish the character’s ghost and wound. But not every prologue is a ghost. Remy in Ratatouille wanted to be a chef before he lost his clan. The event is tragic, but it doesn’t really do much to haunt or influence him for the rest of the story. He has a literal ghost following him around, but Gusteau functions as a mentor.

Similarly, Merida in Brave has a prologue in which we meet Mar’du, but this isn’t the thing that drives her arc. Unless somehow this was the moment that caused the split between her and her mother, but it wasn’t. You could be like, “Yeah it was, because she got her bow,” but then you’re just being difficult.

Neither Remy or Merida seem to be psychologically running away from inner trauma. They are running toward their aspirations. Which is still interesting, but it needs the audience to share sympathy for the kinds of aspirations they have. As someone who’s really not that into eating food, I had trouble getting into Ratatouille, whereas my friend who’s worked in kitchens loves it. I share the longing for fantasy freedom though, so I like Brave more than most.

I believe this is why Cars doesn’t resonate as well with a lot of people who like Pixar’s other films. Lightning McQueen’s drive (no pun intended) is based on a dream of racing, and his redemption is based on the nostalgia of scenic Route 66. Neither of those things ignite much in me.

Ghost inflicted wounds tend to be more universal, so in my opinion they often lead to better films. The first time I encountered the terms was in John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. In case I haven’t been explaining clear enough, I’ll include his introduction to the concept.

There are two kinds of ghosts in a story. The first and most common is an event from the past that still haunts the hero in the present. The ghost is an open wound that is often the source of the hero’s psychological and moral weakness. The ghost is also a device that lets you extend the hero’s organic development backward, before the start of your story. So the ghost is a major part of the story’s foundation.

You can also think of this first kind of ghost as the hero’s internal opponent. It is the great fear that is holding him back from action. Structurally, the ghost acts as a counterdesire. The hero’s desire drives him forward; his ghost holds him back. Henrik Ibsen, whose plays put great emphasis on the ghost, described this structure step as “sailing with a corpse in the cargo”.

So those are my thoughts on Pixar. You know who else creates interesting ghosts? Marvel.

Come back in two weeks. I’ll examine ghosts for some of Marvel’s superheroes.

Breakdown: Wreck-It Ralph

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

Huge ones for Wreck-It Ralph, and some smaller ones for Tangled, Bolt, Toy Story, Up, and Brave.

You’ve been warned…

Symbols

This is were we left off last time…

Stories are often about choices. In order to make these choices more visible, symbols are often created for the ideas that a protagonist is choosing between. In Wreck-It Ralph, we have the Hero Medal and (what I’ll call) the Vanillope Medal.

The Hero Medal symbolizes respect and validation. It functions differently for Vanillope (as a coin that lets her buy a car); symbolically, however, it works the same way, since the car is her way to get validated. We could argue that the car turns out to mean more than that, but her initial urge for the medal is the same as Ralph’s.

The Vanillope Medal symbolizes friendship and compassion. When Ralph smashes Vanillope’s car, he’s wearing the Vanillope Medal, but in the scene immediately after, he’s wearing the Hero Medal. He then, in rejection of his ambition, hurls the Hero Medal away, which reveals the truth about Vanillope. In other words, the medals show us where Ralph is positioned in his arc, and then the story rewards him for giving up on validation.

Ultimately the day must be saved by using the “correct” symbol. Before punching through the Mentos roof, Ralph clutches the green heart of the Vanillope Medal in his fist.

Symbols are often consulted in place of “mentor characters” to re-affirm a decision, or to push a protagonist in the story’s required direction. The most elegant symbol in Pixar’s canon is the name ANDY written on Woody’s boot. It’s a reminder of his character’s spine “do what’s right for my child”.

The depiction of choices in Up is equally strong: when Carl has to choose between saving his house for Ellie or saving Kevin for Russell; and then the reversal when he sits in his house, between Ellie’s book and Russel’s sash of badges.

First he chooses the “wrong” thing, and then he chooses “correctly”. His choices move us from Act 2 into Act 3.

The same as Ralph’s.

Characters

The characters in Wreck-It Ralph are not simplexified in the way I discussed last post. Sure, Ralph is big and Felix is small. We could discuss Vanillope’s glitch. But the most apparent connection to make with the four leads is to their voice actors.

They’re less cartoony than Pixar’s usual work, and make more use of the actor’s known facial expressions and mannerisms. For me, the gee-shucks optimism of Jack McBrayer works the best, especially the scenes with him in jail.

I don’t have a complaint about this. I like all the actors, and I think they helped make the film more human. My problem with the characters is the characterization of the women, which is a problem I have with almost everything from Hollywood.

Why would I have a problem with Vanillope and Calhoun? Vanillope is adorable and determined. She has agency over her own plotline. Calhoun is a tough woman, showing that men aren’t the only ones capable of blasting aliens.

True, sure, but Calhoun’s main plotline is that she’s traumatized over her husband’s death. (The depiction of which I do find very funny.) She’s broken in a way that requires a new man to “fix” her. And she’s never really showing us that women are tough, she’s showing us that Calhoun is an exception, which is why we get comedy from her performance. Get it? It’s funny that a woman could be this tough. And she still wants a guy, just like every woman, right?

I’d like Vanillope if she wasn’t cute and she didn’t turn into a princess at the end.

I am so hard to please. What do I want? If I don’t want female characters who are perfect or broken or squeamish or tough, what do I want?

I want them to be real. I don’t want the problems they have to be quirks that make them cute. I want them to be allowed to have problems that are NOT attractive.

Like who?

Top: Merida from Brave. Middle: Chihiro/Sen from Spirited Away. Bottom: Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

How about female animated characters who aren’t the leads?

Top: Tigress from Kung-fu Panda. Middle: Jade from Jackie Chan Adventures. Bottom: Dory from Finding Nemo.

Tigress is actually a surprisingly good character, but I’m scared they’ll mess it up and have her marrying Po before the end of Kung-Fu Panda 3. These females have strengths, but also flaws. They have individual goals, hopes, and beliefs that do not involve romance. 

Like real people.

Sorry, what? Wreck-It Ralph? Oh yeah, that’s what I’m supposed to be writing about. 

The Villains

Wreck-It Ralph makes use of what I refer to as “villain swallowing”. Early in the plot, there are multiple villains, so it feels like danger presses in on all sides. Later, to have a more focused climax, one villain swallows the others, becoming supreme.

In Tangled‘s Act 2, we’re running from Rapunzel’s mom, Flynn’s thief buddies, and Max the horse. By Act 3, it’s resolved to just Mother Gothel, as she’s knocked out the thieves, and the horse has joined the heroes.

Wreck-It Ralph takes villain swallowing more literally.

These guys…

become this…

They seriously just fuse together.

The result is an insane, endlessly evil, soul-sucking, generic super-villain. It’s barely a person at this point. Completely unsympathetic.

I find it interesting that Pixar’s list of things to avoid when making Toy Story stated that they didn’t want a villain. I’d love to hear John Lasseter discuss how he feels about using villains now.

Also, I’m curious how he would define “a villain”.

Kurt Vonnegut famously said that he never wrote a story with a villain in it, and that it was because of something he learned in college after the war. Personally, I would classify Dwayne Hoover, Paul Lazzaro, and the Handicapper General as villains. That’s me.

The fact that they’re round characters with human motivations doesn’t change my mind. I think that just means they’re good villains.

If we only consider characters villains after they become unredeemable then I think villains become a less interesting idea. I think almost all of Pixar’s movies have villains, although in some cases (Toy Story 2, Up, Brave) they aren’t revealed until Act 3.

Some of those might have been better without the villain fight in Act 3, but it’s hard to say. Mark Andrews has said that Mar’du was a late addition to Brave, because the third act wasn’t working.

I don’t know. Monsters University is probably their movie that gets closest to not having a villain, and its third act is amazing. Bolt did pretty well without one too.

I don’t like generic super-villains and that’s what Mar’du is. That’s what King Candy becomes. In comparison, when we see Ralph identify himself as a “bad guy” in the beginning, it seems even more obvious that he’s not.

However, we probably didn’t need this contrast for a satisfying end. Characters should be challenged by their opposites, and Ralph’s opposite isn’t generic evil. It was Felix.

Final Thoughts

In talking about Wreck-It Ralph, I’ve wandered quite a bit. There’s almost as much discussion of other movies as the one under close examination.

As I’ve said, my brain likes categories and connections. This is kind of the way I think. Next time I do a close look I might jump around again, or I might tighten my lens and get into smaller details.

For next week though…

On September 6th, we’ll continue our look at villains with a countdown of five great villains from the most popular children’s series of all time: Harry Potter.

Learning from Pixar: Simplexity

Simplexity: Something that when glanced appears simple, but when examined reveals great detail, richness, and flexibility.

I’m paraphrasing, but I think that’s a good definition. I’ll start with considering how this applies to characters, then continue into how it can influence plot/structure.

(Relevant part begins at 2:35.)

Pete Docter (the co-writer/director of Monsters Inc. and Up) talks about how the characters’ shapes are tied to their personalities. He doesn’t say which came first, but we can assume that the personalities came before the shapes. Every aspect of character design then supports character.

The early designs for Sulley (from Monsters Inc) included tentacles, but they worried that audiences would lose focus on his facial expressions.

Clicking the Sulleys will take you to a video chat on the making of Monsters Inc.

The final image of Sulley is simpler. Sulley is a warm and loveable monster–he should have purple spots and a wide grin. It is more iconic, an easier model to slip into the story with. Which is part of the heart simplexity: multiple things are happening at once, but you don’t notice because they fit together so well. Everything is logically tied together, so that you can’t tell where it started.

Another example: 

EVE is sleek, elegant, and futuristic while WALL-E is boxy, awkward, and rustic. Don’t just notice the shapes, also notice the contrast. Whether conscious or only visceral, the difference between these characters has an effect on us. It identifies each character more cleanly by showing us an opposite. It also creates opportunities for dynamic interactions.

Simplexity doesn’t just work in animation. Short stories, novels, and picture books can also be tight, layered, and highly-visual, springing from a single concept. My guess is that it goes in a different direction though. When this goes well, it’s impossible to guess the origin, but here’s my gut…

Animators at Pixar start with an idea for a story, determine what their main characters’ personalities should be like, then create models, then create interactions.

Other writers might find inspiration in an image (often from dreams), and then ask themselves questions about “who these people are” and “what they want”. By doing this they develop a rounded character, and then discover events in the character’s life.

I’ve heard more than a few gardener/discovery writers who write fantastical stories describe their process in that way. When I write short stories for adults, I do something similar.

Aimee Bender‘s short story “The Healer” starts like this: “There were two mutant girls in the town: one had a hand made of fire and the other had a hand made of ice. Everyone else’s hands were normal.” Everything in that story flows logically, according to what a girl with a fire hand and a girl with an ice hand might be like. It’s achingly brilliant.

What would a child be like if he grew up in a graveyard? From this concept springs Bod and The Graveyard Book.

Okay. So that’s a bit on character. How might we simplexify plot?

(Minor spoilers for The Paperbag Princess and Howl’s Moving Castle ahead.)

Last year, the twenty-two “story basics” from Emma Coats (a former storyboard artist at Pixar) was reblogged a million times. For good reason. I could write a blog about almost every tip, but today I’ll focus on #4.

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

This list comes from Brian Macdonald’s Invisible Ink, which opens with a third-page blurb from Andrew Stanton (cowriter/director Finding Nemo and WALL-E). Macdonald admits he didn’t create the steps himself; he learned them from an improv troupe. He’s not sure where they actually originated, but he’s responsible for most of their popularity.

To see a workshop of the Invisible Ink steps in action, led by a Pixar storyboard artist, watch the video below.

I’ve read a lot of books on story structure. Almost all provide their own list of steps. (Which will be worth another post to compare.) The steps in Invisible Ink are the simplest I’ve come across.

There are two things worth noticing.

First, the middle steps (Act 2?) are not “and then”; they are “because of that”. In 6 Days to Air, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone discuss a similar trick for compressing stories. They change ands in their story progression into buts and therefores.

Example Therefore: Often we want a character to go somewhere, and the reason is that the next important thing in the plot happens at Location X. It isn’t really enough that a character has a burning desire to go to Location X. Something should have happened during Plot Event D that sends the character to Location X.  Ji-min gave her sister the last bowl of cereal; therefore, she goes to the store.

Example But: Similarly, a story might have an event that happens at the midpoint. Could be a math test. And the math test totally shakes up the plot. This is easier to accept than a sudden Christmas gift. If an event has to come into the story sidewise, then it should be an obstacle to the characters’ goals. Hamid needs to play in the big football game, but he can’t because he failed a calculus test.

Building stories around consequences makes plots fluid. It can be very difficult to find the right connections. When the rationale is found though, it makes every part of your story necessary and intertwined.

Simpler, but richer.

The second thing about Rule #4 that’s worth mentioning is that Coats omitted the final step: “And ever since then, ___”. In the Hero’s Journey, this is the equivalent of “Return With the Elixir”.

The idea is that it’s not enough for the hero to get what they want or to save themselves. Wisdom and happiness have to be shared to have value. (Although The Paperbag Princess would disagree.)

The audience at least have to see that something has changed, so that we know there was a purpose for the story. This could be as simple as a moon becoming full…

Where the Wild Things Are

or a character’s hair staying grey…

Howl’s Moving Castle

These are simple changes that carry meaning. Symbols of the journey. Using symbols is another great way to simplexify plot, but that will be examined next week.

After Disney bought Pixar in 2006, John Lasseter became the chief creative officer of both. His influence is evident in Disney’s computer animated films since then: Bolt, Tangled, and Wreck-It Ralph. Next Friday, we’ll take a closer look at one of them in my first detailed breakdown.