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.

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.

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.