Once upon a time there was a ______. Everyday, _______. One Day ______. Because of that______, Until Finally ______.
On their list of 22 rules of storytelling, Pixar boiled the structure of most stories to the formula above.
At first it seemed a little reductive. So I tested it out on a popular story:
Thought it might just be a coincidence so I tried to out on another story:
To really give it a go, I even tried it out on my favorite TV Show:
While the formula is deceptively simple you can learn a lot by breaking down each of the parts.
Once Upon A Time There Was A _____
The first line in the formula establishes character; it lets the writer and the audience know who the story is about.
The second line marks the starting point for our protagonist. It lays out the routine that the character is in. What their life looks like when we first drop in on them. This is the element that gets disrupted in the following line.
One day ____
The next line signals a disruption of the character’s routine. Some person or event shakes their world up, and they will spend the rest of the narrative putting the pieces back together. It’s what screenwriters call the “inciting incident”.
Because of that ______
The inciting incident in the previous step calls the character into action. They’re propelled on a journey. Usually one to either repair the part of their world that has gone AMOK in step 3. Or to search for a piece that was missing from their normal life.
What is fascinating about this step is while it takes up the bulk of the narrative (pages in a book, or screen time in a movie), it makes up only one of the 5 steps. This tells me that a good set up and strong ending are the most important parts of a narrative.
Until finally _____
The final step of the formula is the resolution of the story. What happened to the character in step one? Did they accomplish what they set to do in part Four? Perhaps they learned a lesson along the way?
In short, how did it all end? And more importantly, what did it all mean?
The formula may be simple; but it gives an overarching view about how to structure a narrative.
Try it out on your favorite story and see how it works.