I recently had the incredible fortune of attending a two-day class held by Pixar about story and animation. The story presenter, Matthew Luhn, was especially interesting with regards to Threads of Fate. Now unfortunately, both presenters asked that I not blog about the details of the class as a.) it contains much proprietary information and b.) they want to keep running the class and that won’t happen if the attendees essentially “pirate” the information out. That being said, there were a couple of common knowledge concepts that he went over from a fresh perspective that I think would be okay to blog about. Today, let’s take a look at the elements of a good story and in a couple of weeks we’ll look at story “beats.”
We all learned about the classic structure of a story in school. You have the introduction/exposition, rising action, climax, and falling action/resolution. But what do these really mean? Is the exposition really as simple as establishing the story takes place in a school, or the main character’s hair is brown? I think we can all agree that these details, while sometimes interesting, aren’t really the most important part of your setup. What you really want to do is setup the character’s deeper details. What does his everyday life consist of? What is it that he longs for? One of the most meaningful things I took away from the lecture was the notion that all our lives are made up of little routines and cycles. There’s birth -> life -> death, morning -> afternoon -> night, work -> weekend, etc. By establishing a character’s own “every day,” you immediately make them relatable to the reader.
This isn’t to say your character has to have a mundane “every day,” like working a job or going to school. In fact, while I was trying to apply this template to Threads of Fate, I found myself in a sudden panic. After all, there aren’t many cursed people who go from town to town as their very presence causes cities to crumble around them right? But then I realized, that in itself is Noal’s routine, almost like the way certain kids have to jump from state-to-state as they follow their working parents around. When I realized that, it was easy to figure out what Noal longed for. Stability. He wants the life everyone around him has – in short, to belong. I think that’s something we can all relate to on some level.
So once you’ve established your character’s every day, the rising action begins with something that disrupts it. But this too is misleadingly simple. To simply have an incident that interrupts the main character’s routine and sweeps him off into adventure is too shallow. There’s no sense of purpose to something like that. What a good, memorable story really needs is some sort of incident that ruins what the protagonist longs for. Why is this distinction so important? It makes the character pro-active – to take action to get what he wants back, instead of just reacting to what happens around him. In essence, it makes the story go deeper than just the plot.
Now as your rising action builds, the character experiences more and more complications. The important takeaway from this is that as he deals with them his goals start to change. Essentially, the “what he longs for” part of the equation begins to morph at a fundamental level. This is what people mean when they talk about the elusive “character development.” This continues until a crisis moment, which is a test of everything that character has learned. Generally, in school we learn that the climax is the point of highest action and intrigue in the story, but in actuality this crisis moment is the most important moment in the entire story. There could be no physical action at all, but it should be the tensest part of the story. The climax that happens afterward is really just seeing the results of the decision that the character makes. It is often at this time that he uses the newfound strength from dealing with the crisis moment to actually overcome the obstacles in his way.
The presenter brought up a great point that the reason so many sequels and trilogies feel lackluster after the first entry is that they’re missing the fundamental, character-driven portion of this arc. A lot of the time, after the first entry, there is simply nowhere left to go with the character. The first thing I thought of was actually the Matrix trilogy. It really explains a lot, and even though these are a lot of the things authors balance subconsciously, I found it immensely helpful to see them written out in a clearly defined system.
Try thinking about where each of these moments is in Threads of Fate. I can tell you that right now we’re racing towards Noal’s own crisis moment (at least for this arc). Also, if you’d like to know more about the Pixar Masterclass I attended and about Matthew Luhn in general, check out his personal website.