Saturday, March 9, 2013

Pixar story structure

I’ve been reading To Sell is Human by Daniel Pink. It’s the second book by Daniel Pink that I’ve read, the first being Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Both books are generally categorized in either the Business section or the Psychology section of the major bookstores in the area, but I’ve found quite a bit that can be applied to my thoughts and attempts toward becoming a better teacher.

One thing that jumped out to me immediately in To Sell is Human is Pink’s chapter on “Pitch.” He describes six different pitches, but for me, the last was the most important. I liked this pitch so much, that I actually used it for an activity on Thursday—the student’s last day before Spring Break.

Pink calls it “The Pixar Pitch,” and seems to borrow the structure or format, documented in a blog post by David Price, from a list of story rules originally tweeted out by Emma Coats, a former story artist at Pixar. How’s that for confusing.

I just took Pink’s Pixar Pitch and called it, for the sake of the students, “The Pixar Story Structure.” Now, is it really a story structure? Probably not. But if the story can fit well into these six sentences, then it can provide a structure from which to grow the story. My thinking is, if I can help my students write a clean and tight Pixar Story Structure, then I can also help them expand that structure into a more complete, compelling, and (hopefully) equally clean and tight story.

The six sentences for “The Pixar Pitch” or the Pixar Story Structure are:
Once upon a time _______________. Every day _______________. One day _______________. Because of that _______________. Because of that _______________. Until finally _______________.

Daniel Pink offers the plot for Finding Nemo as an example (pages 171-172), which I also used with the students.
Once upon a time there was a widowed fish named Marlin who was extremely protective of his only son, Nemo. Every day Marlin warned Nemo of the ocean’s dangers and implored him not to swim far away. One day in an act of defiance, Nemo ignores his father’s warnings and swims into the open water. Because of that, he is captured by a diver and ends up as a pet in the fish tank of a dentist in Sydney. Because of that, Marlin sets off on a journey to recover Nemo, enlisting the help of other sea creatures along the way. Until finally Marlin and Nemo find each other, reunite, and learn that love depends on trust.

I shared the idea with my wife, also a middle school English teacher, and she thought it was pretty cool. So I gave it a try, in an attempt to tell our story. You can be the judge.
Once upon a time there was a boy named Thomas and girl named Kristin who didn’t know each other but seemed to both want the same things out of life. Every day they went about their business, not knowing that the other existed. One day, in an unremarkable moment, they both went bowling at the same bowling alley on the same Friday night. Because of that, they met, and a seed was planted. Because of that, they both held on to the hope of a bright future, maybe together or maybe with someone else. Until finally, Thomas asked Kristin to go on a date, and the seed that had been planted years earlier matured into a flower—a relationship that proved to be as interesting and unique as they had always dreamed.

It’s ok, but certainly not good. I had the literary elements from poetry fresh in my head, so the metaphor of a seed planted and then growing into a flower came to mind. It’s not great, but it works. Also, my second “because of that” sentence isn’t quite as cause-effect relationally dependent upon my first “because of that” sentence, which creates serious weakness.

Based on this “Pixar Pitch,” I presented the students with two challenges:
1.     See if you can summarize a favorite story or movie using the Pixar story structure. That will give you some practice with thinking through the six sentences in an organized and concise manner.
2.     Try to write your very own creative story using the Pixar story structure. Maybe it is a story from your life, like my example provided. Maybe it is a totally fictional story that you’ve made up.

I thought it was a fun Thursday activity before Spring Break. Hopefully we’ll have some students who gave it a try over Spring Break and can share some of their writing on the Monday when we come back. And maybe we’ll be able to do something more with this story structure. We’ll just have to see. 

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