Up - Story Structure

Summary of this month’s movie:

Here come the spoilers! The movie starts with Carl and Ellie as children and shows them growing up together, dreaming of being explorers, then getting married and settling down. They repeatedly save up for a trip to Paradise Falls, Ellie’s dream, but always end up spending the money on more pressing needs. Carl finally buys tickets for the trip, but Ellie falls ill and dies before they can go.

The neighborhood around Carl is replaced by skyscrapers. When he unintentionally injures a construction worker, the court orders him to move to a retirement home. But Carl worked his entire life as a balloon salesman, and he comes up with a plan—attach hundreds of helium balloons to his house and fly away to Paradise Falls to keep his promise to Ellie. Russell, a Wilderness Explorer trying to earn his final merit badge for "Assisting the Elderly", becomes an accidental stowaway, and a storm drives them to South America, where the house lands opposite Paradise Falls. The house still floats a little, and they harness themselves to it, hoping to reach the falls before the balloons deflate. They meet a tall colorful bird they name Kevin, and a dog named Dug, who wears a special collar that allows him to speak. The next day, they encounter a pack of aggressive dogs (also with special collars) led by Alpha and are taken to their master, the elderly explorer Charles Muntz, who Ellie and Carl idolized as children.

Muntz has spent his life searching for a giant bird he promised to bring back years ago. When Russell notes the bird's similarity to Kevin, Muntz becomes hostile, thinking they want to capture the bird. Carl and Russell flee with Kevin and Dug, but Muntz finds and captures Kevin, then sets fire to Carl's house. Carl is forced to decide whether to save his house or Kevin; he chooses his house, upsetting Russell. Carl finally parks the house at Paradise Falls.

Carl goes outside, only to see Russell flying away, using some balloons and a leaf blower, to try to rescue Kevin. Carl lightens the house enough for him and Dug to follow. Muntz captures Russell, but Carl and Dug board the dirigible and free Russell and Kevin. Muntz pursues , but ultimately they escape and Muntz gets caught on some balloon lines and falls to the ground far below. Carl and Russell reunite Kevin with her chicks and fly the dirigible back home, taking all of Muntz's dogs with them. Carl then becomes a grandpa-like figure to Russell.

Carly: I love this movie. I know I made you watch it, and I’m not sorry about it. It is gorgeous and heart-wrenching and just impeccable. Most Pixar movies are, but this one is just one of the best. When all the balloons fly out of the house, it is beyond gorgeous and I wish it was real. And not to talk about the dark moments, but they are so real and beautiful at the same time. The vignette of Carl and Ellie’s life, it is full of love and companionship, but also shows the utter sadness of love. The shadows that make it beautiful. As sad as it makes me, I just love it and hold that vignette close to my heart. I even made my husband and I get “Carl and Ellie” cozy chairs that show our own personalities, where we could read by our stove. Super adorable, I know. And then Carl learning to open his heart again to a surrogate grandson is lovely and real. I’m already a cranky old man, but their relationship is very very cute, even when Carl disappoints Russell. Anyway, I can go on and on about the lovely moments and the shadows that make them even lovelier, but what did you think?

Jeni: Okay so ya know how you are with scary movies? You have to be mentally prepared for them and have a plan for how you’re going to watch it and not have nightmares… Well, that’s me with sad movies. For whatever reason, books don’t have that same impact on me, but sad movies stay with me for a long, long time. So I knew this movie was sad and have never watched it because of that. And because you’re mean and made me watch it anyway, I had to prepare and have a plan. Even so, I cried when Ellie died. It was so sad, and their relationship was so sweet. But to be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Disney or Pixar movie that didn’t make me cry. Like, let’s not even talk about Moana. But otherwise, I really agree with what you said. It’s beautiful visually, definitely tugs at the heartstrings and has that satisfying character growth in the end. And I kinda love that it’s a kids’ movie where the protagonist is an older adult. I love having older adults in kids’ fiction anyway because I think there can be something very special about that relationship. Plus, I’m pretty sure that I would’ve identified more with Carl than Russell even as a kid, and I definitely do as an adult. What did it do well?

Carly: Story structure!!!! So there are a lot of different types of structure, which is good news because there’s options and you can find the type that works best for you. All of these are pretty similar, but they shift things around a bit and some will be easier for you to grasp than others. That means it is the type of structure for you.

The classic type of structure is the 3 act structure. It’s the main type that you learn in your high school English classes. It breaks down like this: Act 1 is the setup, where we learn about the main character’s normal life and we have the inciting incident that sets them on the road to solving a question. Act 2 is the rising action or the confrontation, where the main character works to solve the question and learn enough to go against the antagonistic force. Through the second act, things get much worse before they get better because the MC doesn’t have all the pieces yet. And finally we have Act 3 which includes the climax where everything comes to a head. The MC resolves the plot and is forever changed from the action that took place.

Next we have 4 act structure, which is really 3 act structure, but broken down a bit more and can give you a clearer perspective. Again, act 1 is the setup, which includes the inciting incident. Which leads us to the 1st plot point, a context shift where the MC is forced to switch into taking action. Which leads us to act 2, the response. Here we have the MC responding to the antagonistic force. Which leads us to the midpoint where everything changes and the MC learns new information. Act 3 is then the attack, where the MC faces the antagonistic force and finally begins to make headway. This leads to the 2nd plot point, the major moment that accelerates us to the end. And finally act 4, the resolution, where we see the fallout of the actions and the resolutions of the major conflict. It basically takes act 2 in the 3 act structure and breaks it down into smaller more manageable pieces.

Then there are a couple of methods that build on the 3 or 4 act structure. First is the snowflake method, which starts small and slowly builds on itself. Step 1 starts with 1 sentence that sums up the conflict of the story. “X does Y to overcome Z” etc. It is basically your story pitch. In step 2 you stretch that into a paragraph that includes the story setup, the three major disasters, and the ending (one sentence for each thing). Step 3 you write a page about each major character and their personal arc/growth. We talked about that in our last episode a bit more, but basically what internal struggles do they face and how do they change? As you continue on in this method you go through a few more steps, each deepening the story arc and character development.

And finally we have the Save the Cat method, which was originally written for screenwriting so is very apt! It is basically 4 act structure: Act 1 is the setup, which includes: Opening Image, Theme Stated, general Setup, the Catalyst or inciting incident, and the Debate where the MC waffles on the action to take. Next is Act 2A, where we learn new information and there are “Fun and Games.” The end of this act is the Midpoint where everything changes again. Act 2B which includes: the Bad Guys Close In, the All is Lost moment, and the MC’s darkest moment. Then we break into Act 3, which includes the Finale and the Final Image where they execute a new plan and everything is resolved.

Okay, that was a lot of me talking, but it is a quick overview of the different types of structure and how different methods of implementing that structure can sometimes help it click into place.

Jeni: Sorry I was over here thinking of Ellie and crying. I am excited to talk about structure with this movie because there’s a lot of good info out there about Pixar’s storytelling structure. And just like Save the Cat, that can be applied to novels as well as movies. So, like you said, this is really just 3 act structure, but Pixar has a very particular way of telling their stories. You know what a nerd I am for the writing process, and when I found out about this Pixar story stuff, I was all in, and I’m really glad to have a chance to nerd out about it here. So this information originated from a series of tweets by then-Pixar storyboarder Emma Cole.

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was . Every day, . One day . Because of that, . Because of that, . Until finally .
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

They’ve also created a free storytelling class you can take on Khan Academy, and there’s a book where someone compiled all the information. It’s really just a very well thought out approach, which is why audiences know they can depend on it. What’s really awesome is that you can see how it applies to all kinds of stories so it doesn’t feel too formulaic.

Carly: So Pixar has a beautifully simple story structure that they call, Story Spine. Like 3 act structure, no one came up with this structure; it was observed from analyzing the history of stories. What’s neat about this structure, though, is that it can be summarized almost like a fairy tale, which is, of course, very Pixar/Disney.

It breaks down into:

  • Once upon a time there was ___.
  • Every day, ___.
  • One day ___.
  • Because of that, ___.
  • Because of that, ___.
  • Until finally ___.
  • And ever since that day, ___.

How that breaks down for Up:

  • Once upon a time there was an old man that missed his wife.
  • Every day, he thought of their dreams to travel to Paradise Falls.
  • One day he was evicted from his home.
  • Because of that, he attached balloons to his house and flew it to Paradise Falls with an unexpected stowaway.
  • Because of that, he lands too far from Paradise Falls and must walk his house there with Russel’s help and the help of Dug.
  • Because of that, they find a bird named Kevin and are confronted by the antagonist who captures Kevin and Russell.
  • Until finally he lets go of his past to save his friends.
  • And ever since that day, he and Russell form a bond and he steps in as a grandfatherly figure.

Jeni: This is actually just another way of looking at three act structure. So for those familiar with three act structure, it breaks down like this

Act 1: introduce characters, story and understand where story is going

  • once upon a time, we meet protagonist
  • every day, story setting
  • until one day (the inciting incident)

Act 2: have main character choose and act while overcoming obstacles towards a goal

  • Because of that (conflict)
  • Because of that (conflict)

Act 3: have character meet final challenge and resolve the story

  • Until finally (climax)
  • And ever since that day (denouement)

Carly: You can use this to plan a new story or when you’re editing to make sure your main character has agency and your story is building on itself. Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, structure is important to know and implement. If you are a plotter writing out this structure will help you to create an outline and keep your manuscript moving as you intend. But if you’re a pantser or someone that likes to let the story come to them as they write, it is still very important. Your pacing will lag if you don’t take structure into consideration. So your first round of editing should be checking that your draft aligns itself well with 3 or 4 act structure. As you look into each of these types of structure, you can find all sorts of breakdowns that show you at what percentage of your book you should be hitting them. This structure keeps your story moving and keeps readers interested. You may find you’ve even done it unintentionally because this structure is so ingrained in the media we all encounter. Don’t fear this tool as being predictable or boring, it’s what makes a compelling story. Without it readers often lose interest.

Jeni: So, pantsers, I wanna talk to you for a minute. If you’ve made it this far, wow, you must really love us! That’s how I’m taking it anyway. I know that structure can feel restrictive when you’re used to discovery writing, but like Carly said, you don’t necessarily have to use it before you draft. However, almost all the authors I know who have published several books sort of end up as planters—kinda half plotter, half pantser. It can be very helpful to have a general idea of where your story is going and then sort of pants how you get from one point to the next. It still gives you that fun of surprising yourself and discovering your story and characters along the way but keeps the story from getting too off-track so hopefully you end up with a first draft that has more usable content.

Carly: Agreed! Alright, now it is time for our query critique. This book is a Young Adult contemporary romance, so Jeni, what are your thoughts on the query?

Jeni: This story sounds so cute. The author does a pretty good job explaining the overall plot, but it’s hard to feel much connection with the characters. Dual POV can be hard to work into a query because it’s so few words and you need the agent to connect with the characters AND the story, and it’s just harder to focus on both. But it’s really important to make sure you’ve got the internal arcs and emotional wounds in there. It’s common to only focus on one character in non-romance dual POV books, but for a romance, I think it’s good to get both in there. So my recommendation is to rework the format so you can focus more on the internal arcs and get the agent to connect better with the characters. I think, Carly, you had some further thoughts on that.

Carly: So aptly enough, I think this query needs a little more structure. When writing a query for a romance, I tend to like a specific format because it helps to flesh out both main characters. You have your paragraph of metadata and your hook, like with most queries. And then the second paragraph is all about the first main character and their internal struggles and the conflicts they must face. The second paragraph is about the second main character and their internal struggles and conflicts. Then the third paragraph brings them together and discusses the conflicts they must face together and the stakes. Then finally you have your biography paragraph. Now this author doesn’t have a bio and they mentioned that as a concern as they don’t have any writing credentials. Instead in this paragraph give us a little personality. Mention any experiences that helped you to write this story. Or give some background that could help you forge a connection with the potential agent. Sometimes a shared interest in knitting or a shared hometown can help the agent look at you more favorably.

On our next podcast we will be discussing the classic comedy-mystery, Clue. We will also have another query or blurb critique. If you want your query featured on the podcast, you can find the details about how to do that on our website or Twitter page.
You can also find our podcast on our website, storychatradio.com. Or you can follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or many other streaming services. While you’re there, please leave us a rating. You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram @StoryChatRadio.

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