The Story Spine (also known as Pixar’s Story Structure)

Lay down a winning plot and then enhance the story afterwards.
Masooma Memon
April 6, 2022

When to use

Use this 8-step article to write short stories, introductions for long-form content, email and landing page copy as well as social media captions (think: LinkedIn and Instagram posts).

You can also use it to tell a brand founder’s story and your personal brand’s story. 

What you’ll need

A piece of paper (or fresh Google doc).

The Story Spine is template-based so you can work on your own or collaborate with another team member.

For video-powered content, you’ll want to work with your team to share ideas and review details when you flesh out the story that you lay out in the template.

The steps

First, here’s the template that you’ll need to fill in:

Once upon a time _______. Every day _______. But one day_____ because of that ______ because of that _____ because of that _____ until finally ______. And ever since then __________.  

PromptCopy-paste the Story Spine template and start telling captivating stories.

For example look at Nesha Woolery’s story.

Let’s break this template into eight steps that make up the Story Spine Play: 

1. Once upon a time

This is where you set the stage. Introduce the main character and their circumstances.

 Struggling to set your story in a time and place? Think about answering the first questions that a viewer/reader may have.

PromptAnswer the following questions to begin your story the right way:
  • Who is the story about?
  • Where does the hero live?
  • What does the hero do?
  • When is everything happening?

You don’t have to necessarily use the words “once upon a time.” And you don’t have to share every detail right away – just share enough to give your audience context and a sense of whose story it is.

For example in 2016, after eight flop job interviews, I sat in a corner in my room – almost losing hope but hanging on as best as I could.

2. Every day

This is where you talk about your hero’s daily routine, drawing people into their everyday life. It involves setting deeper context, familiarizing your audience with the protagonist’s personality.

TipMake your story relatable. Show something in your main character’s personality or routine that makes your audience see themselves in the hero’s story.

3. But one day

Now, think of something that upsets your hero’s daily life – something that stops them in their tracks – upsetting their normal day-to-day.

This is, essentially, a trigger event that will change things – for good or for bad depending on the story you want to tell.

PromptCreate a trigger event that your audience fears. For instance, something they dread can happen to them.

For example: Some trigger incidents that your audience can relate with:

  • A boss who fires you
  • A service business that ends up with no customers one day because you didn’t invest the time in marketing it

4. Because of that

Now, work out the next step. Ask yourself: what will the hero do as a reaction to the catalyst event you chalked out in the step before.

5. Because of that

Share the step that will follow the step above. Remember, no-one gets it right in one go – it always takes a minimum of 2-3 attempts to get things back on track. 

TipKeep it short. Write a story using this Play but condense it to bring out the basic story that takes only a few lines.

For example: Backlinko’s story.

It starts by sharing the struggle and old normal packed into one line. Then comes the action step or one ‘because of that’ step. Finally, the story shares the new normal.

6. Because of that

It’s not necessary you add another step here. But if you have one in mind, write it down.

TipMake sure all steps flow into one another smoothly. The flow is key to making your story a winner.

7. Until finally

In this step, share the climax – the result that happens as a result of the steps the hero takes above. 

8. And ever since then/And the moral of the story is

Tie everything together by sharing the new normal. This could be a happy ending or a sad one. If you have a moral or takeaway, you can share that too.

PromptFill in the Story Spine template without much thought. Sometimes the fun is in being spontaneous.
TipTo identify the best version of your story, fill in the template a couple of times featuring how taking different steps leads the hero to new places (possibly more interesting than what you cooked up in the previous version).

In a nutshell

The Story Spine Play gives your story a plot or a strong outline. It’s only when you have a strong structure that you can work out the details.

To recap:

  • The first two steps make up the story’s beginning
  • The next step presents a trigger – a catalyst that disturbs the main character’s routine
  • After that, the three steps highlight the changes that happen as a result of the incident
  • Finally, the second last step shares the climax, followed by the ending or how the new normal is
Masooma Memon

Masooma Memon is a freelance writer for B2B SaaS and ecommerce brands writing actionable content for clients like CoSchedule, Vimeo, and Databox. She's also an avid reader and shares content writing and marketing tips in her weekly newsletter, The Content Workshop.

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