We wind up Season 3 with another episode of Story Grid 101. Each of the Roundtable Editors is tackling one of the Story Grid Five Commandments for a deep dive into the fundamental structure of scene, act, and global story, using the Pixar animated feature, Coco as our model. This 2017 family favorite was written by Lee Unkrich, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina.
This week, in a special wildcard episode, we’re revisiting Story Grid 101. We’ve decided to look at the 15 Core Scenes—these are the scenes that we outline on the Story Grid Global Foolscap—which are the 5 commandments for each of the three acts. We’ll be using the Pixar animated feature Coco as our model. This 2017 family favorite was written by Lee Unkrich, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina.
We define terms first. Then, instead of our usual beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff overview, we dive right into the structure of the movie. If you haven’t seen it, we’ll be spoiling the entire plot here. It’s a lovely family film, visually gorgeous, and surprisingly complex. It’s a great story to study, and as of this recording, it’s available on US and Canadian Netflix, so we think you should go watch it.
Kim – One other thing to keep in mind is that the origins of story structure and the five commandments are founded in human psychology and behavior. Humans are inherently unfond of change and typically avoid it for as long as possible. The Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle is one demonstration of this, and story structure follows the same pattern. Stories are about change, more specifically stories are about characters avoiding change until they can’t anymore and then facing it’s consequences, for better or worse.
For me, the inciting incident is best understood in context of the status quo, that is, the character’s ordinary world aka their original goal.
A character’s goal is their primary pursuit (their want or need) and includes their essential action + literal action. An essential action is the underlying thing they are seeking (related to the want/need/life value), and the literal action is the method/tactic they use to try to get it.
As they pursue this goal, things get in the way. This creates conflict, change, which is what story are all about. The inciting incident is the first obstacle to the character’s original goal. This does not mean that the inciting incident is automatically negative—inciting incidents can be positive or negative—it just means that it’s an upset to the characters status quo/original plan that requires a new plan.
There are three types of inciting incidents:
Coincidental – which are random events or acts of nature
Causal – which are created by a character, either the protagonist or someone else.
Ambiguous – there are events that their causal / coincidental nature cannot be be determined at the outset but only in retrospect. Fight Club is an example of this (when the narrator’s apartment blows up) as are many Dickens tales. They appear coincidental but prove to be causal later.
It may feel similar to a turning point (because it is!): a value shift occurs and the character has to decide how to move forward, by either continuing to pursue their original goal or opting to pursue a new goal. Either way, it’s not something that can be ignored—for better or worse, life will never be the same again. From here, the protagonist must decide their essential action / goal going forward, and their literal action they take in pursuit of it.
Once they’ve made their decision and action to in pursuit of their goal, they will inevitably encounter….Progressive Complications.
Progressive Complication Turning Point
Leslie – On a fundamental level, a story or scene works when there is a change in the character’s state or circumstances that comes as the result of conflict and action. If you have no conflict, there is nothing for a character to react to, and nothing significant will change. Without conflict, you don’t have a scene or story.
Progressive complications are escalating conflicts the protagonist or POV character must face as they pursue the goal arising from the inciting incident (as Kim just talked about). When they take action, life gets complicated because there is no direct and easy path. People, places, things, and events stand between them and what they want.
Progressive complications can be people, places, things, or events that are
- Obstacles standing in the way of the goal,
- Tools assisting pursuit of the goal,
- Irrelevancies or potential obstacles and tools found within the immediate setting and beyond that seem unrelated to the goal, or
- Unexpected events that arise from those irrelevancies and turn out to be important after all.
Brief examples from Coco
- Obstacle: In the beginning hook, after seeing the flyer for the talent show, a mariachi encourages Miguel to play his guitar. Abuelita, Miguel’s grandmother, finds him in the Plaza about to strum a guitar. He gives the guitar back to the mariachi, and Abuelita hits him with her shoe. (This is an obstacle to his getting to play in the talent show.)
- Tool: In the ofrenda room, Miguel discovers that his Ernesto de la Cruz look-alike guitar looks like the guitar in the picture with the head of his Mama Coco’s father torn out. From this and Coco’s reaction, he concludes that de la Cruz is his grandfather. (This is a tool because it is inspiration to stay the course.)
- Irrelevancies: Dante the dog travels with Miguel into the land of the dead. He’s a goofy dog who seems to be neutral at best, but when Miguel and Hector are trapped in a pit, it’s Dante who finds them. (Dante’s presence seems irrelevant at first, but in later scenes he’s shown to be a valuable tool and spirit guide.)
Complications are progressive because they should grow more serious or intense as the scene or story progresses. Shawn explains that “Progressive complications move stories forward, never backward.” Circumstances grow more complex in both positive and negative ways.
Let’s return to the unexpected events for a moment because these are the most important complications, the turning point progressive complications. Turning points arise from the setting and show the protagonist they can’t be successful using their current strategy.
At the story level, we call this the all is lost moment, when the character realizes they have to change their approach or accept failure. They must react, and this forces them into the dilemma that Valarie will talk more about.
They can happen as the result of character action, revelation, or both.
We track turning points and their types in the Story Grid spreadsheet to make sure they’re present and that we’re not repeating the same type, which is one reason why a reader might put a book down and not be able to tell you why it was unsatisfying.
If you’ve heard Shawn recommend using exposition as ammunition, what he means is to save important information the reader needs to know for a moment when it can be used as a revelatory turning point, through conflict.
It becomes much more meaningful when tied to a pivotal moment than when it is one fact among many delivered in a paragraph about a character or the world.
Turning points are important because they set up the life value change in the story or scene. But they also create an emotional experience for the reader. They feel surprise when the unexpected event happens and curiosity when they think about why it happened and what the character will do next. It’s a natural moment to review everything they know about the circumstances and reassess in light of the new information. They gain a deeper understanding of the character and what they face.
What is the global turning point progressive complication of the global story in Coco? The inciting incident sets up the goal for Miguel to pursue his individual expression, to be a musician and play for the world, like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz. But when he learns that his great-great grandfather, Hector, was murdered by Ernesto for wanting to return home to his family, it forces Miguel to rethink the relative merits of family unity and individual expression.
Valerie – The crisis is the question that arises as a result of the turning point Leslie just told us about. Something unexpected happens to knock the protagonist off course. That action (turning point) forces a reaction (climax). But, between those two points is a moment when the protagonist doesn’t know what to do. The hero is asking himself the question: What am I going to do now? The audience is thinking “uh-oh!” (or perhaps “holy shit!”). That’s the crisis.
The options available to the protagonist have to pose a true crisis. He has to face a dilemma. No-brainers are not crisis questions; if the choice is clear, it’s not a crisis. The crisis moments are the points in a story when the stakes are being raised, so there’s got to be something at stake for the protagonist.
In stories, as in life, people can’t have it all. So, no matter what the hero chooses, he’ll win something and he’ll lose something; he’ll get closer to his goal (object of desire) or further from it.
In the Story Grid methodology, we’ve broken the crisis down into two basic options which Shawn calls the Best Bad Choice (BBC) and the Irreconcilable Goods (IG).
With a Best Bad Choice, the hero is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. He’s choosing between the lesser of two evils. Neither of the options available to him is ideal, so he’s trying to choose the least worst.
With an Irreconcilable Goods crisis question, the hero has two good options available to him, but he can’t have both. Choosing one means losing the other and often, a win for the hero means a loss for another character about whom the hero cares.
Sometimes the crisis question is clearly a Best Bad Choice or Irreconcilable Goods. However, just as often, a crisis can be seen as either one or the other depending on your perspective. In those cases, it’s an interesting academic exercise to explore both vantage points, but if you’re getting confused about which it is, go back to the basics. Ask yourself whether the protagonist is facing a dilemma. Is it a true “uh-oh” moment?
Jarie – The climax is the active answer to the question raised by the crisis. It’s the choice the character makes between the best bad one or between irreconcilable goods. The climax must to active and happen on the stage or page or screen. The writer must deliver the goods. This is what the reader/viewer is waiting for.
Like the crisis, the climax has varying degrees from minor to medium to large to life changing. A good story will progress the climax in ways that keep the reader/viewer entertained. In general, the degree of the climax should be equal to or greater than the crisis.
The climax for the characters is when they walk the walk — not just talk the talk. The climax should be the catalysts that allows the scene to drive to a resolution. A well done climax will leave the reader/viewer set up for the resolution payoff.
Die Hard has a great climax when John has a showdown with Gruber. Asked to give up his machine gun, John does to save his wife but little does Gruber and Eddie know that John has a side arm taped to his back with two shots. He shoots them both but Gruber hangs on to Holly as he dangles outside the window — adding even more suspense. John removes Gruber’s hand and he falls to his death, thus resolving the scene.
One thing to note is that climax and resolutions can happen close to each other. In some cases, the next beat. That’s why you’ll often see them confused.
There are countless examples of great climaxes that pull a scene or act or beat together so that the reader/viewer gets what they are after — what’s going to happen after all the progressive complications and the crisis.
Anne – In The Story Grid, Chapter 47, Shawn says, “The fifth and final element of Story form is the least respected and is often forgotten.”
So of course I took it on for this episode, because I love a good underdog story. I know I like a good resolution scene. I know one when I feel it, but I realized that I really didn’t know what the resolution is for, what it’s made of, or how it works.
Shawn gives several notes about a resolution scene, and I’ll cite them all in the show notes, but I want to highlight two of them here.
- It’s obvious once it’s there, but you didn’t see it coming. It’s the place for the surprising but inevitable conclusion. This applies best to the global resolution in the Ending Payoff.
- The resolution moves from one pole of the value range to the other. In other words, the resolution of the act (or the scene, for that matter) is the place where the turn from positive to negative or vice versa is made plain. I’ll be bringing this point out for Coco as we go along.
- The resolution is not just a summing-up of what’s happened up to that point in the story, but
- it can be a way for the reader/viewer to wind down for a moment after a harrowing or hilarious climax.
- If your story has a strong internal genre, the global resolution scene–the end of the story–should resolve the protagonist’s internal journey. The external genre is more or less resolved at the global climax, reserving the final resolution for the internal story.
So, for instance, The Martian (the novel) basically ends on the global climax, where Mark Watney’s rescue is completed. There’s a very short ramp-down, but there’s no internal genre to close out. In the movie, they gave us a final resolution scene in a kind of back-on-earth coda, just to give us a chance to catch our breath after that life-and-death action adventure.
But in an internal genre story like the movie Flight, which is a morality tale, we get a solid resolution scene showing us how the selfish and reckless protagonist has reformed and how he is paying his dues to society by working for the good of other people.
So let’s see how Coco shapes up.
Kim – The Five Commandments exist at every unit of Story: Global, subplots, Act, sequence, Scene, and beat. Often a scene or beat can do double or even triple duty. Sometimes commandments between acts can overlap or even be left out (inferred rather than shown). We don’t have time to dig into all those details today but just know that there is still plenty of flexibility within the five commandment framework. Remember, framework not formula.
Global Genre: Worldview>Maturation
Leslie – The life value at stake is Naivete/Sophistication, a life value that impacts the self-actualization human needs tank (link to Valerie’s life value article). In a nutshell, that the fifteen Core Scenes should turn on these values (though they might turn on other values as well).
Kim – Let’s look at the Global Inciting Incident in terms of the status quo.
Status Quo: It’s Dia de los Muertos in Mexico which is a day all about remembering family. But Miguel lives in a family that due to a tragic legacy has sworn off music and now, instead, are shoemakers. But secretly Miguel loves it and wants to be a musician, but could never tell his family. He’s telling his story while giving a shoe shine to a mariachi in the plaza.
MB-II: The mariachi encourages Miguel to choose individual expression over family unity (to play in the plaza against his family’s wishes). Specifically mariachi reminds Miguel about Ernesto de la Cruz, how he “seized his moment” and “played out loud.”
Causal – Mariachi actively challenges Miguel to stand up for his music.
Positive or negative?
Essential action: get what is rightfully his AKA pursue his individual expression AKA music
Literal action: takes the poster about the talent show in the plaza
Leslie – Turning Point Progressive Complication: In the beginning hook, Miguel’s goal is to participate in the talent contest in the plaza. Various obstacles and tools arise, still Miguel remains determined. But when Abuelita smashes his guitar, there is no way for him to perform. This is an action turning point that forces him to reconsider his goal related to individual expression.
Valerie – Crisis (BBC): When Abuelita destroys Miguel’s guitar (turning point), Miguel hits his crisis moment. His family knows he wants to be a musician and has been practicing in secret yet they have all categorically denied him his great love in life. So now what’s he going to do?
Miguel can either do as his family wants (learn to make shoes) which means he abandons music. Or, he continues to pursue his music which means he’ll continue to anger his family, and family for the Riveras, is everything. This is a Best Bad Choice crisis question.
Notice how the crisis is a moment in time between an action (turning point: breaking the guitar) and a reaction (climactic choice to pursue music by running to the talent show).
Note that the Beginning Hook Turning Point and Crisis are in the same scene. This isn’t unusual in shorter films (Coco is 1h 30min) or in the case of prose, with short stories and novellas.
Jarie – Beginning Hook Climax: Miguel attempts to go to the talent show on Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead to seize his moment as a musician after fleeing his family. He goes to the graveyard to find inspiration and breaks into his “great-great-grandfather’s” crypt for his guitar. This is a direct result of Miguel’s crisis question of seizing his moment to be a musician.
In a sentence: Miguel chooses individual expression. “I don’t want to be part of this family!” and runs to Ernesto’s tomb to find guitar.
Anne – Beginning Hook Resolution: The resolution of the beginning hook is when Miguel breaks into the tomb of Ernesto de la Cruz, picks up the guitar, strums it. With this act, he is transported to the land of the dead. The beginning hook ends negatively on the Action story axis–he has literally gone from being alive to being partly dead. But the internal story ends positively. He immediately meets dead ancestors, who seem to know about him and care about him, and this gives Miguel a new level of awareness or sophistication: that the dead are real, and that honoring the them matters, something he hadn’t really believed before.
Kim – Inciting Incident
SQ: trapped in the Land of the Dead but can go home easily with a blessing from a member of his family.
MB-II: Mama Imelda will give her blessing, allowing Miguel to return to the living, but only if he agrees to give up music.
Negative in terms of naïveté/sophistication
EA & LA: Get what is rightfully mine, AKA blessing from another family member so he can keep music AKA his great great grandfather Ernesto de la Cruz
Leslie – Turning Point Progressive Complication: In the land of the dead, Miguel’s goal is to seek the blessing of Ernesto, the man he believes is his great-great grandfather, so he can travel back to the land of the living and pursue his music. His efforts allow him to meet Ernesto, but then Miguel learns that Ernesto murdered his real great-great grandfather, Hector, who was trying to return to his family. This is a revelatory turning point that causes him to rethink his beliefs about the importance of family versus individual expression.
Valerie – Crisis (All is Lost Moment) (BBC):
Pixar has done a fantastic job of raising the stakes in the middle build (surprise, surprise). There’s a ten minute sequence (starting at approximately the one-hour mark) where the stakes are constantly being raised and Miguel is starting to question whether music is more important than family; tension builds to the turning point at which point Miguel faces his crisis question.
The crisis question of the middle build is the lowest point of the global story. It’s called the All Is Lost Moment and it’s when the hero’s situation seems hopeless. Neither the protagonist nor the audience knows how he’ll get out of the mess he’s gotten himself into.
Given that this is a global maturation story, Miguel’s crisis comes when he realizes that Ernesto (whom he believes is his grandfather) is not the talented musician and honourable man he thought he was. Ernesto has put music ahead of family at all costs (in life and death).
Miguel realizes that everything he’d believed in (the myth/legend of Ernesto de la Cruz as the greatest musician) is a lie. Now what will he do?
Will he continue to put music ahead of his family (as Ernesto did), thereby losing the love of his family but gaining the love of “the people”? Or, will he put family ahead of music (as Mama Imelda did)? The crisis moment is set up beautifully in this 10-minute sequence, so that by the time it’s done, Miguel’s crisis question and climactic decision are clear. I’ll stop there and let Jarie take us through the climax.
Jarie – Climax: Miguel and Hector confront Ernesto de la Cruz about Ernesto stealing Hector’s songs. The flashback happens to the night Hector dies. Ernesto and Hector fight. Hector gets taken away along with Miguel.
In a sentence: Miguel declares, “I’m proud to be his family!” Grito!
Anne -Resolution: The middle build resolves with a positive for the external Action story. Miguel and Hector realize that “all is lost” in the pit, and there seems no way out–Hector will be forgotten and Miguel will die completely. But at the last moment first Dante, then the giant alebrije Pepita, appear overhead and rescue them. They swoop off on the back of Pepita and head directly for Ernesto’s Sunrise concert, where the ending payoff will play out. Dante is revealed as an alebrije during the flight. Miguel has realized that nothing is more important than family, and shows his new maturity by saying that he’s ready accept Mama Imelda’s blessing along with her condition of no music–but not without first retrieving Hector’s photo from Ernesto.
Kim – Inciting Incident
SQ: Learned the truth about Ernesto de la Cruz being a murderer and that Hector is his actual great-great-grandfather. At this point he could get Hector’s blessing and go home.
EPII: Hector is disappearing.
Causal: Coco is forgetting him.
Positive from a Worldview-Maturation naivete/sophistication standpoint, not from a life/death standpoint.
EA & LA: get someone on his team / close the deal. Convince Mama Imelda to help get Hector’s photo and to help Coco remember him.
Leslie – Turning Point Progressive Complication: Miguel’s goal in the ending payoff is to help Coco remember Hector so that he doesn’t disappear and can be reunited with his family in the land of the dead. Miguel has chosen to pursue family unity over individual expression. But Coco doesn’t remember her father from only the guitar Miguel has brought. This is a revelatory turning point that forces him to reconsider his tactic.
Valerie – Crisis (BBC – sorta): Miguel now knows that Hector is his grandfather and the two share a special bond; they’re the only ones in the family who embrace music. (Yes, Mama Imelda is a talented singer, but she’s forsaken music.) Because of this, Miguel faces his ending pay off crisis question.
Having returned to the land of the living, Miguel wants Mama Coco to remember her father so that Hector is can be saved. When showing her the photo doesn’t work, Miguel once again faces a crisis question that has music on one side and family on the other.
If he plays the guitar for Mama Coco, he’ll anger Abuelita and possibly the rest of the family but he just might help save Hector. If he doesn’t play music, the earthy family will be happy, but Hector will be lost.
I can’t say this is the strongest of crisis questions because it’s a bit lopsided. Clearly, Hector being forgotten is worse than Abuelita getting angry again. It’s not exactly a no-brainer, but the stakes aren’t very even.
How can Pixar justify this? Well it’s a kids’ movie and at this point, having discovered that people aren’t always what they seem (which is a huge lesson), the audience is ready to wrap things up. Here, the moral of the story is being driven home.
Jarie – Climax: Miguel needs to get back to the world of the living before sunrise so we can not let Coco forget her papa before she passes. Miguel plays Remember Me for Mama Coco. She remembers thus keeping Hector’s memory alive.
In a sentence: Picks up the guitar and plays “Remember Me” for Mama Coco
Anne – Resolution: The global resolution at the end of the movie is supposed to resolve the external genre before finally resolving the protagonist’s internal genre. Here they happen more or less simultaneously. Miguel’s internal Worldview arc is finally resolved when he begins to play the guitar, just as he did at the end of the beginning hook. He’s breaking the family prohibition, but now it’s in service of a much higher objective. He knows what he’s doing. Mama Coco’s memory stirs. She begins singing along with him, remembering her papa, Hector, and she retrieves the torn-off photo of him from a drawer, so that it can be restored to the ofrenda. Revelation dawns on the whole family. “Remember Me,” Mama Coco and Miguel sing together, and there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
The Action plot is resolved the moment Hector’s photo goes back on the family ofrenda. Hector “lives” so to speak, in the land of the dead. Yay! Life prevails when heroes use their gifts to outwit or vanquish the villain. That story is all over but the epilogue-ing.
Everything that follows is what Larry Brooks terms “resolution moments,” where every setup is paid off. Hector’s reputation is restored, Ernesto’s story is rewritten and he is reviled and forgotten. Miguel has a new baby sibling, and the family all make music together. The roller coaster glides into the station on this satisfying epilogue, and we catch our breath before leaving the ride behind.
Anne – I wanted to bring up a notion that Kim and I spent some time discussing yesterday. The term “act,” which is what we’re talking about when we talk about beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff as a three-act structure, comes from theatre, where there was traditionally a clear break. The curtain comes down, the audience waits, the crew scurries around behind the curtain changing the set, and the actors change costumes. The act break is a practical necessity in theater.
But it’s less clear cut in novels and movies. We don’t need a big break with a curtain to re-dress the set or change costumes. So here in Coco, I would have sworn that the first act–the beginning hook–ended when Miguel finds himself in the land of the dead. There has been a location change–a set change, if you will. In Hero’s Journey terms, he has entered the Magical World, and that’s where most authorities draw the line between Act 1 and Act 2.
For a while, Kim talked me into viewing the act change from the perspective of the global genre, which is probably Maturation or Revelation. In this view, the Beginning Hook resolution is when Miguel, in an act of naivete masquerading as sophistication (the negation of the negation for a Worldview story), defies his family, and ends up alone in the land of the dead. Even though he literally crossed a bridge into the land of the dead some time earlier, he doesn’t really start experiencing the extraordinary world until he sets off into it alone.
We concluded in the end, though, that the Hero’s Journey move from ordinary world into the extraordinary world was a more solid act break.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Matt in Toronto, who asks, whether you can combine an act climax and resolution, or crisis and climax, in a single scene.
Valerie – The short answer to your question, Matt, is yes! It’s entirely possible to have more than one act-level commandment in the same scene. As we saw, it happens in the BH of Coco. It also happens in the MB of Gran Torino. And for short fiction, like short stories or novellas, it is more common. That said, the thing you want to remember is why: why are you combining commandments in one scene? Does it add impact or take it away?
If you have a question about the Five Commandments, the fifteen core scenes, or any other story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, by clicking here and leaving us a voice message.
Watch for a teaser in the next few weeks when we’ll reveal the first movie we’re each going to pitch, and how we hope analyzing it will help us with our own writing projects.