Between Up, The Incredibles, and Toy Story, you may be tricked into thinking that Pixar’s creativity has no bounds, but the truth is precisely the opposite. They all follow simple story-telling beats that you too can bring in to your next project.
Stage 1: The Backstory
Good backstory doesn’t just fill in the world; it affects how the characters will act. On top of that, backstory sometimes leaves wounds that will need to be overcome by the protagonists. Sounds familiar? It should. Pixar is a master of the backstory wound, which is often set up in gut-punching sequences.
Up, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles all open with engaging and touching backstories that will haunt the protagonists throughout the movie. It’s the silent montage of Carl’s wedding in Up, the attack on Marlin’s eggs in Finding Nemo, and the episode which leads to heroes being banned in The Incredibles.
The backstory isn’t always shown, however. Woody’s main motivation in Toy Story comes from his backstory as Andy’s Favorite, a status that is now being threatened by Buzz. However, we never get a flashback for Woody. Instead, his favored status is simply shown when the movie starts.
Stage 2: The Set-up
This is the beginning of the movie proper. We see the present and — more often than not — the results of the trauma in the backstory. This is the moment to establish the story’s status quo, which will soon be shaken.
Here we see Marlin as an overprotective single father. We get introduced to the life of being a toy: first as they are part of Andy’s play, and then when come together to spy on his birthday party. In The Incredibles, we see the heroes in their prime, and how the world was in what will soon be known as the good old days. Which means that here the set-up and backstory are one and the same.
This stage usually lasts for the first ten or fifteen minutes or the movie.
Stage 3: The Catalyst Brings Disorder
During the set-up, life was in order. Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but whatever problems existed had been there for a long time; they were part of the routine. In Stage 3, however, something happens to throw our protagonist’s life into chaos, opening the doors to the unknown. That something is known as the catalyst or the inciting incident.
This is when Buzz arrives in Toy Story and when Ellie dies in Up. In The Incredibles, this is when the heroes get banned.
After the catalyst, comes disorder. Woody is no longer the center of Andy’s attention. Carl is full of regrets for his wife’s unreached dreams. Bob and his family got relegated to an unfulfilling life, hiding what makes them incredible, which puts a strain on each of them and on the family as a whole.
Stage 4: The Big Event
Conflict rises as the profound consequences of the catalyst are made clear to the audience and the protagonist. That eventually leads to a big event happening at the end of act 1, at about the thirty-minute mark of the movie. Here the characters confront what’s wrong in their lives and finally do something about it, coming up with a plan and taking action to make things better. But they don’t just want to make it “better” in a vague sense; they have a clear, visible goal.
Here Mr. Incredible accepts the job he hopes will eventually bring back to heroes, but also a job that also fixes a lot of his immediate problems, greatly improving his life and that of his family.
In Up, this is where Carl lands in Paradise Falls. Here his goal for the rest of the movie is established: he wants to land his house right by the falls side, so he can complete his wife’s dream.
In both cases, the big event sets the direction for the rest of the movie. Things seem to go well for a while, but that won’t last.
Stage 5: The Pinch
At about the midpoint of the movie we reach a big crisis, the midpoint crisis, or midpoint pinch. It’s the point of no return, where the stakes get higher and twists usually happen.
Here Mr. Incredible finds out about Syndrome’s plan and gets captured by him. In Toy Story, Woody and Buzz are won as prizes by Sid, the toy torturer. In Up, this is where Carl refuses to tell Kevin’s location to Charles Muntz. Carl has then run for his life from Muntz’s angry dogs.
Like the catalyst, the pinch will set the tone for the following section of the story. Act 2 eventually ends in a big crisis and the dark moment of the soul, where the heroes are ready to give up. But once they decide to keep going, we reach…
Stage 6: The Final Challenge
Stage 6 is the climax, it’s when the story comes together and the hero makes their final push towards victory, leading to the end of their character arc and the resolution of the movie’s conflicts.
In The Incredibles, this is the stage where they fight against and defeat Syndrome’s robot, all while working together as a family. In Up, Carl goes back for Russell and Kevin, putting his life on the line for the two and eventually letting go of the house to defeat Charles Muntz.
Though this is the story’s conclusion, it often isn’t where the movie ends. Pixar has a habit of gracing us with an epilogue, which showcases how the characters and their world have changed thanks to the movie’s journey. In Up’s case, for example, we see Carl moving on to his next adventure: becoming a father figure for Russell.
The six stages aren’t a formula for success; but done right, they can certainly enrich a story. After all, if it works for Pixar, maybe it’ll work for you. Why don’t try them out on your next first draft? See for yourself.