[Story Sells] An Easy Way to Tell A Story (Pixar Approved)

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On the first day of my improv class, my instructor Mike Christiansen asked us what we wanted out of the class.

One student offered what seemed like a no-brainer: “To be funnier.”

To which Michael replied:

“I can’t teach you that.”

But nobody demanded a refund.

Because then Michael added: “But … I can teach you how to tell a story. And that’s where funny comes from.”

We practiced many different kinds of storytelling in Improv 102.

For example, telling stories in a circle, with each person contributing one word at a time. (Which felt pretty weird.)

But my favorite story device was the 7-sentence story.

The 7-sentence story has made the rounds in Hollywood after a Pixar story instructor, Brian McDonald, spread the idea in a book.

(As it happens, Brian picked up the exercise from an Improv instructor in Seattle.)

Here’s how the 7-sentence story works:

You simply complete each of the following sentences:

“Once upon a time …”

“And every day …”

“Then one day …”

“Because of this …”

“Because of this …”

“Until Finally … “

“And ever since that day …”

And presto! Instant story.

The 7-sentence story makes it easy to tell a COMPLETE story with a full “arc.”

You get the stet-up — what “normal life” was like at the beginning.

You get a disrupting event, or the “tilt.”

You get the consequences of that event …

… and finally you see how life is changed.

And that is life in a nutshell – Change.

And that’s what most products promise, too … why else do we want a new product, a new service, unless we’re hungry for some kind of change?

Let’s see the 7-sentence structure in action.

In his penetrating post on Subway’s marketing troubles and customer sophistication, fellow Chief Jody Raynsford called out Chipotle’s viral smash story about natural vs factory foods.

The vid about the sad scarecrow, stuck making food in a factory.

That story is about change, and it follows the 7-sentence formula to a T:

Once upon a time, there was a factory worker named Scarecrow.

And every day, he trudged to his job where he churned out mass produced franken-food.

Then one day, he picked a ripe red pepper from his garden.

Because of this, he started hunting down more fresh food from his garden.

Because of this, he made himself a delicious meal and felt renewed.

Until finally, he brought his locally-sourced food to town and fed his fellow man, starved for something fresh.

And ever since that day, the world has been changing into a more healthy, hopeful place.

Interestingly, nearly half of the video is focused on the “Every day” part — the “life before” or the setup.

They’re really twisting the knife into the pain point — I love the part where the chicken is pumped full of unholy drugs in the dim, back corners of the factory.

This is a valid choice, especially when you’ve got a big, juicy enemy to attack — like the McFastfoods of the world.

Other times, you’ll spend more time on the consequences of the “tilt’ and get thrust along the journey.

But a story will only feel complete or whole with all those parts — especially a story about change.


Stumped for telling your story? Use the 7-sentence stems above to structure your tale.

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Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry is a direct response copywriter who specializes in telling stories. You can contact Scott and learn more about using the power of stories in marketing at marketingwithstory.com.
Showing 8 comments
  • Reply

    Good stuff Scott.

    Great story formula.

    I learned a ton about copy and life from my improv and Harold experience.

    And from Pixar.



    • Reply

      Thanks, David!

      One thing I loved about improv — no time for second-thoughts. “Living in the moment” is a practical necessity.

  • Reply

    good structure outline…

    • Reply

      Thanks, Don — it’s handy to have a “cheat sheet” at your fingertips. Helps to put your computer’s “blinking cursor – thousand yard stare” in its place.

  • Alan Steacy

    Hey Scott,

    Just writing out the 7 steps immediately conquers the “blank page blues”, engages the fingers, and crank starts the cranium into gear.

    Super helpful post. And as with all improv the answer is “YES!”

  • Reply

    Great formula.

    I like too that you tell a more-or-less 7 story sentence to open the post. It also has elements of the David Mamet tip that all drama hinges around three questions: “What does the protagonist want? What happens if the protagonist doesn’t get it? What happens if the protagonist doesn’t get it now?”


  • Reply

    I love the Pixar story structure. Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen wrote an excellent post on the two key words of storytelling: “But”, and “Therefore”. http://www.presentationzen.com/presentationzen/2015/05/the-key-to-story-structure-in-two-words-therefore-but.html

    I realised that the two really fit well:
    – Pixar’s “one day” is the but
    – The many “because of this” after that are the “therefore”

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