Blog Post

Piper: A Complete Story in Six Minutes

Jul 5th, 2016

If you go to see Finding Dory over the summer, make sure you arrive early enough to see Piper (especially since the main attraction falls way short of the original). While the main event lacks a bit when it comes to developing an Influence Character and a strong Relationship Story Throughline, Piper manages to hit all four in under six minutes.

When I was teaching story at CalArts, my students would appreciate my lectures but would have trouble applying the concepts in them to short-form material. "This works great for writing features, but we're making two-three minute films. How does this even apply?" Well, I now have a perfect example.

Piper tells the story of a hungry sandpiper who overcomes her fear of the ocean. Before too long a hermit crab comes into her life and shows her a different approach to solving her problems. Armed with this new solution, the piper ends her hunger and the hunger of those in her flock—all while feeling great about her new-found confidence.

In less than six minutes, director Alan Barillaro manged to include:

A remarkable and commendable feat.

You can see the quad of episodic story elements at play within the narrative. Faced with the question above, I would tell students to grab a quad of four elements from the Dramatica Table of Story Elements and write a story using them as guideposts for the narrative. Like a Calvin and Hobbes comic, you have four moments—the Potential, the Resistance, the Conflict, and the Outcome.

With Piper you have the quad of elements found under the Issue of Strategy—which, if you think about it, works perfect for a story about coming up with a strategy for getting food.

The Potential for conflict begins with the piper's Inaction. She wants to wait on the shore and let mama bring her food.

The Resistance to that Potential happens when the mama bird forces the baby piper out into the open. The baby piper's Reaction to the crashing waves finds her panicking and running for her life, only to end up where she started—freezing and still hungry.

The Conflict comes as she ventures out in the open and meets a teeny-tiny little hermit crab. Observing these little guys and how they survive the onslaught, the piper learns to bury herself in the sand as a means of Protection. The waves rush over her, and with a gentle tap, the piper opens her eyes to see her world in a brand new light.

The Outcome finds the little piper rushing to and fro, bouncing between the adults as she turns up one food source after the other. Having Changed her resolve, the piper confidently and happily engages in Proaction to satisfy both her hunger and the hunger of others.

Six minutes. That is all it takes to communicate the barebones of a storyform with success. Makes you wonder why those who have 20 times that amount of time stumble about as if they have no idea what they're doing.

If you're struggling with the mechanism of your story—whether it be 120 minutes or 2—take a look at Pixar's Piper. The sophistication in both the message and the presentation is a sight to behold.