Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

I’ve always looked up to Pixar for inspiration and storytelling influence. No matter what genre you write, either fiction or non, there’s always something you can take from them. A couples months back, I dissected one of their short films to see more or less how their writing was executed. I concluded that what they do is not mysterious at all. And that anyone can write like Pixar. There’s just some rules to follow.

 Now these are not rules made up by Pixar. They’ve always existed in storytelling. Since the days Aesop and Shakespeare, these elements were natural to apply. Because somehow it reflected life, us, and promoted the reason why we should care. It just so happens that someone noticed the patterns and tools that great storytellers used and finally put it on paper.

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about till you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was . Every day, _. One day . Because of that, . Because of that, . Until finally _.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

After Emma Coats, a former Storyboard Artist, shared these rules with us. It went crazy over the internet. What caught my attention was the art. Here’s some.

Pixar-Story-Telling-Rules-7.jpg
Pixar-Story-Telling-Rules-12.jpg

 

There’s a few more here on the Legos.

 

I printed this one and carry it around. Pretty neat. Frame it!

Of course, Pixar is a team of dedicated, well paid, experienced genius(es). Brad Bird, John Lassetter, Lee Unkrich, Andrew Stanton — ever heard of them? An indie artist can never compare themselves to a team of creatives collaborating (every day) with a mission to make another groundbreaking animation. But still, there’s something to take from here.

Which brings me to this. A challenge. For me at least. I would like pick a rule every other day (once a week maybe)and write about it until I get to the very last one. Post my thoughts with a GIF animation I can toy around with After Effects and Photoshop. Not bad. Maybe, towards the end I can piece it together and come up with something interesting. Most importantly, it’s a great exercise to subconsciously ingrain the rules in my brain.

Let’s get to writing.

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