Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling

The other day I came across the 22 rules of storytelling, shared by Emma Coats, a storyboard artist at Pixar Studios, on her twitter account. I found them to be truly inspirational and yet at the same time quite simple, and when you think about them and consider Pixar’s great films, you realise that these rules are all you need to create a wonderful, gripping tale. My commentary is in plain text. :)

1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes. Does this remind you of Mr. Fredricksen from Up? We didn’t know if he would succeed in getting his house to Paradise Falls, but yet we all cheered him on and admired him for the way he tried to get there.

I would love to have a house (or a grandfather) like this!

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. For example, I would’ve never thought of writing something about a rat preparing meals in a famous restaurant in Paris, but I loved Ratatouille. It’s one of my favourite Pixar movies.

I’m still not sure I would eat something prepared by a rat though.

3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite. This is one thing NaNoWriMo teaches you. Don’t worry about such details while you’re writing. You’ll have time to fix everything later. For the time being, just write and have fun. =]

4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___. Try this. Try applying it to one of your stories and see if it doesn’t fit the mold.

5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free. I talked about this in my Chopping Board post. Don’t be afraid to cut out things you don’t think you need! And if you feel like you need it, seek the help of a beta-reader.

6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?  Think Wall-E and Eve perhaps. He’s a rusty robot and she’s a sleek new model; they’re polar opposites, and yet the chemistry is great between them, and they face their challenges quite well.

Ah robot love.

7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front. I personally need to work on that. I always start writing a story with no idea about how it’s going to end, and I only start worrying about it when I reach the point where I can’t continue without an ending. This would explain why The Muse Bunny has taken more than four years to complete.

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.Sadly we do not live in an ideal world, so in this world you have to let your story sit aside for a bit before you come back to it and fix it up. You never know; it might surprise you!

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. This is a useful trick. If anything, at least it will help narrow down your options and give you a better idea of what you don’t want to happen in your story.

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. While this is not for me, I know many of you use elements of your lives in your stories. Sometimes you may include them unconsciously, so recognizing these elements might help you get a better grip on your story.

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. This is a reminder to jot down every single idea you have! You can’t trust your memory to remember a tiny idea because there are always hundreds of thoughts milling about. I’ve lost several ideas because I was foolish enough to think I’d remember them.

12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself. This seems like something that would work quite well in mystery novels! Go for the least likely person to commit the murder…. or whatever it is that they do.

13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience. Have you watched Brave? No? Well, me neither… yet. But I’ve seen enough to know that Princess Merida is one strongly opinionated character, and you know what? People love her for that.

She’s as fiery as they get!

14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off ? That’s the heart of it. If you manage to answer this question, you’ll be able to motivate yourself to continue till the end.

15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations. This is very important. Whenever you’re writing, try to imagine what would happen if this was a real situation. Would the character really say or do a particular thing in a particular scene?

16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against. Think of poor little Nemo stuck in an aquarium in a dentist’s office. He wouldn’t ended up in Darla’s hands if he hadn’t succeeded in escaping!

This little fish had me on the edge of my seat!

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. Basically… don’t stress. If it’s meant to work, it’ll work. You’d best try to be productive doing something else than try to fix something that obviously doesn’t want to budge.

18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining. We get better with every book. You know at one point you’ll have to stop editing and hit that publish button. Even if mistakes show up later, you know you could just improve in the future.

19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating. I think you know what Emma’s talking about here. Those little “Suddenly” and “Out of nowhere” moments that sounds way too unbelievable. I’m sure you’ve included one of these, thinking the reader won’t notice! God know I’ve done it too, haha.

20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like? This is rather like fanfiction. When I didn’t like the way a story or a movie went, I would try to make up an alternate ending for it in my head, or else write a short story about it.

21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?  This would be giving depth to your characters. Don’t skimp on side or minor characters either. They’re still there, and the less of cardboard cutouts you make them, the more your story becomes interesting.

Secondary characters or not, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head remain quite lovable.

22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there. This would be your hook. For example, Monsters Inc. hook according to IMDb is as such, “Monsters generate their city’s power by scaring children, but they are terribly afraid themselves of being contaminated by children, so when one enters Monstropolis, top scarer Sulley finds his world disrupted.” Now doesn’t that sound like something you would want to read/see?

This scene always turns me into a tearful mess.

* * *

Also, here’s a question for you – which of Pixar’s “stories” did you like the most? Personally, I would have to say Finding Nemo, WALL-E and Ratatouille. All three of them are original and beautifully told stories that I’ve never come across anywhere before.

31 thoughts on “Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling

  1. I have to admit I have no idea what #4 is trying to say. Is that how it should be done? Is that what people should shy away from? What?

    If it’s something that shouldn’t be done, then I don’t like it. If you make something vague enough, you can find a way to lump anything in with it. If it’s something that should be done, well, it’s a nice basis for starting a story, anyway.

    My favorite Pixar… it’s so hard. There are so many good ones. One of the reasons I really love Pixar is because they almost always have something really original and creative. They just can’t be beat.

    • Well it’s basically saying that every story fits that mold, that’s all. xD Just that you can sum up a story using that format.

      And I know right? With the exception of Car 2, they’ve produced a number of amazing movies!

    • Hi Zen, I actually like #4 Might borrow it for a future blog post. #7 I learned when writing my very first book. I was writing chapter 3 and didn’t have a clue as to how to even write a book, so I googled how to write a book and one blog post said yada, yada, yada :-) but then said, “Now you need a happily ever after. How does your book end?” And I stopped writing completely and stressed for 2 days, “Yikes! How does my story end?” And woke up on the third morning and there it was. So I wrote it out and then wrote the remaining 14 chapters in the middle :-) Now I usually have an idea of the ending before I even begin. I also do this with my series, in fact the first book I wrote is the last book in my Chris’ Journey series. As for which movie is my favorite…I can’t decide! They are all great.

      • Feel free to do that! And I should probably do something like that. I always write books with no idea about the ending and I feel stuck towards the end. I guess this comes from being a pantser! And I agree that they’re all great movies. =D

  2. I feel like Pixar really thinks about character development more than any other children’s animated films. Every single one of them has heart. I cried when Mr. Fredricksen’s wife died. I have a hard time picking one that I like best. It depends on my mood at the time.

    • That is true! Dreamworks does a good job too, but for some reason Pixar always seems to be one step ahead. Ellie’s death made me cry too; they really managed to tell a beautiful love story there.

  3. Sooo many its hard to choose… But I love Monsters Inc, Brave (saw it last night), Tangled & Despicable Me.
    Great post btw :-)

    • Tangled is one of my absolute favourite movies! Though it’s not actually produced by Pixar, and neither is Despicable Me. They do seem like they could’ve been produced by Pixar, though, don’t they?

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