Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Pixar's Rules of Storytelling

If you’ve ever seen a Pixar movie, you know that the storytelling in them is damn near perfect. Their structures are classic. Their characters develop just as they should. The conflict follows all the right beats, all the ups and downs are in the right place, and the resolution comes from the characters.
Yes. We are awesome characters from awesome stories. You're jealous.

How do they do it? we writers ask. Well, now they’re telling! Now we can steal all their secrets and become master plotters ourselves!

Emma Coats, a Pixar Storyboard artist, tweeted her 22 rules of storytelling. Of course, you shouldn’t adhere strictly to rules while writing. I say the only true rule is that it has to work. But these are great guidelines to keep in mind. Even if you’re not a writer, understanding these basic tenants of storytelling will help you become a better reader. You’ll understand how things work a bit better. Follow the link to read the rest, but I’m going to talk about my favorite few here.

You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
This is the cornerstone of the likable hero. It’s not about how awesome or perfect or successful they are. You just root for them. The odds are stacked so highly against them that it’s nearly impossible to succeed, but still they try.
Wall-E tries really really hard to save the environment but it's just not really happening.

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.
Absolutely. The story you start will not be the story you finish. You’ll learn so much more about your characters that they’ll warp your theme. This is a GOOD thing.

Once upon a time there was ___.  Every day, ___.  One day ___.  Because of that, ___.  Because of that, ___.  Until finally ___.
This is pretty good advice for finding the point your story begins. What’s the different thing that happened one day? Did your Hogwarts letter come? Did your sister get picked in the Reaping? Did a hot vampire boy look at you funny in science class?
Once upon a time there was Woody. Every day, Andy loved him best. One day, Andy got a toy named Buzz Lightyear. Because of that, Woody was no longer the favorite. He got jealous. And story happened.

Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle.  Seriously.  Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
This is good advice half the time. Sometimes, it’s best to throw away your pre-conceived ending, because it doesn’t fit your story or your characters anymore. Sometimes, it’s great to have a goal in mind, so you can orient yourselves towards it.

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.
Reading great books is the key to writing great books. Knowing what grabs you as a reader is the only way to grab a reader in turn.

Give your characters opinions.  Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
We’ve all stopped reading books because the characters are flat. We fall in love with the characters that come alive, saying things that surprise the audience and probably the writer themselves. The characters I love to write are the ones who stomp around my story like willful children doing precisely what they please and barely listening to me.
I have opinions.

If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel?  Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
It’s the Stanislavski/Method Acting way of writing. True Confession: Sometimes I go as far as to act out my scenes from my main character’s perspective. Now, this is going a little far (and looks REALLY WEIRD when your roommate walks in on you doing it…) but it’s the right idea. If you get in your character’s skin and imagine yourself there, the reaction will be truer.

What are the stakes?  Give us reason to root for the character.  What happens if they don’t succeed?  Stack the odds against.
I like big consequences in books. Not just choosing between two love interests, with the consequences being one of the love interests gets their feelings hurt. The character needs to be forced into an impossible situation with an impossible choice. If they choose option A, this good thing will happen, and this really bad thing will happen. If they choose option B, this REALLY good thing will happen, but so will something awful. Conflict.

Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
THIS. You know you’ve read books where the ending comes from nowhere. Where it doesn’t come from the characters own actions, where God Himself drops from the sky and hands you a solution. Or even worse… the coincidence. It’s the worst sort of payoff in a story and must be avoided by all costs. Readers like endings that are setup. We like endings we don’t see coming, but once they do come, we see where they came from (confusing but right!).


  1. These are really good writing rules! I also really like number 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. It's helpful to find why you love your story and focus on that to get you through.

    1. I almost commented about that rule. I believe knowing that information is extraordinarily helpful to your writing!

  2. No wonder all the Pixar movies are so good! It starts with the writing! Doesn't matter if you're doing screenplays, novels, or short stories, these rules are good for all of them.

    1. Definitely! These are rules that help you write on any level. Even non-fiction. Understanding the inner workings of story-telling will help you read, too.

  3. I've always though the Pixar movies were examples of completely perfect storytelling. Structure is so important to screenplays. I think we novelists do well to emulate that. Thank you for the article.

    1. So true. Novels are not as dependent on structure on screenplays, but learning a classic structure is still important.


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