Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling
Pixar rocks, duh, and is probably (guessing here…) one of the most recognizable film studios in the world. Let’s skim over some facts, since I spent the time doing the research 😉
Pixar’s films have been awarded 485 awards, including 18 Academy Awards, 10 Golden Globes, and 11 Grammys. 14 Pixar films are among the top 50 highest grossing films ever, and it has produced 24 feature films and counting.
People, that’s some serious story telling power!
Aside from the awesomeness that are their movies, we’re also lucky because a former Pixarian, Emma Coates, has given us what she has distilled as “Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling.”
So let’s look at them!!
#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
This is a good one. Because how many times have you failed? Seriously, take a good long moment to think about the failures. Guess what? We’ve all failed. I’ve crashed and burned spectacularly, many times.
But now take a moment to think of all the ways you’ve tried.
This next statement is coming with a… strong note? A caveat? I love the Twilight series because Meyer does beautiful things with emotion and the senses… but… Bella. She does nothing. She mopes around, almost gets hit by a car, and asks questions. I think she’s an okay literary character, but she just doesn’t do much. That’s one of the big critiques of her character.
There are other characters who don’t “do” much. Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter. Despite my love for Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet doesn’t do much.
But, think of the stories with MCs who put forth some effort. Hunger Games. Katniss DOES things. She tries and fails and tries again. Dory, she tries and fails, and tries again. She takes a moment to be all mopey, then rallies her spirits and tries. See!
Let’s drop a quote, from good old Einstein: “You never fail until you stop trying.”
It’s truth for you. It’s truth for your characters.
#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 very different.
I’ll debate this one, at least partially. I believe that as a writer you should write about what interests you, and you should have fun writing. You should never write a book, or short story, or novella, or anything with the sole purpose of selling books. That’s a recipe for failure.
That being said, you also need to consider market appeal.
Is most (or even some) of the public going to want to read about a gardener who sits and watches his veggies grow. All. Day. Long…
Is the public going to want to read about a serial killer who butchers babies and puppies?
Those might be the most interesting things for you to write, but they probably don’t have mass market appeal. But you can always adapt an idea for more mass market appeal. Maybe the gardener sneaks into his neighbor’s yards to save their dying plants. Maybe the serial killer butchers baby dolls and has yet to work up his courage.
I have many stories that will never see the light of day because they aren’t what the mass market wants to read. But they’re what I wanted to write at the time, and that’s okay. Not every story written needs to be published.
But if you’re planning on publishing and hoping to make any money (indie or traditional), you’ve got to consider what the public likes to read. It’s a must. So try to find the intersection of what you want to write AND what the readers want to read.
#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 one hits close to my heart. Theme is one of those concepts that’s hard to pin down. I still have moments when I’m like, “What in the hell is theme?” Sure, you’ve got all these definitions and entire books dedicated to theme. But to me it’s one of those abstract concepts that everyone has their own opinion on.
Once you’ve gotten a first draft done, it’s much easier to see the theme that’s naturally occurred. Sure, you can start with a theme in mind, like man vs. nature, or society’s tendency to shove outliers out or burn heretics. But until you get the entire story out, you can’t really tell what theme shines through.
Sometimes it’s easier to let the theme determine itself through character, setting, and situations. After that first draft, you can look and say, “Oh shit! This story is about man’s natural inclination toward goodness”. Without having a first draft, there may be no way to determine theme perfectly.
Once your first draft is finished and you see the clear theme, THEN you can rewrite to highlight the theme through character, setting, and situations (or go back and change things if it isn’t the theme you want). See how that works? Now, you have a well-polished book (after like 3 or 4 drafts), that has a good theme.
Boom. You rock!
#4 Once upon a time there was _____. Every day, ____. One day _____. Because of that, ______. Because of that, ______. Until finally _____.
I’m gonna be a little brutal. If you don’t recognize the basic story structure in this rule, you need to go read more how-to books. Is that mean? #sorrynotsorry
This is THE classic Hero’s Journey, and you should burn it into your brain because it works consistently.
“Story is character. Story is conflict. Story is narrative tension. Story is thematic resonance. Story is plot.” (A great quote from Larry Brooks, Story Engineering). This rule encompasses most of those.
Once upon a time – a classic beginning, and all stories need to start somewhere. Every day – this sets up the Normal World. One day – introduces the New World. Because of that – introduces the Conflict. Because of that – is the Climax. Until finally – the Conclusion.
Character -> Normal World -> New World -> Conflict -> Climax -> Conclusion
Every good story can fit into that rule. Let’s test it.
Once upon a time, there was an orphan boy named Harry Potter. Every day, his aunt and uncle and cousin tormented and abused him. One day, he discovered he was a wizard and an evil wizard killed his parents. Because of that, he went to a prestigious wizard school and came face to face with the evil wizard. Because of that, the evil wizard tried to kill Harry and take over the world. Until finally, there was a huge fight, and people died, and Harry killed the evil wizard.
Granted that’s a loose summary, but it works, doesn’t it? Don’t believe me? I’ll come up with a story idea on this very spot.
Once upon a time there was a boy who walked in the surf, digging in the sand to find clams. Every day, he’d try to find enough clams to fill his bucket, or he’d face the wrath of the Governor. One day in the surf, he didn’t find clams. He found a dagger that spoke to him when he held it. Because of that, The Governor tried to have the boy killed. Because of that, the boy escaped his seaside village and found a weapon smith who taught him to fight and speak to other weapons so he could overthrow the Governor. Until finally the boy returned to his seaside village to face the Governor and successfully freed his people.
See! That might not be the most compelling story ever, but I bet it would be interesting. Maybe I’ll save this for a prompt, and perhaps one day you’ll see this story on bookshelves everywhere 😉
#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
Oh, the truth. I can’t even describe the amount of truth here. I’ve got several stories loaded with scenes and sections I didn’t want to cut. The stories get so bogged down with the little things I thought were “soooo cool!” But in fact, many are unnecessary.
My trick is simple. Write a section or scene without whatever. Whatever character, scene, situation, dialogue. Then you can see just how that omission helps (or hurts) the story.
The best example I can use is Wheel of Time. Fantastic books, but they could have easily been 50% shorter without losing any of the story just by trimming back on Jordan’s excessive descriptive style.
It’s hard, but challenge yourself, it will make worlds of difference.
#6 What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
This is one of those statements that is much easier to say than to do. Basically, to implement this one, you must know your character inside and out. Your character’s motivations, planned character arcs, normal human reactions, ya know, the works. It’s hard. I’d really recommend Orson Scott Card’s book Character and Viewpoint and K. M Weiland Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot and Character Development. I’ll speak more on these titles later. But for now, just know they rock.
When I was dating my husband, a long, long, long time ago, my mother told me he needed to see my “every season.” Meaning he had to see me at my best, and worst, no makeup, hair messy, PMS, homicidal moods. He did, and he still wanted to marry me. That’s super relevant to your character!
To make a good story, you need good characters. To have good characters, you need to KNOW them. What are they afraid of? How do they react to that fear? What makes them happy? How do they react when they’re happy?
A good place to start, aside from the above books, is by building out a detailed Character Map. Until you know your character deeply, you won’t be able to write them effectively.
Once you know your character so intimately you could marry them, then it’s time to make their lives a living hell. 😈
Story is conflict, and part of that conflict comes from making your characters miserable and seeing how they deal. Seriously.
Hunger Games. Katniss is good with a bow. Does she get one immediately in the games? Nope. Conflict. She’s not a people person. She’s partnered with a boy. Conflict.
Harry Potter. He’s used to being alone. Suddenly, he’s famous. Conflict. I could go on, and on, and on. But I think you get the idea.
Know your character. Bombard your character with everything that makes them squirm. Yank things away. Kill besties. Challenge them, and your story will suddenly be so much better.
Another relevant and wonderful quote: “When in doubt, make trouble for your character. Don’t let her stand on the edge of the pool, dipping her toe. Come up behind her and give her a good hard shove. That’s my advice for you now. Make trouble for your character… Protagonists need to screw up, act impulsively, have enemies get into trouble.” – Janet Fitch.
#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
There are a lot of writers who admitted to writing, or at least knowing the ending first. Robert Jordan wrote the ending to Wheel of Time first. I’ve heard rumors that JK Rowling planned the ending of Harry Potter first. Same thing with Stephenie Meyer and the ending to her Twilight series.
When you know where your characters and story will end up, you can plan backwards. If you know Frodo will destroy the Ring, then you can focus on those character complications and conflict, and progressive complications. You can plan all those deviations to his journey.
Here’s a famous scene from Alice in Wonderland:
Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
The Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
Alice: “I don’t much care where.”
The Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.”
Until you know where the story is going, you can’t effectively write how to get there.
What do you have to lose? Plan your ending first and see what happens.
A quote from someone you’d recognize: Joyce Carol, “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.” (Yes, pantsers will fight me on this one. They’re wrong 😂)
#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.
Another one I completely understand because I started out as an artist. Way back in the day, my mom enrolled me in oil painting lessons. I learned from a most talented artist who lived down the block. Every Saturday morning I’d run down in my PJs, and paint. #truth. It was then I learned the essential habit of being able to let go. You can work on a painting, or a manuscript endlessly. Months. Years. Decades. Eons. Forever.
Just ask Pat Rothfuss or George R.R. Martin 🤣
There isn’t something I can say to define when it’s done. I can’t say “When you reach this point… It’s done.” It’s not that simple.
You need to come to terms with that yourself. Endless massaging and word changes could ultimately end up ruining the perfection. Reach the end of your story, edit mercilessly, submit or indie publish.
If you’re a true author you’ll be endlessly learning and improving. You’ll have a thirst to improve. You can’t do that if you’re stuck on a manuscript. Move on. Take what you’ve learned and apply that to a new manuscript.
Every single manuscript I’ve written, new or re-write, has been better than the one before. Because I’m always learning.
Finish. Move on. It might be hard, but (I’m being mean here…) don’t be a coward. The world deserves your best work.
#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.
Now, here’s blunt me. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I don’t. A writer’s job is to write. Now, that’s not saying I don’t believe in being creatively drained. I TOTALLY think that’s a thing. But I don’t think traditional “stuck and unable to write” writer’s block exists.
So let’s assume you’re stuck somewhere; this is a great exercise you can either do it on the character or conflict level. You can list things that would make the character uncomfortable, or sad, or embarrassed. Character drives conflict. Conflict drives story. Another way someone can do it is at the conflict level, via events that would drive the story forward. That might be a little harder if you’re already struggling with what happens next. But that’s where a good outline comes from. See the circle people?
Most times, making your protagonist uncomfortable is what drives the story forward. That provides the events to get you unstuck.
Quote from someone vastly more famous than I am:
“As writers we’re lucky. If we’re not productive, we can blame it on ‘writer’s block,’ an ailment that doesn’t seem to exist for other professions. For instance, shoe salesmen do not get ‘shoe salesmen block.” – Neil Gaiman
#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like about them is part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
Oh, the beauty of this. One of my most favorite practices is “analyzing” books. Namely, my favorites and whatever is best-selling in my genre. I find it so helpful in so many areas, like sentence structure, organization, character, scenes, and a host of others.
The key to becoming a great author is not just writing, but READING. Read, read, read. I know that’s what everyone says, but it’s true. You learn by experiencing and feeling and exploring.
Storytellers need to learn how to tell stories. Some storytellers have an instinctive ability to tell stories well, but even those “naturals” need to read for ideas and raw material to sculpt with.
Whenever I find a story I like, I sometimes read it three or four times. My favorite books I’ve devoured repeatedly. And I know exactly why I like them. Because I’ve pulled them apart.
The best actors always draw from some part of themselves that they have in common with the character they will be playing, fueling the false with something real to imbue it with substance. To use a fun analogy, just as a Voodoo doll requires a bit of the target’s physical material to empower it, so too does a good character require some part of you to enliven 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.
I’m such a big advocate of just writing. Even if you never, ever publish, just write. As of 2021, I’ve got about 2 million words written. I’d say 90% of those won’t ever be published, and were for practice and learning.
Just write. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to spell library (I didn’t for the longest time… seriously), or if you don’t know the proper use of a ; (I’m still a little hazy on that one…), or if your story is just a rip off Rapunzel with a male lead. It doesn’t matter. Just write.
Because every word you write, every sentence you create, every flawed character or unconvincing villain you write will make you better. You’ll improve with every word.
Then after you practice, you can identify the issues with your story, or craft, or ideas, then POOF, you can fix them. But you’ve got to take the biggest step. JUST WRITE.
Another quote that will make you grin:
“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart” – William Wordsworth
#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th– get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
Man, these Pixar guys really know their stuff. This is beyond true. I can’t tell you how true it is. The number of times I’ve come up with the most brilliant idea, for anything, story, scene, character, anything…then noodled on it, and decided it wasn’t so brilliant. Then repeated.
Finally, after I’ve exhausted all the routine and normal, I’ve come up with an actual brilliant idea. Never settle. Always be thinking of different angles and ways. You’ll be rewarded for the extra work.
Showers and baths are my favorite places to noodle and come up with stellar advancements. But, the trick is without music, because music occupies the brain and you can’t think. My go-to brain-turn-off-sounds, thunder. Yep, get one of those white noise apps, and put on some rain and thunderstorms. So soothing and lets your brain wander.
#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
It’s my opinion that this might be one of the main foundations of character. So many times, authors neglect character for story, or events. But the entire reason to craft a story is to allow readers to inject themselves into character, to go along for a ride in someone else and experience life and events and adventures they never would otherwise.
If you’ve got a character that’s so unlike the reader, because they’re soft balls of undefined fluff, you won’t sell a copy to anyone but your mom. #truth
You need to write characters that someone wants to take for a ride!
Flaws create character. Motivations and drivers create character. If you don’t give your character compelling and strong opinions, then you’ll be missing out on creating memorable characters.
I’d really recommend reading Orson Scott Card’s book Characters and Viewpoints (regardless of how you may feel about him personally, his writing skills are legendary and worth learning from). It’s an invaluable resource about character and learning how to craft one hell of a character. Shit, how many times can I say character? Lot’s I guess.
Character, especially the protagonist and antagonist, deserve a lot of your attention, a lot. Because character is story, and your readers will dive into a well-developed and interesting character with ease.
Parting thought; you have opinions, beliefs, biases, likes, dislikes and quirks. Why shouldn’t your characters?
Quote from someone you recognize (for good reasons or bad ones, lol):
“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of.” – Joss Whedon
#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.
I’ll start this one off with my most favorite quote, Franz Kafka said, “A non-writing writer is a monster courting instantly.”
Now, if that doesn’t get your heart beating just a little faster, I don’t know what will. Being a writer doesn’t mean sitting down at a keyboard and typing. It’s the intense burning that happens when I have a story that needs to be told.
If whatever story you’re trying to write doesn’t burn within you, if you don’t suffer when you’re not typing (or writing), if you don’t dwell and daydream about this story, it might not be the right one.
Write the story you can’t not write.
#15: If you were your character in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
Now, this one I might have a bone to pick with, but it’s a tiny one. I’m a firm believer you shouldn’t base your characters entirely on real people, or yourself. Using some of their character traits is fine, but pieces, not the whole. But I don’t base my characters wholesale off myself, or anyone I know. Why?
For one, you can never truly know someone else, not really, even spouses or children. Because you’re never in their head, you don’t know what makes them tick. And most people don’t even know themselves all that well. So why risk representing anyone poorly?
I also think every character should be crafted to the extreme. I’ve even taken the Myers-Briggs type indicator for my characters, to figure out what they’ll do. You need to be completely familiar with what your character’s personality will allow for. Are they so shy they stumble over words when a new person arrives? Do they shout uncontrollably when they’re angry?
You need to know with extreme precision HOW your character will act in any situation. Even if that means consulting with a psychologist to figure out exactly how they’ll react. Or you can Google it. I’m sure Google has the answer, lol.
Quote from someone famous: MJ Bush, “step into a scene and let it drip from your fingertips.”
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
Ah, steaks, I love me a good steak. Medium rare, a nice sear, maybe some good marinated mushrooms or asparagus and béarnaise sauce…
Oh, stakes, not steaks. My bad. Well, since I’m not a vampire, I’m okay with stakes too. 🤣
Stakes. Now, not gonna lie, this is something I have trouble with. Sometimes creating a story with high stakes can be challenging. But I’m getting the hang of it, primarily because I’ve studied great books (for a complete list see here).
Now, it must be understood that reading is not a passive process. The reader has got to FEEL all the things, through a combo of raw emotion and story tension. Now, in Orson Scott Card’s Character and Viewpoints, he outlines all the different ways to create the stakes and tension. I’ll just give a brief overview.
There are emotional, physical, and situational tension, things like grief, suffering, pain, and more. Probably the best way for a reader to feel tension is to make the stakes known.
Children of Men, a movie I know where they make the stakes known early on (women can’t have any babies), and every time the single pregnant woman is in danger you feel TENSION, because you know the STAKES! Poof. It’s an amazing movie, because you know exactly what will happen if she dies.
Tension and stakes people, and the best way is to reveal information. Secrets aren’t the best way to increase tension. I’d say it’s one of the worst.
#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.
I wonder if they sang ‘Let it go! Let it go! Turn away and slam the door!’ while writing this. I know I did.
I’ve got files, and folders, and drawers, and notebooks all full of ideas, characters, settings, plots, ideas, and phrases. I’ve cut entire people, scenes, situations, dialogue, and so much more. Deleted? NO! Absolutely not. I delete nothing, I just tuck it away into a future possibilities folder.
Because anything can be transplanted (usually with minor alteration) into other stories. I’m not sure I can stress this enough, don’t give up. That character you loved but just doesn’t fit into your current story? Save them! The really awesome dialogue you can’t find a place for? KEEP IT! Everything is a remix.
#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
Backstory warning! I rewrote one of my books, an epic fantasy FIFTEEN times. Partly because I was fussing, I was trying to shove all these things into the book that didn’t really belong. But I desperately wanted it to work, and it never did. I shelved that project for later, when I improve as a storyteller to a point I can do the story justice.
It takes experience to know when you’re overworking a story, or when you’re just not ready to write a story. And that folks is what writing boils down to. Experience. You’ve got to know and recognize when it’s just not going to be getting any better.
If you overwork your manuscript, things go downhill fast. If you need help to know when to stop, I’d say find a good writer’s group. Libraries, Facebook, conferences, and meet ups are the best place to find people who jive with you.
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
#Truth. We’re talking plausibility people. Plausibility. My big test is if it’s probable. At the last moment, will a bolt of lightning really hit the antagonist and knock him out? (Yes, that’s an extreme example… but it was the first thing that popped into my head).
Triteness always brings with it the sense of implausibility because coincidence and contrived complications don’t bring the emotional satisfaction that readers are looking for. They lack the muchness of real life or reality, and weak writers unfortunately back themselves into corners they don’t know how to get out of without resorting to overly convenient coincidences or contrived outs.
It’s easy to keep coincidences from showing up by making sure all the complications occur because they’re logical steps. A leads to B, that ends up at C, that shows us D. (Which, again, is why you need to lock down your ending first!)
And please, for the love of spell check and caffeine, please don’t pull a deus ex machina (god in the machine) and use some miraculous event to save your character during the climax. I’d rate that as a serious breach of reader trust, and weak ass storytelling. I hate it when storytellers use that. #myopinion
Quote from someone you should listen to: Emma Coats (Pixar Storyboarder) “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?
This is a great exercise, I’d really recommend doing it. I do things like this all the time, usually when I lay down to sleep. I go over whatever story I’m obsessing about and re-arrange it. But…I won’t give you an example right now. The only thing I’ve watched recently are sappy Hallmark Movies, and well, I’m sure you don’t want to hear about how I’d make Jules Daly more cynical and hard to get (can you name that movie?).
You can do this with any sort of story, a movie, a book, something from the news or social media, anything. Determining what you like and don’t like, and learning to remix something to make it more enjoyable, will serve you well as a writer.
#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
This goes hand in hand with #15, and I’ve got the same beef with it. I believe you should root your characters in something concrete, and it doesn’t have to be yourself (though you can include some of your own traits).
You’ve got to decide what makes them click and be faithful to that.
Is your character slightly depressed with a dark sense of humor and uses big words when they’re nervous? When they encounter a pick-pocket trying to steal their wallet, what would they do? When the barista spills their coffee, what happens? What if a dragon bit off a finger?
You’ve got to make all these decisions before you even write.
I used to bash all those “50 questions to ask your character” sheets, but they’ve got their uses. Know your character inside and out and then make their lives a living hell.
Quote from someone you’ve probably read:
“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” – Ernest Hemingway
#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build from there.
Queue tangent. I love story; I love every aspect of story. From characters battling forces stronger than themselves, epic settings and experiences. I love every bit of it, and a big part of that is a well-told story.
I know books that could have been much better if they’d trimmed out the excess. Those scenes that don’t quite hit the right emotional beats, and are just there because the writer loves them.
Now this can be hard. I mean, who wants to cut out half of their story? But it’s critical.
I’ll use myself as an example. My YA book Slivers of Infinity originally came in at a beast weight of 142,646 words. It was long for a YA, which usually average out at 89,000 words. So, after taking a hard look at the book, and a good read through, I trimmed it down to 127,276, then to 109,000. Still needs more work, but getting closer!
I removed scenes in the middle that were extra and emotionless; I trimmed down extra scenes and tightened the remaining scenes. With those edits, I now have a much more powerful story.
My best advice since you’re asking for it right? Read your work and mark down whenever you don’t feel something. If you feel no emotion in the writing, cut it or make some hard revisions.
The good news is that it only takes about 10 years and over a million words to be considered a well ‘practiced’ author. So, keep it up! You can do it!
I’d like to say this before you leave, if you’re still here… this is a long post… Pixar is excellent at storytelling, and they’ve created some of the best and most memorable stories out there today. Study from the greats, watch and re-watch and consume good stories and learn from them, take notes, feel the emotion, and study the themes. Because you’ll come out a much better author on the other side.
If you want to dig deeper into these Pixarian concepts, another Pixar employee went even deeper in this PDF.
No, go forth and write!