Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling

Pixar’s 22 tips for telling a ripping story

There’s a cart-load of advice out there for would-be storysmiths; everything from websites explaining how to go about self-publishing, right down to books that cover the finer points of stringing together an intelligible sentence.

But the most important and fundamental skill of fiction writing, the marrow if you will, is effective story writing. IT’S THE STORY STOOPID! And, at least in my case, it’s the most challenging.

Fortunately, once in a while you come across advice that is so so incisive that you feel inspired (and somewhat relieved) just reading through them.  You think, “Hey, you’ve just summed up in one paragraph what that other book couldn’t do in twelve chapters.” Although they’ve now been out there a good while, the collected tweets of Emma Coats, former storyboard artist at Pixar, is such advice. It’s all the wisdom she has accumulated working on major animated films and it’s essential reading for fiction writers of all persuasions… yes, even short story writers.

With the help of my pal, Mr Scratchpad, I’ve listed all 22 below for your reading pleasure. Maybe I’ll even start following them myself one day.

Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling

1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

2: You’ve got to 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.

2: You've got to 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.

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.

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.

4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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 recognise it before you can use it.

10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognise 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.

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.

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 likeable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likeable 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 [made] of? That’s the heart of it.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

21: You’ve got to identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

21: You've got to 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.

22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Storytelling rules – good or evil?

Richard Brody said in a New Yorker article that watching a Pixar film made him feel like he was “watching the cinematic equivalent of irresistibly processed food”. It’s true, there are some stories whose plots and characters come across as so manufactured, your brains feels like it’s just been sprayed with DDT. But the beauty of these ‘rules’ is that they’re not really rules at all; they’re ideas, inspiration, prompts. They’re there to pull you out of the writing ditch, shove you through the keyhole, kick the crutch from under your shoulders, and get you thinking about the story you want to create.

The basis of all my ideas come from real life, but quite often (read here, ‘always’) I lack that crucial element to turn my ideas into something resembling a narrative. When this happens I don’t have the time to read up on narrative theory, as interesting as it might be; I need a quick jolt while I’m still in writing mode, a line of creative stimulation, and, if nothing more, it is this inspiration that these 22 rules provide.

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I'm a creative writer and illustrator living wherever I can afford.