Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling went viral a few years ago, so you might have seen this. This is from a Pixar Story artist (Emma Coats). I think these are great so I wanted to add my insights to them.
Who doesn’t love Pixar movies? (If you’re a rival studio who sees Pixar steal your profits then please don’t answer this!)
So what makes Pixar so special? It’s the great stories they tell! And what makes up a great story? Great characters!
I hope they give you a greater appreciation on the art of storytelling.
Check ’em out:
1. You admire a character more for trying than for their successes.
Imagine if every time a character tried they instantly succeeded?
That would be boring!
There would be no conflict.
The best characters (and the ones we relate to the most) are the ‘lovable losers’ who dream big and never give up. Most stories require the characters to face their worst fears, and overcome seemingly impossible odds.
Of course Pixar raises the stakes so the goal (or want) of a character has the highest stakes. Woody loves Andy, so if he doesn’t bring Buzz back to Andy’s room (a seemingly impossible task) then he’ll never get to be with Andy again. Those are big stakes! In Finding Nemo, Marlin has lost his son! Most parents would go to the ends of the world and back to reclaim their child.
In a great story, the character has to keep trying before they learn the skills that will let them ultimately succeed.
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.
Artists can very easily fall in love with their ideas. But Audiences are the ones experiencing your story. If your story doesn’t appeal to your Audience, then you’ve just created the world’s most un-interesting tale.
If you want more info on what makes an Audience sit up and be entertained, check out this article on characters and audiences in storytelling.
3. Trying for a theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about until you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
A story is a journey. This is true for the Audience and the Storyteller.
I don’t know any writers that never have to rewrite. That is impossible.
Because a story is an interactive medium with the Audience. The Storyteller first has to develop the story, then has to tell it to an Audience to get feedback.
When writing scripts, the writer will need to get feedback from other writers and their agents. They then get valuable data on what is working, and what isn’t.
If a Storyteller tries to cram a theme into a story it usually comes off as heavy-handed. It’s best to let the story ‘breathe’. As Blake Snyder (writer of the amazing screenwriting book ‘Save the Cat‘) explains, you first want to start with a great premise and then use that to explore your story.
After you’ve developed the whole story, and come to the conclusion, can you look back and start to detect a theme. At that point you can do a rewrite where you re-enforce this theme. This ‘theme’ rewrite will often change your story, characters and Audience Experience for the better.
In short, start with a premise. Then develop the story until you get a first pass of it. Then you can examine what the theme appears to be (not what you want it to be) and go and do a rewrite.
4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
Every great story adheres to a strict storytelling structure.
Because every piece of art needs structure. Without structure you have a big old mess.
You might say ‘but structure can be so predictable’. If you do it right, it’s not predictable at all. If you do it wrong it becomes cliche and over-indulgent. But a story that focuses on the premise, and the character’s arc (and if it’s told with real heart and insight) will never be predictable.
Toy Story, Monster’s Inc, Incredibles and the rest of the Pixar classics all follow a simple story structure. But they’re all completely different.
So let’s examine this ‘structure’ that is designed to keep any story from getting stale and going nowhere.
“Once upon a time there was a ____”.
Every story needs a setup.
In the setup the main character, or Protagonist, is introduced to the Audience. This Protagonist should be instantly relatable. In other words, if your main character is a robot who collects junk on a distant planet the Audience won’t care. But if you make that robot lonely and looking for a friend the Audience will instantly relate and sympathize. Don’t believe me? Go rent Wall-E.
It’s next important to show the character’s normal, boring life. This is where they’re stuck and wanting something new. Or maybe life is super great for them, but they need to learn a valuable lesson…
Mr. Incredible feels stuck in his boring suburban life whereas Woody is Andy’s #1 toy but needs to learn that friendship is just as important. By showing the character’s ‘normal’ world at the start of the story you can contrast it with the ‘new’ world they’re going to be forced to enter.
“One day, ________.”
Of course something BIG has to happen!
This big event should ‘slap’ the character and force them to go on this new adventure. In the best stories the character has a BIG FLAW that the story will force them to overcome.
In Toy Story Woody needs to learn how to appreciate his friends. In The Incredibles, Mr. Incredible needs to learn that the love of his family is more valuable than any globe-trotting adventure he could go on (and even better, that his family is ready to join him on his crazy adventures).
If nothing big happens to shake up your Protagonist’s life then you’ve got no story.
“Because of that,_______.”
The Protagonist has to react to the big life-changing event that happens to them. This reaction is what starts the wheels of the story in motion. This is what forces the Protagonist to try to restore balance (while accidentally making matters far worse).
Woody reacts to Andy getting Buzz as his new toy by trying to knock Buzz down behind a desk so Andy can’t find him. Marlin reacts to Nemo getting captured by humans by embarking on a crazy adventure across the ocean to rescue his son. Sully (in Monsters Inc) reacts to the intrusion of the little girl Boo by becoming a protective ‘parent’ to her.
The Protagonist should keep trying to solve their problem which only makes matters worse. This continues until they develop the skills they need to succeed.
“Until finally _____.”
Finally the Protagonist learns their lesson and they overcome their big flaw.
When this happens they have to perform once last heroic dead (this happens in the climax of the story). Here they succeed and balance is restored to their life.
Often their life improves in a dramatic way because of what they learned. At the end of Finding Nemo Marlin has his son back and a greater appreciation of letting his son learn the lessons of life instead of protecting him. At the end of Toy Story Woody has shed his insecurities and is ready to let others be loved by Andy as well.
5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
The art of telling a story is simplify it! The worst stories are an unfocused mess of ideas (often from an undeveloped story, or too many cooks in the kitchen forcing their bad ideas onto a very delicate art form).
The first pass of any story is usually like a plate of spaghetti. A great storyteller must take the time to refine their ideas (and organize all those noodles).
Great Storytellers have the confidence that the great ideas will rise to top, and unnecessary ideas will fall by the wayside. The first draft of Raiders of the Lost Ark (yes I know, it’s NOT a Pixar film) has Indy fight in a Hong Kong nightclub and go on a wild mine cart ride. These ideas were too much for Raiders so George Lucas (who was the original founder of Pixar, ha!) took these ideas and made them key action sequences of Temple of Doom (Raiders #2).
The best storytellers are fully willing to cut out their best ideas because they know that a great idea, in the wrong story, will kill the story.
To give a Pixar example, in my least favorite Pixar film, A Bug’s Life, there are too many ideas.
All the ideas are great, but there are too many of them. That film feels bogged down by a plethora of amazing ideas. These should have been edited down to give the narrative a more simplified set of events and characters. Instead the film suffers form too many set pieces, and too many characters. All of these overshadow the simple tale of the main Ant.
Here is a great quote from Steve Jobs (who owned…Pixar. See, I also tie it back to them!):
“Simple can be harder than complex; you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.”
6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
The best stories show in Act 1 what the Protagonist is good at. Then they take all that away! This poses a challenge to the character and forces them to grow. Usually the character has a big flaw they must face and then overcome.
In Toy Story, Woody is good, and comfortable, being Andy’s favorite toy. So what naturally must happen to add some massive conflict to Woody’s life? Andy needs to get a new favorite toy!
In Ratatouille Remy is good at smelling out safe food to eat for his clan of rats. Therefore the story has to remove him from his safe existence and throw into into the big city of Paris (and keep him apart from his rat clan). If a Protagonist isn’t forced to face challenges, and learn new ways to deal with things, then there will be no conflict in the story.
Remember that CONFLICT is what fuels a story! The more conflict, the more the Audience is engaged.
Some characters, like James Bond, are pretty perfect and don’t have much to learn. In these stories he is surrounded by death-defying events that force James to constantly have to out do himself. Of course most people are NOT perfect like James Bond. That’s why most stories feature flawed characters that have to face challenges they must deal with.
7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
Stories are all about emotion. A great story knows how to leave it’s Audience leaving on an emotional high.
The ending has to be an emotional climax and release where all the tension and excitement of the film finally pays off. For this reason, it’s good to know what emotions you want to end on so you can back-engineer them to happen.
The best endings seem to end in some sort of irony…
Indiana Jones nearly dies a thousand times to save the Lost Ark, and after all that struggle the government takes his prize away. In Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Lord used his goofy love of dancing to save the galaxy. It’s ironic that his geeky personality, the very thing normal society thought made him a screw up, saved everyone in the end. In Toy Story, it’s ironic that Buzz actually does ‘fly’ which is what returns Woody to his beloved owner Andy at the end.
If you want to relieve a lot of Audience tension, and surprise the Audience, then pull off an ironic ending.
After you have this you can work backwards in your story and set things up so the ending is surprising and unforgettable.
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.
No story will ever be perfect.
Some of my favorite movies have some stupid moment or logic in them. The art of telling a story comes in the fact that it’s made up! Sometimes you have to ‘fudge’ things a bit so you can create an exciting emotional experience for the Audience.
That means you’ll need to make things the best you can and move on.
So what are some glaring plot holes in movies? In Jurassic World, I find it hysterical that a woman can outrun a Trex in heels, but I accept it. It’s never logically explained how toys come to life in Toy Story, but I accept it. I don’t understand how none of construction guys who built Batman’s bat cave ever revealed Bruce Wayne is Batman, but I accept it
In other words, if there is no way to solve a problem, find the best solution and finish your damn story. If you did your job then the Audience will feel a great emotion and accept it.
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 great advice! I’ll have to use it sometime.
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.
This is a cool rule. Every artist should have self-knowledge of why they love what they love. If you’re a fan of something, then it pays to examine what you like about that thing…
This rule is really about knowing your self. When an artist knows themselves they can bring truth to everything they create.
11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If a perfect idea stays in your head you’ll never share it with anyone.
As a writer, the scariest thing of all is a blank piece of paper.
But it’s also the most thrilling…because you have no idea what is going to show up. You can steer it, but a great idea will start to take a life of it’s own. Your job is to encourage and nurture it.
For that reason a story doesn’t come to life until it’s committed to paper. In screenwriting we call this the ‘words on paper’ draft. That’s because it’s known the first pass won’t be good. In fact it will suck.
But it’s a starting point.
Same goes for a painting. When I paint I start with doodles, then sketches, then color tests and finally the large oil painting on a canvas. Every step of the way I have to evaluate my first pass and improve it. This leads to the second pass…then the third.
I’ve found it takes 3 passes (at least) to get something right. Therefore if you know the first pass won’t be good, you’re off the hook and you can feel creatively free!
I like the last part of this rule. Imagine if Einstein was trapped on an island and no one ever heard any of his theories? The name Einstein wouldn’t be a household name. The theory of relativity wouldn’t have reshaped how we think. And old guys with wild haircuts wouldn’t be so cool.
So get your ideas out there…you never know which one will make an impact.
12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
The best ideas will always rise to the top! So don’t settle for the first idea. Keep brainstorming ideas until it’s ‘perfect’.
However, refer to Rule 8.
If a story problem can’t be solved, do your best to dance around the issue.
13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
Characters must be pro-active. They must do things. They must take action.
Imagine how boring it would be if two characters just sat on a coach agreeing with everything. That would suck. Now imagine the same characters had crazy opinions about music, fashion and rocking out. Yes, Beavis and Butthead was a popular success that had characters that had strong opinions. This means they could sit on a couch and the Audience stay engaged.
So make your characters not suck. (‘Heh heh. I said ‘suck’.)
14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds on? That’s the heart of it.
The best stories are the ones that make an Audience feel something powerful. This powerful feeling must start with the storyteller. If the Storyteller can’t feel the emotions they want their Audience to feel then there is no way they can force their Audience to feel it.
I believe that people are like emotional tuning forks…
We can ‘tune’ into the emotions of others and begin to feel them. If someone’s laughing nearby, you’ll probably start laughing too. If someone’s crying, you’ll probably start too. We pick up the feelings of others…
So a great Storyteller will resonate their feeling so strongly that it gets infused into their story and spreads to the Audience.
That means if a Storyteller is not emotionally connecting with their story then it’s going to end up falling flat for their Audience.
I’ve worked on some classic films, and some real stinkers…
The films that became classics all had one thing in common – the Directors were all emotionally invested in the story. The rest of them were collecting paychecks. The Audience notices the difference.
15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
I agree. The best art is honest.
Most stories, especially Pixar’s, have character’s facing unbelievable situations. If the character is not grounded in an emotional reality then everything feels false. The unbelievable situation begins to really feel that way, as opposed to the character convincing us that something unbelievable is really happening.
An example of this is in Jurassic Park. Sam Neill stands up in the jeep with his mouth agape…it’s so honest that when we see the giant digital brontosaur we fully believe it.
Imagine if that moment lacked honesty….what if Sam said a witty one-liner? It would have made the Audience realize they were watching a movie and destroyed the entire illusion of the Brontosaurs.
Bringing honesty to everything you do is always a great idea.
16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against your character.
People are motivated by pain and pleasure. We move away from the pain to seek the pleasure.
If a story doesn’t have really big pain then there’s no contrast when the character finally gets what they wished for. It’s what the character stands to lose (usually love) that matters. This is what the Audience needs to get emotionally involved in.
Also, if you don’t define really big stakes then the story lacks conflict. Stakes, as I assume Pixar defines them, are internal. External stakes, like bad guys, bombs and guns, don’t mean much to an Audience after awhile. But if you show that the hero’s wife will get killed…then you’ve got a great movie like Die Hard (the first…not any of the crummy sequels) you emotionally feel for the hero and realize what he stands to lose.
Most of the time, the stakes should involve losing the love or life of another character that is meaningful for the hero.
17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around and be useful later.
The best story ideas get recycled.
I mentioned this before, but the first draft of Raiders of the Lost featured 2 sequences that got cut and ended up in the sequel. Heck, that movie featured a gag (when the Nazi’s torture device turns out to be a coat hanger) that Spielberg recycled from one of his earlier films. Seems he didn’t handle the joke properly and wanted a second attempt.
All this goes to show you what I said earlier. Great ideas always rise to the top. And if they won’t work in one story doesn’t mean there’s not another better idea waiting just around the corner to claim take its spot.
18. Know yourself so you can realize the difference between doing your best & not. Story is testing, not refining.
Again, we go back to ‘honesty’…
If you know yourself you’ll be honest with yourself. You’ll know if you’re ‘phoning it in’ or not.
When it comes to ‘story is testing, not refining’, I’m not sure what the Author is trying to say. You need to constantly be testing ideas and striving to find the one that feels ‘just right’. But once you find that you need to refine it and make sure it’s the best it can be. You also need to make sure that idea works with the entire story. You need to make sure the character’s emotional arc is as solid as possible.
So I’d say that ‘story is testing’ to find the right mix of amazing ideas. Then it’s about refining them so they’re as thought-out and entertaining as possible for the Audience.
19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great, coincidences to get them out of it is cheating.
A coincidence can happen in the beginning of your story that sucks your character into an adventure. For example, in the Hitchcock classic North By Northwest, Carey Grant’s character is mistaken for another man. Carey’s actions didn’t cause this mistaken identity. He literally did nothing.
However, by the end of the movie he’s kicking all kinds of ass and fighting for his life.
The climax happens on the face of Mount Rushmore where Carey is very proactive in his fate.
Let’s imagine if at the end of his struggle with the villain he’s just about to be killed…but the FBI shows up saves Carey! That would be a massive coincidence that would piss the Audience off because it would be cheating. It wouldn’t be earned. We want to see Carey fight for his life and come out ahead.
The Greek playwrights had a term for having a massive coincidence at the end of a story (where the character doesn’t solve their own fate). This is called Dues Ex Machina.
Here is the dictionaries definition:
An unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation.
In old Greek plays, this was when the Gods showed up at the very end and saved the Hero. It was anti-climatic then, and it’s anti-climatic now.
So never do it!
20. Exercise. Take apart the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How’d you rearrange them to make them into something you DO like?
If a movie is really bad, I’ll do this. I’ll start to think ‘why does this suck? What would I have done to avoid that?’
This mental exercise helps you start to problem solve. It also lets you start to see stories for what they are… a series of events, ideas and characters that are pliable. They can be sculpted.
Grab a bad movie and play the ‘what would I change?’ game.
21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
This feels like a repeat of Rule 15.
If you write false situations, just because you think its cool, you’ll end up coming across as dishonest with your Audience.
The more truth, vulnerability and honesty you infuse into your stories the more they’ll connect with Audiences.
22. What’s the essence of your story and the most economical way you can tell it? If you know that, you can build from there.
The great screenwriting Guru Blake Snyder (mentioned previously in this article) teaches about the ‘Log line’. The longline is a short phrase that sums up a story.
If you can get that Log line to be interesting, then you’re in a good spot to start building your story from. The Log line is like the stories spine. You can start building muscles and nerves off of that.
Novice storytellers like to start with a bunch of random ideas and then form some convoluted structure to support their ideas (this was my favorite tactic in college). With the log line you start with a solid structure (my favorite tactic now).
Take-away: If your story isn’t interesting in an extremely condensed form (a Log line), then its not going to get any more interesting the longer it is.
So keep things simple and economical!
I hope Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling, and my explanations, help further clarify storytelling for you.
If you want to go deeper into stories, why not check out my totally free 3 Part Storytelling Videos I created. You get 3 videos plus a guidebook of my notes. Did I mention its all free? Click the red ‘download these now’ button below: