Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

These rules though not created by Pixar per se gave a direction and focus to the fine art of storytelling

When Emma Coats, a former Pixar employee, tweeted a series of storytelling maxims in 2011, the list of “Pixar’s 22 Rules Of Storytelling” was created and shared.

“A mix of things learnt from directors & coworkers at Pixar, listening to writers & directors talk about their art, and through trial and error in the development of my own films,” said one of the tweets.

Pixar’s Screenwriting Tips:

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  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.
  3. Trying for a 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 ___.
  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, and 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 upfront.
  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.
  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.
  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 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.
  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.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us a 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.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. The story is testing, not refining.
  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?
  21. You gotta 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.

Explanations

  • You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

Struggle creates drama and witnessing someone attempt against the odds inspires empathy and appreciation. But many writers are overly kind to their characters and don’t show the struggle – it is a poor story then.

A story with no strife and no failures is unlikely to engage readers. The story is about how witnessing a character fail or succeed impacts the audience’s enjoyment of the character, not uneventful plot mechanics.

Also, most people think they are ordinary, even banal. When they try things, they focus on what goes wrong and how far they fall short of their own aspirations.  Characters who do the same will elicit more sympathy from the viewers/ readers since they can relate to them.

Look at the underdog story – an ordinary man trying to extra – ordinary things!

Or take a superhero story –  the hero has got some supernatural power, usually with less effort. More often than not, leading a mundane life. Uninteresting characters can be interesting. The twist is the villain is a powerful character and how the hero rises up to tackle the various obstacles is the story.

Sometimes you want a character to be more intriguing than nice, even creating a protagonist who is interesting but with darker shades of grey.

  • 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.

Those who want to be storytellers should put their hearts and souls into the work they do.
If that doesn’t excite you, perhaps a career as a storyteller isn’t for you. In order to have a great time writing or reading a story, one must have a sense of excitement or passion, love or yearning in their heart.

According to popular belief, writers in particular like penning inner monologue, evocatively meandering descriptions, and other things that “shouldn’t” be in.

A script’s content varies depending on the intended audience. Recognize and meet the needs of your intended audience.

Just because you enjoy writing doesn’t imply you can keep going on and on in a rambling fashion.

  • Trying for a theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

Writers should finish their drafts and then go back and revise them. The only way to discover your tale is by rewriting it.

Trying to reach an unspecified conclusion is too frequent to wander and write yourself into corners. You’ll have to pay a lot more if you don’t know how your story finishes before you begin writing.

Like an explorer, you may find it exciting to embark on a journey without a destination in mind; the stops, the incidents, the detours etc. may be an adventure, and finally, the result may be amazing. But that is if you are lucky. It’s not efficient, and there’s a very real risk that you’ll become lost, lose interest and eventually give up.

Making your outline from the very end will save you a lot of time and effort in the future. In addition, you shouldn’t be concerned that having a clear vision of where you want to end up, would limit your creativity and rob the journey of its excitement.

Take a break and come back to your project with fresh eyes after you’ve written it through at least once. Look up better terms and make your work better the second (and third and fourth) time around by rearranging sentences.

  • Once upon a time there was, … Every day, … One day,… Because of that, … Because of that, … Until finally.

‘The story spine,’ as it’s known, is the name given to this template. It was created by Kenn Adams, not Pixar, for the improv theatre.

A story is a transition from the old situation to a new one, via action and conflict.

A story has a setup, changes through conflict, and resolution.

All storytellers should have a fundamental understanding of the structure of a tale. Regardless of how you feel about this particular language, you need to be able to truly grasp the principles.

When you’re at a loss for what to create next, consider what your target audience could expect from you. “Because of that” is the most significant part of this sentence, so pay attention.

  • Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

Simplify – this is the most difficult piece of advice for most storytellers to hear because simplifying always entails removing both excellent and terrible parts.

Don’t overcomplicate things just for the sake of it.

Don’t waste your time developing a beautiful film or infographic if you can just write about it in a blog post and get the same point across.

The idea that you have to sacrifice wonderful scenes, characters, and ideas in order to make room for your story’s fundamental concepts to be seen clearly by the audience dates back far further than that.

And it’s true that you may have to exclude things that you know to be excellent in order to tell the tale in the most effective way possible.

There are several great moments that work well on their own, but don’t offer anything new, don’t pace the story effectively, or are generally useless. Duplicate characters should be merged.

It is very important for stories to be brief. It’s important for each new scene and each character to provide the viewer with new information and viewpoints. Redundancies are seldom effective. So if the scene doesn’t advance the plot, it’s a good candidate for deletion.

Simplification boils down to extracting the core elements of a tale from the extraneous fluff. It’s up to the author to decide what the basics are in each narrative. The task of a storyteller is to strike a delicate balance. As long as you keep trying new things until they work, there’s no “technique.”

  • What is your character good at, and comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

You should push the characters to their limits, examine how they react to the trials they face, and take note of the changes they undergo as a consequence.

Using a mechanical, purely oppositional approach to conflict is a common pitfall for storytellers, which renders the wording boring.

In addition, this notion is most intriguing and beneficial when it is applied to emotional strengths and limitations rather than skill-based ones.

It’s mechanical and won’t go you very far if you make a character not use talent at all. Contrary to popular belief, this is not the most important quarrel to have.

It’s the substance of characters that you have to push a character out of their emotional comfort zone and make her adjust her emotional responses.

It’s best to start by revealing the character’s comfort zone, then to push them farther by presenting them with scenarios in which the opposite response is required.

  • Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously, endings are hard, get yours working up front.

Writing toward a specific conclusion is helpful and easier. It’s like if you know your destination, it’s much easier to figure out how to get there. The most efficient way to structure a tale is to use the following method:

a) Initiate with an idea that has a beginning and an ending.

b) Find out how everything ends: how disputes are resolved, what issues are solved, how the protagonist feels as well as what it signifies in terms of the conflict’s resolution is important.

c) Start at the beginning: the conflict’s inception and the current state of affairs. It’s important to know who your protagonist is, what their physical (plot), emotional (character), and thematic (philosophical) stakes are, as well as what the fundamental conflict is that displays these components early on.

d) The middle will serve as a bridge between the two

Having a fundamental idea isn’t enough; you still need to organise the plot. In other words, even if a complete tale comes to you in a split second, it’s still only a fundamental idea. The plot still has to be polished before it can be considered complete. Once you’ve written down the spark of inspiration, it’s a good idea to work on its structure in this manner (after you’ve written it down).

Before each new revision, it’s a good idea to reevaluate your tale

Once you know your destination, you will figure out how to get there. Even if it doesn’t work out the first time, rethinks and rewrites are available for when things don’t work out the way you expected.

  • 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.

Don’t allow perfection to be your enemy. This is one of the most difficult yet necessary requirements for any artist. To get anything out there at all, you must announce that “imperfect” work has been completed.

There is no such thing as perfection (or an ideal world, for that matter), which is a problematic inference that may be inferred from the term “even though.”

Self-doubt, second-guessing, and tinkering with modifications that don’t really improve anything are all linked with the pursuit of perfection. And this does not bode well in storytelling

  • 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 may be a case of writer’s block, yet the mind doesn’t stop thinking. Treat the process of writing like speaking, when you’re having trouble coming up with words. Even if an idea doesn’t seem feasible, write it down.

You should think about what your character wouldn’t do since when you’re unable to think of anything else, you’re more likely to rely on the obvious answers which makes the story predictable and boring.

Think beyond the box once you’ve drawn a box around your character so that things don’t get boring and you don’t get stale.

That’s the objective of this exercise, after all: to find out how each of the individuals involved would react to the current event in distinct, seemingly implausible ways.

Regardless of the present scenario, every one of the characters engaged has a well-known and predictable reaction. That’s the first step, but then challenge yourself to think of all the other “impossible” choices based on what you know about your characters and the position they’re in..

The most engaging interpretation of the action is likely to be one in which each character responds to the circumstance in a way that appears to be “wrong,” but which is nevertheless grounded and genuine.

Even when you’re not hit a block, this is an excellent technique to think of better scenarios while you’re still working.

  • 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.

All storytellers should do this.

There are times, though, when it may be helpful to look at comparable stories in order to get new ideas for your own story, but this isn’t usually the case while you’re in the thick of attempting to tell or write a particular tale. 

Using this exercise, you’ll be able to see that the things you enjoy in tales are a collection of different ideas on tones, plots, characters etc.

Allow yourself to think about all of those things since they are all important. Take a look at the world through your own eyes.

In the end, you’ll learn that what you appreciate may not be the same from one narrative to another. While one narrative may have a leisurely pace, another may have a dark and action-packed setting and tone. This is because no two tales are the same. Understanding the context in which each of the components you appreciate is used can help you learn how to use them in your own stories.

You’re not attempting to copy other storytellers; instead, you’re trying to figure out what appeals to you, and then incorporate that knowledge into your own work.

Exercises like this one will aid in your ability to write what you want to write in the style you want to write. By reading other people’s stories, you’ll get a better sense of what kind of storytelling aspects you’re naturally good at, as well as what kind of storytelling elements you’ll have to work on.

However, you need to go a little deeper while undertaking this analysis: identifying the primary thematic components that initially piqued your interest in the tale.

  • 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.

In your mind, everything is in perfect order. You could have it in your head that you’re a good football player, but unless you really give it a shot, you’ll never know for sure. In your head, you may even be better than Messi, but in fact, it’s a whole different story.

In the same way, while you are writing a narrative, you will never know how excellent it is until you really put it down on paper. Hemingway once stated, “The first draft of anything is shit.” and I completely agree with him. Anyone who tells you differently is either lying to you or has had one of those rare times of perfect combination of creativity and preparedness that causes them to think that type of thing can be replicated leading them to think that it is reproducible. It isn’t, therefore get over the idea that it is and learn to enjoy the process of revising your work, since all writing is revising at some point. It is also called honing your craft.

  • Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

Do not start by doing what other people will expect you to do. Toss out your very first thought. They will be aware of the situation and prepared for what will take place, which will make the experience less distinctive.

Keep the audience guessing about what will happen next if you want to present a compelling narrative.

It is indisputable that you should get the obvious out of the way first, then give yourself permission to investigate and experiment with options that are not clear, to begin with.

Never entirely disregard anything on the spur of the moment. If you did not consider the notion to have any value, it is not surprising that it did not occur to you.

Consider it carefully. It needs to be revised. Have some fun with it.
In this manner, you may move it out of the way.
After that, move on to the second, third, and fourth ideas, and so on, until you find the one that will help you achieve your goals in the most efficient manner.

Take notes on all of your concepts, then implement the ones that strike you as the most original, astute, or intriguing. You may decide which ideas to disregard by putting them to the test and demonstrating to yourself that they are incorrect.

There are occasions when the outcome of testing out all of those ideas will reveal that the initial notion was correct the whole time. That is not time that has been squandered; rather, it is work that is being done to ensure that the notion is correct. And the fact that you tried those other ideas may end up modifying aspects of the concept that you do go with in ways that you would not have thought of if you had simply gotten stuck in that one notion.

  • Give your characters’ opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likeable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

Offer your characters more than simply their thoughts; give them the passions, aspirations, and objectives that will motivate them to take action. The behaviour of a character that has flaws will always lead to conflict and repercussions. There is no drama without some kind of conflict and the fallout from that conflict.

Characters whose motivations and judgments are what get them into difficulty and what bring them out of trouble are more compelling than characters whose weaknesses limit the possibilities and make the story less interesting.

Stories in which the protagonist is a self-starter are popular with audiences. Characters who are driven to achieve their goals are engaging, which is more crucial than having characters that are likeable or sympathetic. Most of the time, characters are flexible and weak because the author wants to make them seem likeable.

Characters who are victims of circumstance, tricked by villains, or otherwise pushed into problems for no apparent reason are thought to elicit more sympathy from readers by authors. It’s possible that they are, but an audience’s feeling of pity for a primary character isn’t the most crucial emotion for them to have for that character.

It is more vital that viewers are compelled by the characters than that they like the characters.

In a good novel, even a character who is being pushed around by the world and is a victim of circumstance still has some objective or want that is being thwarted by the external acts that are taking place. This is because even victims have goals and desires.

If you want the audience to think that the protagonists are deserving of victory, even the most helpless ones have to make an effort to change the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Naturally, the protagonist won’t be able to overcome their issues right away since audiences want to watch, and drama necessitates that people fail to settle the main conflict before they eventually succeed.

Because the only thing that makes a tale in any way relatable to an audience are the protagonists and antagonists of the tale. We don’t find any situation or place to be particularly interesting outside of the context of how it makes us feel.

  • 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.

When messaging is presented in an awkward or obvious manner, it might come out as preachy or as talking down to the listener. It is the responsibility of the storyteller to ensure that the story’s message is communicated by the characters in a manner that is consistent with who those characters are and does not feel forced or unnatural.

The underlying, all-encompassing meaning of a tale may be distilled down to its central idea, often known as its theme.

The reason you want to tell a specific narrative, as it connects all of the other aspects of the story into one cohesive whole around a fundamental topic.

After that, you populate the tale with individuals that have varying viewpoints about the subject. The drama is generated by constantly putting the belief hypothesis to the test in ways that genuinely keep the question unanswered for the audience all the way through to the conclusion.

Your selection of characters, an explanation of their motives, and other aspects of the story are all informed by that overarching subject. If you want the audience to have the experience of seeing something that seems the most natural to them, you should address difficulties with the tale directly based on the motives of the characters. If you’ve done your job as a storyteller and populated your story with people and situations that (in various ways) relate to the central question, then such solutions will necessarily indirectly incorporate your theme. If you haven’t done your job as a storyteller, then you’ve failed to do your job.

A sophisticated framework is very difficult to develop and build upon, and as a general rule, anything that is built on top of it ends up being unstable. This is because it is difficult to design and build upon a complicated framework.

It is preferable to begin with a really straightforward and rock-solid base and then build complexity on top of that if needed. Making your fundamental components more difficult to understand will not necessarily make you appear to be a more intelligent, better, or more distinctive artist. .

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