Pixar’s 22 Rules for Storytelling


Shared on Twitter by former Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats, the rules distill the story basics we of creating a good narrative. It's simple advice worth following given Pixar's impressive record. Its feature films have earned around $10.8 billion at box office worldwide, averaging $634 per film. The company received sixteen Academy Awards, seven Golden Globe Awards, and eleven Grammy Awards.

At Pixar, they know what it takes to bring something new to the world. When Brave was released many critics were skeptical—comparing it to past successes like The Incredibles or Ratatouille it didn't feel groundbreaking. Director Mark Andrews and producer Katherine Sarafian faced challenges in making the movie, which took seven years to make and was pitched by director Brenda Chapman who started the movie. According to Safian:

“It was not easy.The biggest challenges at Pixar are always the stories. We want really original stories that come from the hearts and minds of our filmmakers. We take years in crafting the story and improving  it and changing it, throwing things out that aren’t working and adding things that do work. All of that  is just the jumping off point for the technology and how we are going to make this happen.”

Andrews says the Pixar method saved the day:

“It’s great. It’s fun. I’ve worked in a lot of studios but this is the first one run by the artists. They understand the process is an organic and difficult  process, one of trial and failure.  That’s what we do. We’re  trying to change lead into gold and every time we manage to change lead into gold we say to ourselves, ‘wow, how did we do that?’”

The story line seemed darker than previous ones, but when we compare it to the august tradition of Greek myths and some of the best storytellers we realize that children of all ages have been enjoying cautionary tales like Pinocchio's because of the character building lessons in the story.

Finding the truth beyond the official story matters increasingly more. Truth connect with our emotional core. The 22 rules are based on experience, yet they ark back to the timeless patterns of storytelling. When we apply them appropriately to tell our story we connect: 

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 v. 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.

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, 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.

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 the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

13./ Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable 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 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. 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.

Believing in the importance of telling a story and persisting through early challenges is also important.  Steve Jobs saw and annotated some earlier drafts of Brave, which went on to win the Academy Award, the Golden Globe, and the BAFTA Award for Best Animated Feature Film.

Children are natural storytellers, but we all tell stories. As part of Pixar in a Box, which includes free courses on animation, colors in films and environment and character modeling, the studio is now offering a free course on the art of storytelling through the Khan Academy.


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