It can’t be denied that Pixar has mastered the art of exquisite story-telling! Surely we all could learn from Pixar’s storytelling principles that Emma Coats tweeted in 2011 and got circulated as the “Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling.” These were meant to be only some good guidelines for starting a conversation and the basis for further discussion as other storytellers would venture into their own stories. In the spirit of sharing the wisdom of these wonderful storytellers at Pixar, we could explore them here.
Stories that are well told will have highs and lows as the stakes get raised. They are dynamic in flow. Unexpected course changes driven by the motivations of its characters can dramatically make the journey difficult for them, allowing for the protagonist to transform. A good story-teller would sprinkle the plot with setups and payoffs to bolster the narrative. These Pixar principles will make the ambition to excel in the art of story-telling a lot more within reach for most of us.
In Part 1 of 5, we cover Rule #1 through Rule #5
Rule #1 – You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
Make your characters flawed, that makes them vulnerable. When the characters are vulnerable, they struggle to compensate for it while striving hard to not fail. This generates empathy and admiration from the audience and so earns the emotional connection with the characters. These flaws also generate internal and external conflicts that can make the plot more interesting. The transformation journey of the protagonist is what makes for a great story.
Rule #2 – 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.
Write for the target audience. Learn as much as possible about your target audience, before you start writing the screenplay. Write for them and not for yourself. Write using visual story telling techniques, with a cinematic structure. Write the screenplay as though it is the blueprint for the movie to be made. Don’t become overly self-indulgent in your style of writing. This is where having a good grasp of the day-to-day life-style, the pains and the gains of the target audience are critical. It gives you the basis to demonstrate the right fit between what the audience wants and the proposed value in the story you are about to tell them.
Rule #3 – Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about till you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
Rewrite to find your story with its theme. Find the beginning and the ending of your story as you plot the spine and outline; write your first draft, and then rewrite. Reiterate as many times as necessary with as many drafts, to convey the acceptable form of your narrative to the story. Once you have completed the first draft, you can refine beats, the through-lines, set-ups and payoffs during the re-write of the screenplay. Completing that first draft gives you the much needed perspective about what your story is about. Then revisit your scenes while reflecting on theme during the re-write. Remember, once you find that theme and the story structure, you still need to get the audience feel the story with emotional connection and entertainment value. So rewrites of the first draft, as many times as is necessary, is the only way to get there.
Rule #4 – Once upon a time there was ___. Every day,___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
Story structure is crucial, but this goes beyond the simplistic 3 Acts that may not serve the intended purpose. Every story will have a setup, some sort of changes to it through conflicts and finally, the resolution. This has been spoken of in different ways already to define how the story spine should be crafted. To guide you through your narrative drama we need more depth for the story-spine. Such a story spine should include: the set-up to introduce the main characters and the story-world; action around the status-quo in the story-world that establishes the baseline of the characters; the disruption of the status-quo with the inciting incident that poses the thematic question faced by the protagonist; a series of escalating events (conflicts) that forces the protagonist to shift and turn his/her direction, towards a climax; and finally, the climax where the protagonist takes on the big story-problem, ending with a satisfactory resolution. Without the tensions, escalation and transformation of the protagonist the story will fall flat. Linear sequence of outcomes doesn’t make an interesting story.
Rule #5 – Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
Simplicity gets results. Pruning the characters, scenes, and ideas that you created may be hard swallow. But in the interest of extending your audience the clarity with the core ideas of the story, it may be essential to take the axe to some parts of your story. If a scene or character is not providing new information about or an interesting perspective on something relevant to the theme, plot, or character arc of your story, cut it. It’s the license to edit out all the flabby bits the egotistical part of you wants to keep. And the screenplay is always, without fail, better for it. Combine characters, usually because their will always be a couple that sound or act in the same anyway. Redundancies and fillers that may have gone in to address tone and pacing may actually stall the interest of the audience. So get them out, when you see them. Sometimes in the process of cracking open the story you might end up focusing on a smaller character and replace the protagonist who may not be as interesting. Or, on other times, you might un-necessarily just complicate the narrative, by just adding stuff where it was just not necessary in the first place. Keep in mind to keep it simple.
As Pixar continues to push the boundaries on the art of story-telling, we all can learn a lot from the principles they use. Pixar would be the first to say that these are not “hard and fast rules” or “the Pixar formula” or “the right way” to approach story-telling. It’s definitely not considered the last word on the subject, but the beginning of a conversation.
It’s a jungle out there. So, let us tell the right stories. Tell the stories right. Together!
Tell the stories that really matter.
Next – “Pixar – story-tellers extraordinaire! - Part 2 of 5,” we cover Rule #6 through Rule #10