Pixar – story-tellers extraordinaire! - Part 2 of 5


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.

Here in Part 2 of 5, we cover Rule #6 through Rule #10

Rule #6 - What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

It makes a lot of sense that the character should be placed outside of his/her comfort zone and be challenged. How the character would respond to the challenges would evolve into becoming the character arc through the story. However, pitching the character against their “polar opposite” may not necessarily bring out the intended effect. It will limit the possibilities for the writer towards crafting a flat narrative for the story.

Instead if the character is forced out of his or her emotional comfort zone, and challenged, the character will emotionally respond, then the writer will have a lot more depth to draw the character arc out of that play. For example, suppose a female protagonist, who grew up as an orphan, is physically abused by her husband, her strong internal emotional need to be loved, will force her to continue taking the abuse in order to keep her marriage intact. That will bring depth into the drama. Her struggle is not only against her husband’s abuse, but also against herself and her internal need to not breakaway from what she has in her husband, no matter what.

As the writer, what you want is to build from showing the comfort zone, to challenge it with situations where the opposite response (to break away from the norm) is necessary, to further challenge the character with situations where the old response is better. The dramatic conclusion of the arc is how the character faces that challenge without reverting to his/her old self.

Rule #7 - Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

Have you heard the saying, “if you don’t know where you are going, any road you take will get you there.” So, don’t even wait to reach the middle, to start thinking about the ending. With all the data-points that you have gathered during research upfront, figure out the ending before you start writing the beginining, so that you have a goal to write your story towards. When you start to figure out the basic dramatic concept, you will require the over-arching set-up and pay-off defined. This becomes the premise for figuring out the beginning and the ending of your story. Know your protagonist’s emotional state at the end. Figure out how the central conflict of the story gets resolved at the end. From the conflict resolution, we could conclude what the philosophical stakes are, with the thematic statement declared at the ending.

Figuring out the ending to this level of detail upfront can provide the basis to figure out the beginning in more detail. What your protagonist should be at the beginning? What the conflicting questions are and how it is manifested during the set-up stage of the story? The central conflict can further be flushed out from this with the plot points and thus laying out outline for the story. Make sure that the emotional and thematic stakes for the protagonist is high enough for compelling drama. This in turn forms the basis for the arc (the spine) from the beginning to the end of your story. This will also help you get through the first draft with out many hiccups.

Having completed the first draft, you can have a good starting point to rethink the story, when you rewrite your first draft. Your basic concept may have changed some. Even your ending may have moved as you unfolded the plot. If the ending changes, then that would give you more ideas about how the middle could have changed. But, as you rethink and rewrite iteratively, you will further refine the whole story to where you should be from the beginning to the end.

Rule #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.

As a storyteller, your job is to know your story to the best of your ability, at the time. When you are done with telling that story, you should be prepared to move on. Striving for perfection beyond that point is an utter waste of time. Sometimes, in the search for the perfect, you might even cripple your artistic creativity. So, let it go. Seriously, perfection is impossible to achieve.

Typically, the pursuit of perfection is an indication of your lack of confidence or low self-esteem. Others might keep giving you feedbacks, but you have to draw the line in the sand with what you consider as done. You can never please everybody, which in itself is impossible. Learn the art of agreeing to disagree. Stop hiding behind the search for the “perfect” version of your current story.

Rule #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.

Stuck, you will get at times through what ever process to write you choose. It could happen when you are outlining. It could happen when you are writing the Act Two. It could be in Act Three. Have you heard this, from Isabel Allende: “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”

The suggestion here is that, if you could show-up, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next, that would get you unstuck. To get you even more focused into the exercise, take the character’s perspective and how they WOULDN’T respond to the situation. Keeping in mind the character’s goals, needs, wants, conflicts, personality, and the point in their arc, will all be under consideration when thinking about how they wouldn’t respond to the situation at hand in the story. By taking the perspective of the character’s response, the process opens up the possibilities of a more nuanced approach, where the complex nature of the character and the situation gets deeply explored.

The purpose of this exercise is to explore specific, seemingly unlikely ways in which the characters might respond in a given situation knowing all you know about the characters involved and about the situation itself. This could be a good exercise to rethink your scene itself, by taking into consideration the not-so-obvious parameters surrounding the situation.

Rule #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 all about knowing your own self well enough, so that you can use your own personality and style to develop your own unique voice for storytelling. What is being recommended here is that in understanding what you like as a story consumer, can prepare you to be a better storyteller by focusing on your strengths and strengthening your weaknesses.

No, this is not about ripping off from the stories you like. You are only trying to dig deep into what you like about these stories the most, and adding them to your own pallet of colors to paint your story. This will also give you a better understanding of what you need to do, to write what you want to write, in the way you want to write. This help you understand the central theme between stories that you naturally favor as a story consumer, and so will also gravitate towards in your storytelling.

It is critical to embrace this personal theme of how you view the world, which is basically your interpretation of how to live in this world. This is closely intertwined with you own personality and style as a being. A word of caution here, unless you are conscious of the existence of a personal thematic in your writings, and work hard at it not creeping into every scene you craft, you could potentially craft a lot of redundancies into your story.

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 3 of 5,” we cover Rule #11 through Rule #15

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