Pixar – story-tellers extraordinaire! - Part 3 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 3 of 5, we cover Rule #11 through Rule #14

Rule #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.

We are all natural procrastinators. We keep trying to find reasons to not act on something that is pending in our to-do list. Add to all the other nagging reasons we have, the understanding that the first draft of the screenplay is going to be really bad, is going to keep us away even further from putting it on paper. The quest for coming up with the perfect screenplay, keeps us away from writing out the bad first draft. We need to hammer this fact into our heads that, to write a good screenplay that will eventually becomes a great screenplay, we will have to write that bad screenplay first. Get that first draft (often called the vomit draft) on paper and then pursue the greatness through the second, third or how many ever drafts that will be needed to make it great. Get down to fixing that first draft next. Start learning to enjoy the re-writing process. As has been said many a times already – “all writing is re-writing.” Just don’t get dragged down with “perfection paralysis.”

Sometimes, all the rewrites may not fix all the problems that you see with the screenplay. It might be possible that, you need a break from it. But then you have the idea on paper in the form of a first draft already. You may even go on to another screenplay. Then come back to it much later. It might also be that the idea you thought was a great one, might have been a bad idea after all. Either ways, you would have learned so much from that first draft you wrote from your original idea. Learning from your failed experience is what you will cherish going forward in the next go round. In every discipline, you risk failure. As a professional screenplay writer, hone in on the perseverance necessary to get back up each time you make a mistake, learn from it, and move on to the next attempt. But of course, keep expanding your knowledge from all sources, continue to practice again and again, and refine your craft with each and every chance you get. So, do not hesitate putting that pen on the paper or tapping the keys of your computer, to start and complete that first draft.

Rule #12 - Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th — get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

Don’t settle for the cliché or the obvious. Challenge yourself to explore beyond the obvious and try out the non-obvious. Try not to discount the ideas that come into your mind first. Write it down and let it settle. Revise it. Play with it. Challenge its viability. Compare it to other ideas you may have. That’s how you get it out of the way. You should give it the due-diligence necessary, as it comes up into your mind.

You may not have chosen any of the many ideas that come after, but the exercise of going through them diligently may help you refine the elements of the first idea that gets your nod. Everything need not be new, surprising or shocking. Some of them have the potential to take you on a wild goose chase that may not materialize at the end. If you pack your story with too many surprises, it might be intriguing but not emotionally satisfying to the audience. The average audience is looking more for the interesting and deep characters (not necessarily likeable) in your story, than action or sequences that are interesting.

Of course you must always be on the quest to add great characters along with great ideas for action into your stories. Having said that, a story with a great character in a simple and mostly obvious (i.e., relatable) idea, is more endearing than stories that are bolstered by novel ideas, but poorly crafted and shallow characters. So when those ideas pop into your head always play with it and challenge it in context to the great characters you have already developed for the story. This will help you weed out the bad ones.

Rule #13 - Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

The audience will always engage with the characters that are driven by their desires, opinions and goals, rather than with passive and weak characters. So go ahead, give them those strong opinions, drives, desires, and goals that will make them take action resulting in conflicts and consequences. Good drama comes out of such conflicts and consequences.

Audiences enjoy a driven character, even maybe a flawed one, more than a likeable or sympathetic one. Too often the writer would create characters that are in trouble, or victim of their circumstances, or attacked by a vicious villain, to make them sympathetic. However, the writer must realize that, sympathy is not the emotion that the audience should feel for the main character. Instead they must feel compelled by the character’s actions that are driven by their desires and goals. The protagonist may fail repeatedly from their actions, but it is their drive that will keep them going at it repeatedly and finally succeed at the end. Therefore, remember that the character with strong viewpoints that are decisive and take action towards their goals (that may even be flawed) is what the audience engages with.

A romantic story with a slower pace could have an opinionated protagonist who is driven by his/her desire and goal, just as much as in an action packed story having action packed sequences by a strong protagonist. So don’t confuse the concept of strong opinions and drive with any particular genre, tone or pacing. It is the behavior of the active characters that gives the audience the context through which they can understand the story. Characters in the context of human emotional experience are what make the story relatable to the audience.

Cognitive science tells us that, to feel for someone we need to know what they are going through deeply. What are they feeling while going through the actions they take? If the audience is not able to be one with the at least the main character, by knowing their desire and goals, and how that motivates their actions, and how they feel about the things they are going through, the story will play out flat. So the audience wants to see every emotion that pops up in the character, so that they can relate to how the characters feel.

Rule #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.

This goes to the core of, what is your personal connection to the story which compels you to write it? Not just a reason arising from within the story universe itself, but your own emotional resonance with the material. The passion you might feel for your cause is what will help you derive a theme for your story and make your character convey that theme through subtext (not coming across as being preachy) or by their actions.

This theme or message or the heart of the story, brings together all the elements of the story to a central question, which is – is the protagonist right or wrong on the core belief system that drives him or her? Who you choose as your other characters in the story, comes entirely from identifying them with differing opinions about that same central question. Your characters, their motivations, goals, and their arcs are all derived from that central theme. The drama in the story comes from testing the belief hypothesis repeatedly, in ways that legitimately leaves the question open for the audience to connect with until the end.

So, as a writer if you harbor an inspirational theme within you, that can be ignited to develop rich characters whose journey you can relate to with passion, and bring it forth with a compelling central theme, go for it. That will lead you to a great story that can be told well. Otherwise, it may not be worth writing. Having a clear, concise answer to the question “why am I telling this story?” in the form of a thematic statement will enable you to always “dig deep” in the right places and stay on-point, and that will help you keep things interesting and worthwhile for the audience.

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 4 of 5,” we cover Rule #15 through Rule #18

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