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 4 of 5, we cover Rule #15 through Rule #18
Rule #15 - If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
It is your character’s emotional responses to situations that enable the audience to understand and care about the fictionalized world that you have created and its unrealistic rules that you have adopted. For the audience to accept the unbelievable as believable in invest into what it at stake, resulting in the audience’s emotional engagement, is the main reason why any form of story-telling can succeed.
Keeping in mind that the stories are artificial constructs crafted by the storyteller, you as a storyteller would get only the general cultural context to start with. That may only be sufficient to create some mundane situations believable. We know that the relatable character emotions add believability to worlds and situations we consider “inherently” believable. So, all we get as the storyteller to make the situation believable then is through how the characters respond to various situations.
As a storyteller, all you will have is the appeal to the emotions of the audience, to bring them into the story-world or situation or characters in the context of the story. That is why how the character feels in a given situation causing him/her to respond in a certain way, is so critical. If the scene you create is emotionally honest for the characters involved, you may be able to getaway with temporary suspension of disbelief as to the “internal world logic” mistakes in the story you are telling. You have to make the overall scene a lot more emotionally compelling for them to overlook unbelievably as compared to the real world.
It is the characters’ emotional responses to various situations that make the audience understand and care about the fictional world you created and its unrealistic rules. You still have to make all the specific details you add to that context ring true; and relatable character emotion is the way to do this. As long as the situation itself is believable within the story world, and the emotions expressed by the characters that are engaged and invested in that world is honest, the audience will start to believe the unbelievable.
That is why, it requires you as the storyteller to “put yourself in the character’s shoes” to comprehend the characters feelings and perspective. It is not meant to capture how you would react to the situation, but how, given the personality you have developed in the character, he/she would react to the situation. It is important to distinguish the difference between the two. Or else, all the characters in your story will end up responding like you. You actually have to imagine how your character would feel, based on the core personality traits and goals you’ve given that character, not just try to find actions for them you find empathetic (unless, of course, that particular character is one you empathize with). Often this where even actors in movies fumble. They end up responding to situations the way they might do so, but while playing a character in front of the camera. That is why these actors seem like the same character across the movies that they act in. They are just being themselves every time.
The only purpose behind honesty in the character response, in context to the story-world situation that befalls them, is to move the story forward with emotionally consistent characters that the audience can emotionally latch on to. If that does not happen, the audience will stop caring for the characters and in-turn they will disengage with the plot itself. And that is often why the stories fall flat.
Rule #16 - What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
The palpable outcome from the central question of the story, in not getting it resolved, is its stake. It forms the core of the story. What the character will lose if he/she is unable to overcome all internal and external obstacles, is the main tension line of the entire story. It is the magnitude of the obstacles that are stacked against the protagonist in getting to the resolution of the central question that makes audience feel empathy. The flaws in the protagonist, wrong choices he./she makes, the actions by the opponents and the external circumstances, all of which can become obstacles on the path to resolution. As the story progresses forward, the obstacles might seem insurmountable and the protagonist seems destined to lose the fight. The greater the challenges the protagonist faces, the more invested will the audience be with the protagonist fate. All this gets the audience even more invested in getting to the resolution.
As the story unfolds and the protagonist gets closer and closer to the utter failure, the stakes are at the highest point during the climax. This may also include further broadening the risk of loosing as the story unfolds. Having a credible, intelligent, driven, active, strong central opponent with more advantage in making the protagonist fail can cause increased drama and tension. In the context of the story-world that you created, the great challenges that the protagonist needs to overcome need only be plausible, believable and consistent.
The stakes have to be high and it forms the heart of the story and character. It has to be very clear from the beginning, as to what is at stake. Without a clear understanding of what is at stake, the audience will be lost, bored and/or dissatisfied. This is why it is recommended that storytellers figure out first what the ending state is going to be before starting the screenplay. Knowing the conclusion of the story and how the protagonist and opponent are each changed in the end will enable you to make sure that every moment in the story is a building block towards resolving the stakes.
Rule #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.
Practicing you craft, whether it is writing or any other, is never wasted. It is the cumulative experience gained from all those exercises whether successful or not, it counts. Experience comes from learning to identify when something you’re doing isn’t working, troubleshooting the reasons why, and trying out options to solve the problem. That is learning. If does not work out, learn from it, let it go and move on. What is important is that you must learn to figure out what did not work, each time you fail.
Also learn to let go. If an idea is really good, it will come back to you again. This time you may write the next draft to it or use it as a part of another idea. But rethink the usefulness of that idea then. Do not brood over the failed idea for too long. If they don’t get used again, it still is not wasted effort. It was something you needed to try in order to find what was right and there’s no shame or waste in that.
Just keep the ideas flowing. Work is never wasted because in order to find the right ideas for your story you have to try out ideas on the page and then refine, excise, and add to them. Go through whatever process that best works for you in capturing them and revisiting them when the time is right. Letting all those rich ideas flow through your process in itself is value added to the sharpening of your craft, and that counts toward becoming a better storyteller.
Rule 18 - You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
Knowing yourself well enough helps you scale your effort up or down. This is based on the average amount of time you should expect to spend on each aspect of your story. As you hone into your craft you become more precise on detecting spending too much time on something that may not be significant enough from a big picture point-of-view.
If you catch yourself spending too much time on something, just “park” that thought in the margins and move on. Paint the big picture first and then take deep dive into the sections. It is critical to understand the difference between “story development” and “story production.” When you are working on the creation of high-level elements (themes, structure, broad characterizations, arcs, plot-points, sequences), it is called Story Development. When you are working on the refinement of the details (dialog, action, settings, moments, and scenes), it is called Story Production.
Story development is also referred to just as “story” – it is the process of conceiving, structuring, sketching and testing your ideas. Here you lay out the broad plan, with very little details. If any, they are only to support the big ideas. At this stage nothing is etched in stone, while you build it through inspiration and analysis. Once the story gets locked into place after rigorous analysis and testing, the refinement with the details can begin.
The iterative refinement of the dialogues, descriptions, settings, actions, and scenes, is where the story goes into the production stage. Even here, when putting it all into the first draft, refrain from getting stuck with too much of details. They can be revisited during the rewrites. But even during refinement be disciplined to stay with the big picture of the story.
The key point here is to figure out the overarching structural and thematic elements first, and then test them rigorously to ensure that it works. Then get into refining the story with details, but focus should continue to remain with what is important to the narrative. Everything else is only making the story more complex, which is not going to be helpful in making the story any better.
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 5 of 5,” in this last part we cover Rule #19 through Rule #22