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Pixar – story-tellers extraordinaire! - Part 5 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 the last Part 5 of 5, we cover Rule #19 through Rule #22

Rule #19 - Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

This is a nugget of wisdom that comes from experience with storytelling and a novice can avoid this from the get go by taking heed to it right away. In general always try to avoid using coincidences. It is because every character must be driven in and out of trouble by his/her motivations, choices and actions. But if you have to use coincidences so as to get you out of some bind, do it only when you have to get your character into trouble. To use a coincidence when you have to get your character out of trouble, definitely will seem contrived. Either ways, using coincidences do have the potential to undermine the audience’s interest in the character.

Even when you put the character into peril with a coincidental event, you have to be careful. The audience is able to empathize with the character some, as they keep trying and trying, and at every turn the character’s actions keep blowing up in their face. In such cases as well, the audience would rather see the main characters bungle with their own actions, rather than any of the supporting characters. Unless you are cautious, even setups and payoffs can seem as coincidental if the construct is not finessed with the right context.

The bottom line is that coincidences that get the protagonist or other main characters in or out of trouble should mostly be the consequence of their own motivations, choices and actions. Any other reasoning will potentially seem lame.

Rule #20 - Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How’d you rearrange them into what you DO like.

Here is something you might be doing in your head often already. Just do it with more diligence on paper. Do not just stop at criticizing a bad movie, but go a step further and figure out how it could be made better to have a great movie. Picking apart a bad movie can fine-tune your sensitivity about what works and does not work in a movie. You would be thinking about what should be taken out, what can be rearranged, or what can be added to enhance the drama. This is essentially what gets done during editing of the movie. It is a skill that story writers should hone into as well. Except, take on such an exercise only after you have completed the first draft.

This troubleshooting exercise with bad movies can help you build patience with finding solutions for your own stories. You may find many other such exercises related to story analysis, character and story-world explorations, and other preparatory exercises, that can help enhance your storytelling skills.

Rule #21 - You gotta identify with your situation / characters, can't just write ‘cool'. What would make YOU act that way?

This is almost like saying, “put yourself into the character’s shoes.” Just that, as mentioned before, you have to imagine the character with all the flaws, motivations, goals and the core personality traits that you have defined for him/her. Based on that information, how would the character respond, behave and/or think is what should unfold in your movie. Beware of making your characters be modified versions of yourself.

As much as you should write stories that you are inclined to tell and so write what you know, but you should vary the setting with unfamiliar situations, populate them with unique characters that may be very different from you. So set out to write believable scenes with characters who would behave in unique ways, because of who they are. Draw from the character’s goals, strengths, flaws and needs to craft scenes with situations where such characters must have gotten themselves into. Keep the characters emotionally honest for the situation and scene they are in, which would continue to change along the character arc through the story.

Continuously keep reconciling the character arc with the plot in context to the central question and the theme. This is so that the transformational journey that the protagonist ends up going through due to whatever ordeal they are in is the consequence of the actions they take in context to their motivations, goals, decisions and actions. Design emotionally honest characters around archetypes without making them stereotypes. This is what makes for emotionally compelling drama on the screen.

Rule #22 - What's the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

To know the essence you your story, you need to be clear about its theme, the character arcs and what is at stake. Essentially it is the pitch for the story. The roughly two minutes long, “teaser pitch,” is the most economical telling of the essence of your story. The most compelling essentials of your story will include: title, genre, protagonist, the setting, the core conflict, the external stakes, the internal stakes, the thematic question or philosophical stakes, the crucial turning points (inciting incident, midpoint twist, the low points, and the climax), and the final resolution (of the plot, character arc, and the thematic question). This has to be done in about 3 sentences.

Do not confuse the pitch with the logline, which is just the statement of the core concept in one sentence. The logline is conveyed so that somebody would then want to hear your pitch. So, when you put together your pitch, leave out a lot of the setup and convey a lot of essential components through subtext or implication rather than in a direct statement. Before you start to write your first draft, it is a great practice to nail down all the elements of the pitch and before every rewrite each of your consecutive drafts, you should restate these elements with changes clearly spelled out to yourself for better clarity in the 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.

At the conclusion of this analysis, it is important to state once again that this is just a point-of-view about storytelling. Some may agree with it and some may not. However, this is definitely a good start for your conversation with some food for thought on the subject of story-telling in whatever context. This has definitely helped a lot in the context of storytelling exercises during business transformations for companies across industries by management consultants.

It’s a jungle out there. So, let us tell the right stories. Tell the stories right. Together! Let us tell the stories that really matter.

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