Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling


As someone who is at the very least attempting to write books, I’m always on the hunt for good advice when it comes to composing stories (which are far more fun to write than blog posts). Pixar writes some of the most compelling stories around for all ages, so when their storyboard artist Emma Coats came out with a 22 point list about good storytelling, I was all ears.

This is from about a year ago, but I just discovered it and I assume a few aspiring writers out there haven’t seen it yet. Check it out, and see how much of it applies to Pixar movies:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

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

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

#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.

#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.

#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.

#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.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

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

#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.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#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.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

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

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

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

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

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  1. These are great if your goal is to be a corporate writer trying to write the next Twilight or something. Templates work for mass appeal because most people want to see the same thing over and over (hence remakes and sequelitis), but it’s anathema to creativity. That’s why early Pixar had everyone gushing and current Pixar is just something you maybe go see out of habit.

    1. While I’m inherently skeptical of most writing guides, this isn’t exactly a template so much as a list of ways to keep your thinking focused on what you’re doing and why it works (or doesn’t). A thematically muddled, ill-defined story like Twilight would have benefited immensely from being tested against most of these items.

      The majority of these points deal directly with finding the purpose of the story at hand, identifying sources of conflict, and simple productivity. Hardly bad advice, IMO.

      1. Fair enough. I guess the point I failed to make was that different methods work for different writers and using another writer’s method is probably not going to create the next Catcher in the Rye, House of Cards, or Watchmen.

        1. Amen. There’s nada wrong with balancing some advice along with one’s desire to grow a skill-set; but, yeah, don’t look for a formula if you’re hoping to write the Great American Novel b/c that sh#t comes from the heart, not from the formula … because if it were that simple then everyone would’ve done it.

    2. Storytelling is a bit like drawing. Having a “style” is great, but if you don’t understand the fundamentals, you’re just hoping to get lucky every time. Learning the basics and building from there can let you extend what you’re naturally good at even further. Talent can only get you so far without different types of practice. Also, lots of ideas are subconsciously inspired by underlying techniques. It doesn’t hurt to understand successful methods and try your hand at them to see what you get. That way, if you reject a rule, you at least know why and what you’re gaining/losing.

    1. Oh, God, no. Not really. I’ve been there since they started, and methinks it’s always struggled to get a foothold in one way or another. I’ve my own theories as to why, but don’t we all? What was the issue you had with the top brass, as it were?

      1. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an amazing site. They invited me and some of my friends from Amazon to beta test it and we pretty much all ended up leaving Amazon because Lunch was so much better.

        As a group we tended to focus on grindhouse, hardcore horror films, and like and when we all stuck around and started showing up on the top reviewer boards, the management took offense and started hassling us in various ways.

        Eventually they kicked out one of my friends for extremely petty and unfair reasons (they had suddenly decided that any film that had violence against women was off-limits… pretty much the entire horror genre) and after many lengthy discussions where I was repeatedly lied to and demeaned as woman-abusing pervert I said if he goes I go. Needless to say I went.

        1. Urgh. I didn’t know anything about that. I’ve only been moderating over there for the last month or so, and it’s pretty quiet. Agreed that they’ve got a pretty nifty set-up, but, yeah, there have probably been as many questionable decisions as any other web-shop that I know of.

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