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I stopped scrolling the Google search pages for Pixar’s 22 Rules Of Storytelling at 20+ pages. God knows how long it goes on for, and how many websites have linked to them. There’s certainly no burning need for me to add to this number, but I will, just in case some reader of Script Gods hasn’t seen this list. They truly are essential elements of storytelling. Director and Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats (@lawnrocket) tweeted out 22 tips for storytelling in 2011. Coats learned the ‘guidelines’ from senior colleagues on how to create appealing stories, tweeting the nuggets of wisdom over a 6 week period. Here are the tips:

  • PIXAR’S 22 RULES OF STORYTELLING

  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.

With 20+ search pages to pick from, I found a couple of cool presentations of these rules. The first is from Indiewire, and can be found here, including actual Pixar movies to highlight each rule.

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Even better is from Slackstory, found here, which highlights the rules in Legos!

I won’t comment on all of them, but a couple of these really hit home for me:

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

 

Pixars-rules-of-storytelling-obvious

You try for days and days to find a solution to a scene but you’re stuck. You’re in the shower and the AHA! moment hits! Yes, that’ll work! Wrap yourself in a towel, pray to god your roommate isn’t around, grab a pen and write it down. It isn’t until a day or two later you realize they did the same thing in Terminator 2, Clockwork Orange, or SOMEWHERE else. It’s a drag, but the first solution is NEVER to be trusted. Keep digging. You’ll be happy you did.

  • Simplify. Focus. Combine Characters

 

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Screenwriting is about developing a reductive mind. You need to develop a cut instinct. Every character, every scene, every line of action, every line of dialogue. You don’t have this pressure in a novel because a novel can be 300 pages or 500 pages. You can’t afford to be a adjective and adverb hater like me(pick a better verb, you won’t need the adverb!) Adaptations, especially, demand character combination. A good read means every scene is essential, the eye moves vertically down the page because you dumped umpteenth non-necessary detail. Cliche as it sounds, less is more.

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  • What are the stakes?

Who am I rooting for? When I step into a movie theater I’m–supposedly–wanting to invest in this movie, in these characters. No, that doesn’t mean I have to sympathize with all of them but there have to be STAKES, flat-out. This should be one of the first things you do in character development, the ol’ IF-THEN equation. IF your protagonist doesn’t reach his goal–THEN what?

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  • When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next.

Love this one. We’ve all been there, stuck and clueless on how to proceed. Staring at the computer, refusing to maybe take a step back, a step off, and not hit it so hard. Even though you won’t be writing it into the script, start writing down the paths your character WON’T be walking down. It’s better than doing nothing at all and getting frustrated. Commonly called brainstorming. Each of us, as writers, gets caught in a rut in terms of the PROCESS of writing. The key is to shake that up. Constantly invent, constantly surprise, and don’t be afraid to play.

Take a step back, a step off.

Make the list of stuff that’s never gonna happen.

 

 

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