How Pixar can help you live a story worth re-telling

I've written before on living a life worth re-telling. A life that is more concerned with who you have become rather than what you've done. However, the things which we do are not to be discounted either. As Benjamin Franklin beautifully noted,

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.
— Benjamin Franklin

Often, it's the things we do that shapes who we become. Life is both a daunting challenge as well as an exhilarating adventure. But it's so easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day minutia that we forget how to add a little drama to the story. We forget about the elements of story that changes the hero for the better, drives them to do things they never dreamed of and moves the plot forward.

Emma Coats, a former Pixar story artist, shared some insights into story that she learned during the making of Brave and Monster's University. These insights soon came to be known as Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling. Many people discount story as being an element of fiction and not worth investing the time to understand.

But story isn't a child's plaything - it's the language by which we live our lives.

Gavin McMahon, cofounder of New York-based communications consulting firm fassforward, aptly noted,

It’s an antidote to increasing complexity, the day to day grind of meetings, email jail, and death by PowerPoint,
— Gavin McMahon

Perhaps, from these 22 rules, you can glean a bit of understanding about story that will add some flavor back into your day-to-day and allow you to live a story worth re-telling.


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.