Pixar's rules of storytelling

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Nov 23, 2002
Found this piece and thought it was nice:

On Twitter, Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats has compiled nuggets of narrative wisdom she's received working for the animation studio over the years.

#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.

Or, for the graphical form, try here:
I really like those. Simple rules that should be easy to follow! :) Particularly liked number four. Maybe that's the key to a good 75 word story!
Excellent rules, thanks for sharing! I think any author of any level of experience would find these as useful prompts in the long process of writing and editing a story.
That list was really interesting and useful.
I would ALWAYS say start with your ending; then do the beginning. The rest should write itself.

If that's regarding writing I've always gone start to finish. It just seems more natural for me, and I'm bad (though improving) at continuity. I do plot the entire thing before starting to write, though.
Thanks - an interesting list, with some good pointers ... though I think I read somewhere (or maybe I imagined it :D!) that Agatha Christie would write a story to its conclusion, and then deliberately alter the culprit's name and motives to ensure that no one would guess whodunnit ... anyone else heard of this, or am I just rubbish at working it out :(?
That's actually some quite simple (i.e. good) tips - #9 was a good way of thinking outside the box. And I apologise for using that phrase.
There's reasons why Pixar is successful and it looks like this sort of list is one of them. Good writing isn't only about the technicalities; as important as it is to show grammar and punctuation, it doesn't automatically make a story good. Following, or at least keeping in mind, guidelines like these are a good start in improvement.
Thanks for sharing. 11 & 8 are my favourites. They are about getting something done and moving on, less about how to tell the story.
Some really interesting stuff there. I like number 12. There have many times where I think the first thing that comes into my mind is good, but how would my story develop if I took the time to dig deeper.