Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

Every­one from Kurt Von­negut to Ernest Hem­ing­way has shared his ideas on craft­ing sol­id nar­ra­tive writ­ing. One of the most recent sages to join the canon is Emma Coates, Pixar’s for­mer sto­ry artist. Her list of the 22 Rules of Good Sto­ry­telling gleaned on the job has been gain­ing Inter­net trac­tion since it was pub­lished last June.

Twen­ty two? That’s twen­ty more than Tol­stoy. I know some peo­ple enjoy a lot of direc­tion, but those of us who rel­ish bush­whack­ing start to chafe when the road is that heav­i­ly sign­post­ed.

By all means, sam­ple Coates’ Pixar 22 (see them all below). Apply any and all that work for you, though don’t get your hopes up if your ulti­mate goal is to sell a sto­ry to Dream­works or Dis­ney. They’ve got for­mu­las of their own.

As for myself, I am repur­pos­ing #4 — the only rule that does­n’t con­tain an implied order or some deriv­a­tive of “you” — as an extreme­ly jol­ly par­lor game.

Here it is in its orig­i­nal form:

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

While it’s entire­ly pos­si­ble to fill in those blanks with the fruits of your own imag­i­na­tion, it’s a true joy to sub­ject one’s most cher­ished lit­er­ary, cin­e­mat­ic, and dra­mat­ic works to this retroac­tive Mad Lib. (It works pret­ty well with estab­lished reli­gions too, but I’m not here to tread on the faith­ful’s toes.)

Warn­ing: there are some major spoil­ers below. Now that that’s out of the way, let the guess­ing begin!

Once upon a time there was a poor fam­i­ly in Okla­homa. Every day, they tried to make it work on their hard­scrab­ble farm. One day their last speck of top soil blew away. Because of that, they decid­ed to seek a bet­ter life in Cal­i­for­nia. Because of that, every able bod­ied young male left the fam­i­ly. Until final­ly their old­est daugh­ter ends up breast­feed­ing a starv­ing stranger.

How about this?

Once upon a time there was a poor young sol­dier. Every day, he dreamed of ris­ing above his sta­tion. One day he met a beau­ti­ful rich girl named Daisy. Because of that, he bought a man­sion where he threw enor­mous par­ties. Because of that, he hooked back up with Daisy. Until final­ly, he gets shot to death in his pool.

There’s no deny­ing that it fits this one like a glove:

Once upon a time there was a kid. Every day, he played with his cow­boy doll. One day he got a space­man doll. Because of that, his inter­est in the cow­boy took a seri­ous nose­dive. Because of that, the cow­boy and the space­man each swore vengeance upon the oth­er’s house. Until final­ly there’s a blood­bath from which no one emerges unscathed.

I could keep go on for­ev­er, but I don’t want to come off as a toy hog. Instead, I invite you to share your filled out Num­ber Fours in the com­ments section…or tell us which of the oth­er twen­ty-one seem most suit­ed to its intend­ed pur­pose.

Pixar’s 22 Rules for 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.

via Boing­Bo­ing

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day was not raised to ques­tion author­i­ty.

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Comments (6)
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  • Sputnik says:

    The only word need­ed is … beau­ty.

  • Tim says:

    Sure, it’s a spin on Mad Libs, but this ‘par­lor game,’ known as the Sto­ry Spine, was devel­oped as an improv exer­cise in the 1990s by Kenn Adams of Freestyle Reper­to­ry in New York. Rebec­ca Stock­ley of BATS Improv in San Fran­cis­co is like­ly the one who shared it with Pixar employ­ees.

  • bugaj says:

    For a more detailed analy­ses of these “rules”, which will help clar­i­fy them and make them more use­ful, read my “Pixar’s 22 Rules of Sto­ry (that aren’t real­ly Pixar’s), Ana­lyzed” series as a free eBook:nnhttp://www.bugaj.com/blog/2013/11/9/pixars-22-rules-of-story-pdf-ebook

  • robgonzo says:

    Writer Bri­an McDon­ald also out­lined these rules ver­ba­tim in his 2010 book, Invis­i­ble Ink: A Prac­ti­cal Guide to Build­ing Sto­ries that Res­onate
    Once you read it you’ll nev­er look at movies the same again.

  • Even Steven says:

    Once upon a time there was a curi­ous house in the neigh­bor­hood.

    Every day the curi­ous neigh­bor­hood peo­ple could glimpse wisps of smoke and fire and would spec­u­late their pur­pose.

    One day the fire depart­ment was called by a new neigh­bor who knew noth­ing of the curi­ous nature of the house.

    Because of that the fire and smoke wisps became enraged.

    Because of that the fire and smoke wisps, actu­al­ly aliens run­ning a sur­vey of Earth, had to leave the curi­ous house.

    Until final­ly the aliens went back home and all curios­i­ty in the neigh­bor­hood was lost and the neigh­bor­hood’s cit­i­zens died short­ly there­after of bore­dom.

  • falafel says:

    Once upon a time there was a mys­te­ri­ous being that loved prank­ing peo­ple. Every day, it would sneak up to ran­dom peo­ple and whis­per “You’re next” in their ear. One day, a new per­son who was very strong and had very good reflex­es moved to town. Because of that, the mys­te­ri­ous being tried to scare it. Because of that, the new per­son whipped around when it heard the whis­per and punched and kicked the being so hard the invis­i­bil­i­ty coat came off. Until final­ly, the per­son got so many bruis­es the peo­ple thought he was some evil shad­ow and the place they lived became a ghost town.

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