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Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling – Which I Adopt, Adapt and Improve

September 25, 2012

I thought this was a super interessting read regarding the art of story telling. If anyone knows how to tell a story, Pixar does so with lots of color. Trying to adopt some of these tips into my next stories with Feature Writing and Digital Journalism.

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling – Which I Adopt, Adapt and Improve

The 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar On Twitter, Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats has compiled nuggets of narrative wisdom she’s received working for the animation studio over the years. It’s some sage stuff, although there’s nothing here about defending yourself from your childhood toys when they inevitably come to life with murder in their hearts.

A truly glaring omission. #1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes. (This is a Franklin twist: Failure can be reframed into success)

#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. (If you have a knack for “fine writing” and the world recognizes you have that knack, you can wander off into stylistic pyrotechnics. That can make your stories superficial, though entertaining.)

#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. (The important word here: rewrite. There is no shame in narrative clarity. No matter what modern poetry suggests, obscurantism is not wisdom.)

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

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free. (Combine characters? Noooooo. These hints, after all, are about fiction. The rest of it. Oftentimes, yes. Not in the New Yorker, where digression seems to be a sign of intellectual honesty and courage in the face of contradiction. But a lot of the time. Yes.)

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal? (See if life has ever thrown the polar opposite at them. It’s a good question to ask. I can imagine a story based on how a person prepares for the challenge they think will come but isn’t here yet.)

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front. (I did this so seldom. It’s such a very good idea for profiles. You may change your mind after you’ve gotten to that end, but it will focus your writing and move the process of deciding exactly that the story is about along more quickly.)

#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. (The very definition of most journalism.)

#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. (Nope. Can’t figure out a non-fiction equivalent for that.)

#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. (Yep.)

#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. (Yep. Yep. Yep. Daydreaming ain’t writing. Also, writing it down immediately makes clear how patchy your inspiration may have been.)

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself. (No, don’t discount it but consider other alternatives when it comes to “discovering” your profile subject. Sometimes first impressions are correct.)

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience. (Draw your subject out. A loudmouth profile topic is a gift, though then you must challenge and push back. A truly unresponsive subject, like an undersized fish, should be tossed back. Never think: this person or nothing.)

#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. (Yep. I urge you to find a person who in some way connects with your passions. And then you are faced with the task of reporting in an honest and balanced way and NOT propagandizing.)

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations. (Ask. Share your own feelings and experiences. Is it manipulative? It can be. Does it work. Yes, it does.)

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against. (You are looking for a subject against whom the odds have been stacked. But, of course, even the rich and beautiful have problems, or think they do.)

#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. (I called it my boneyard, a collection of every story that didn’t make it, every phrase or flourish that I or some editor cut.)

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining. (I think she means at some point, even if you have time for infinite polish, you need to let it go. If you are writing on deadline for money, someone else makes that decision for you.)

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating. (Except in real life. Franklin wants problems solved through the character’s epiphany and subsequent action. But if it happens, it happens. But then your subject may have to deal with the fact an accident solved the problem and that awareness might be an epiphany? The power of the way you frame things is great.)

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like? (Works great for long profiles. Jump in and be aware of your reactions word by word.)

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way? (Ah, this is a profound one. Let me tease one idea out of this. In our class, at least, your interests will determine whom you seek as a subject. How do you deal with it so you can be fair? I want you always to be fair, no matter how slippery the term. And if you are satisfied that you are a journalist and not an advocate – not only an advocate? – do you need to communicate your world view to the reader explicitly, or do you think the reader will be sharp enough to figure that out on his/her own? Let’s get USFish here. What is the moral and/or ethical way of dealing with the fact you have values that are going to shape your story?)

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there. (Are we talking outline? I think we are.)

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