Storytelling the Pixar way

From the Twitter feed of Pixar story artist Emma Coats, a series of "Pixar story rules." Some of these strike me as specific to the Pixar business and/or filmmaking, but others are perfect storytelling koans that I plan on stealing for my future writing workshops. Here are a few of my favorites:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#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.

#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.

#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.

Pixar story rules (one version) (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

(Image: Pixar Animation Studio, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from superstrikertwo's photostream)


  1. As a person who likes to go to movies and then discuss them, this was my fave:

    “#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?”

    I feel like critiquing a movie without this step is useless.

  2. We discussed this on the StoryWonk Sunday writing podcast last week, and the only one with which we disagreed was #4. Too many writers spend too much time establishing the world; start your story with trouble, and fill in the details as you go. Your reader — or viewer — will thank you for it.

    1.  I think #4 is valuable for overall story concept.  If you start the camera or the first chapter at “One day __”, you can still fill in “Once upon a time __” and “Every day __”.  I think Toy Story did this well, starting with Buzz’s upsetting introduction, and using the bedroom-changes-montage to convey what life used to be like for Woody. 

    2.  This, to me, is the essential difference between Tolkien and JK Rowling. LotR feels like history, because he was a worldbuilder, not a storyteller, while Hogwarts makes little internal sense but is lots of fun to read.

  3. Awesome!  I am struggling a bit with my assimilation of this one though: “#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.”

    I’d be interested to hear how other people are understanding that one.  What’s the difference between testing and refining?  I guess it is just semantics, but aren’t you refining your story if you are testing different things, and keeping what works?

  4. #19 is at the root of neary every “Three’s Company” episode. (“Man About the House” for those of you in the UK).

  5. #19 should also add:  Coincidences that let the character think they are getting out of trouble but end up getting into even more trouble are THE BEST!

  6. I think that Toy Story 3 is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. I’ll watch it again and again. Still, though, the influence of #19 on the plot is overwhelming. 

    I didn’t need an insider’s perspective to know that this is part of the design patterns for their writers. Throughout the movie, Woody’s posture seems to take on an increasingly labored stance as things keep getting worse and worse. 

  7. Great ideas. Pixar has been consistently great storytellers over nearly every one of their films.  I’m a huge fan.

  8. They missed the obvious one that’s been Pixar’s primary rule for every feature film to date (though it seems Brave is an attempt to go against type for one sub-clause)…
    Tell a coming-of-age story about an outcast/misfit/loner; who’s a bit child-like and relates to the audience’s inner child; who lacks confidence, and doesn’t know he has the hidden ability to succeed; and can rely on his friends to come together for help when the going gets tough. And, as the main character, is male — strictly male — the few interesting female characters are all killed, removed from the picture, relegated to Supporting Character, or put back into their cliche-box — this must be established in the film’s intro.
    They are getting better in some regards: “The Incredibles” had a token black sidekick, and “Up” had a token Asian supporting character.

  9. These storytelling ideas smack too much of the specious advice in the “Save the Cat” book–written by the dude who wrote “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot.”   Sound stuff in the abstract, but generic disasterville in the doing.  I think it’s a danger to follow a template too closely because if these story conventions are contrived, they come out pretty lame.

  10. Ooh, you forgot these;

    23. Make sure your villain is an ugly or bent person and comes from the poor family on the block.
    24. Make sure the poor people in your story are suspicious and sloppy.
    25. Make sure your hero is squeaky clean and boring.
    26. Pimping, bad. Pandering, good.

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