Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

From Aerogramme Writers’ Studio, via Adafruit. My favorite is #13: "Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself."

These rules were originally tweeted by Emma Coates, Pixar’s Story Artist. Number 9 on the list - When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next – is a great one and can apply to writers in all genres.

  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 very 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.


  1. I went to a talk given by one of the early Pixar programmers. 

    He said that they won’t even storyboard a movie unless the writer is able to tell the plot as if it were a long joke and make it interesting.   He then showed footage of Andrew Stanton doing exactly that for the first 15 minutes of Finding Nemo and it was unbelievably awesome.

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

    This is good advice.  I think the highest praise I ever got on short piece of fiction was when the 2nd Matrix movie came out (I realize there is no 2nd Matrix movie, but bear with me) and I re-worked one of the scenes to be consistent with the first movie – same initial and end conditions, but very different path to get there.  Several people told me I should go into sci-fi writing because, I think, they were similarly frustrated that the actual writers didn’t bother.

      1. Oh, dreamworks really is beyond the pale, i can’t remember sitting through a whole movie of theirs like ever. While Pixar does have more original stories (particularly liked Ratatuille) you can sense that one and the same script-machine has worked over each one of them. Design-by-committee is a common geriatric disease in entertainment industry; sadly it’s usually fatal and not many companies manage to survive it – Disney in the 90’s is a notable exception, for example.

        1. And here’s me thinking that 90’s Disney movies were genuinely uninteresting but every single Pixar movie must be watched because they are all brilliant…

          Could it be that we are talking not about well-made stories but matters of taste?
          As far as I can tell, Pixar has one of the best strategies ever to make sure that their writers never go the boring, safe route that would result in making the same movie over and over again, and they do it very consciously.

  3. pixar’s gonna need a lot of cheatsheets like this. their recent output indicates to me that disney got into their brain and they are now incapable of the kind of incredible stories featured in Up or Wall*E.

    1. The seeds of their demise were planted a long time ago; the first Cars was one of the rare movies when I just thought “this is for children, I can’t be bothered”… but they still cranked out UP later on (and WallE got great reviews, even though I personally didn’t like it that much). So this might just be another creative slump, which is par for the course for any artist under commercial pressure, let’s face it.

  4. I want to know what the heck happened with “Brave”. Was pretty good for the first third of the movie, then got derailed with the effects of her choice. First Pixar flick I’d seen since “Toy Story 2” that I was disappointed by.

  5. There was a 23rd item on the list :

    #23: Be aware of the conventions and assumptions that go with your genre. Acknowledge them, then subvert them ; don’t ignore them.

  6. #24: be sure you can market the hell out of the characters, tie-ins are everything…  think happy meal toys, halloween masks, tooth brushes and any other short-lived plastic concoction suitable for future landfill occupation…

  7. …and this explains why their movies have become formulaic instead of innovative. They have an extensive set of rules now, and have become the very thing they formed to combat.

  8. Both Emma Coates and Pixar have requested that these no longer be called “Pixar’s Rules,” because they never were to begin with – they were Emma’s own personal tips that she learned while working there. She actually is no longer at Pixar.

  9. Love this.  Everyone should know this. 

    To make a credible “news” story, obliterate every element here and add appeal to confirmation bias and prurience.  Then, you have the perfect formula for news on a station like Fox or paper like the Boston _Herald_ or MS-NBC in their dark moments, because it will never sound like fiction.
    No “roadbumps” to make the intended audience go “nah, they made that up.”

  10. That’s the reason why the movies they produce all taste the same: they just follow the same recipe.

  11. 23. Always include a fast chase or “roller coaster ride” type of scene where your characters go like “whooooaaaaaa, weeeeeeeeeeeh, ahhhhhhhhhh”.

    1. Please stop making one-line comments with links to marginally related posts on other sites.

  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind is rule #12 actually. Is that just an error or was this list even numbered to begin with?

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