Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

By Phill Powell

Pixar’s back on top of the box office with its latest release, Inside Out. Critics are glowing about the film, citing Inside Out’s unique take on emotions and clever story.

Inside_Out_Joy_sack
The average Pixar film earns more than $600 million worldwide. Inside Out scored $91 million during its opening weekend. (Image: Pixar)

It’s the latest in a long line of impressive Pixar masterpieces. Consider this: For the 15 Pixar feature films made between 1995 and 2015, more than half of them carry a Rotten Tomatoes approval score of 95 percent or higher.

Plus, Pixar is no stranger to the Academy Awards, having won seven Best Animated Feature Oscars. The studio has even captured Best Picture nominations along the way (for 2009’s Up and 2010’s Toy Story 3).

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling
Former Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats revealed in a 2011 Tweet Pixar’s internal list of storytelling tips. These 22 vital aspects of story creation are key to creating not just a good Pixar story, but a good story in general. And studying these concepts can help anyone who wants to learn to become an animator:

1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes. (Remember how Dory kept trying to find Nemo?)

Finding_Nemo
Beautiful animation attracted audiences, but outstanding storytelling made Finding Nemo a family favorite and modern classic. (Image: Pixar)

2. Keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience member, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different things.

3. Trying to achieve a theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about until you’re at the end of it. Once you’re there, you should rewrite it.

4. See if your story can be summarized through this format: 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? What is the character comfortable with? Throw opposing forces at them to challenge the character. How do they deal with it?

Up
Carl, the old man from Up, faced numerous challenges (from balloons, animals and pesky neighbor kids) that took him out of his comfort zone. (Image: Pixar)

7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Endings are hard; start developing yours up front.

8. Finish your story. Let it go, even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world, it would be perfect, but at some point you must move on. Try to do better next time.

9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what definitely would not happen next. Lots of times, the material to get you unstuck will show up right when you need it.

10. Pull apart stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you. You’ve got to recognize those parts in order to use them in your own work.

11. Putting your idea down on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head as a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone else.

12. Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third, fourth and fifth things, too. Get the obvious ideas out of the way. Then surprise yourself with what you can create.

13. Give your characters opinions. Creating a passive or moldable character might seem enjoyable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

14. Ask yourself, why must you tell this particular story? What’s the personal belief burning deep within you that fuels the narrative?

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As screen characters, we admire The Incredibles for trying to stay heroic…if not trim. (Image: Pixar)

15. If you were your character, how would you feel in this situation? Honesty lends credibility to otherwise unbelievable situations.

16. Give the audience a reason to root for the character. What’s at stake? Have you made that clear to the audience? What happens if the character doesn’t succeed? Stack the odds against them.

17. If an idea isn’t working, let it go and move on. Trust that it’ll come back around and prove useful later.

18. You have to know your own limits – and the difference between doing your best and endlessly fussing over material. Remember that story is testing, not refining.

19. Coincidences that get characters into trouble are great. But using coincidences to get characters out of trouble is considered cheating.

20. As an exercise, think about the “building blocks” of a movie that you dislike. How would you rearrange those blocks into a movie that you would like?

21. Identify with your situation/characters. What would make you act the way your characters do?

22. What’s the essence of the story you’re trying to tell? What’s the most economical way to tell that story? If you know that, build it out from there.

buzz-lightyear-opinions
Characters need opinions, and few Pixar characters have more opinions than Buzz Lightyear. (Image: Pixar)

Learn Animation From the Inside Out
The pros at Pixar have mastered the animated film and regularly take the art form to whole new places.

Are you ready to tell your own stories through animation? If so, consider attending a Digital Media Academy animation camp this summer.