Pixar Story Rules

By John Gilstrap

My son, Chris, sent me an interesting set of writing rules that he found in a blog called The Pixar Touch.  It presents one storyteller’s view on how to create compelling stories.  Here it is in its entirety:

Pixar story artist Emma Coats has tweeted a series of “story basics” over the past month and a half — guidelines that she learned from her more senior colleagues on how to create appealing stories:

#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.

I think this is about as complete a list of “rules” (even though there are no rules in a creative endeavor) as I’ve ever seen.  What do you think?


P.S., I learned yesterday that Damage Control made the USA Today Bestseller List.  Yay!

14 thoughts on “Pixar Story Rules

  1. I have that list stuck on my desktop for frequent consultation as I chew through a Nanowrimo story. It’s like every writing book I’ve ever laid my mitts on, distilled into delicious little nuggets.

  2. Just for shots and grins I went through FINDING NEMO with these rules in mind and then did the same with the last book I read, which was grim and dark. These worked in both cases. Love it. Thanks, John. and congratulations on the out of the blocks success of DAMAGE CONTROL!

  3. Not a bad list at all, though some of these “rules” are really writing prompts. Over the years I’ve put my own list together, and all writers should do the same. FWIW, here are my top five “favorite reminders.” The full list I pass out at my workshops:

    EMOTION! That’s what your readers want! YOU must be moved in order to move your readers. WRITE WITH EMOTION!

    Better to put too much emotion in first draft, and cut back, than not enough and puff up.

    Always write lists of possibilities. Search for originality.

    Write with eyes closed for description.

    Unanticipate. What would readers expect? Don’t give it to them.

  4. Congrats on Damage Control. It’s waiting impatiently in my Kindle to be read but I have one more book to finish before I can start it.

  5. Gilstrap, Want to know what I think? It;’s another compilation that has a few gems and lots of same old bag of crap regathered and thrown through another fan.
    About Damage Control I think you are an overnight success after twenty or so years of heavy labor and getting kicked in the chin, knees and balls. And that ain’t even going into the screenplays…

  6. I will say this though, which is close to what I have said before, and very similar to other things I have said which are not exactly the same but followed the same general pattern and topic as what I am about to say although I said them at different times and in very different words about the same subject as that which I will now say.

    Damage Control Rocks!

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