Pixar Storytelling – 20 Points Writers Can Learn From Animated Stories

JordanDane
@JordanDane

I ran across this great video posted on Youtube that features the 20-pt advice of Emma Coats, a master storyboard artist with Pixar. The narrator of this video is writing coach Mike Consol. It runs through tips on storytelling. Whether you are a novice writer or a seasoned pro, you can learn a lot from these amazing gems.

For your convenience, I posted Pixar’s 20 points in summary and my paraphrasing, but it’s worth it to watch the video for more. Jot down the tips that speak to you and try some if you haven’t.

1.) Create characters that people admire for more than their successes.

2.) Write what is interesting for your readers, not just you as a writer.

3.) Create a character story arc using these basic lines:

Once upon a time there was _____
Every day _____
One day _____
Because of that _____
Until finally _____

4.) Simplification & focus is important. Simplifying the flow to the essence of the story is freedom for the writer. (This is like the ELLE method of sharp fast-paced writing used in the scenes of Law & Order TV series – Enter Late, Leave Early.)

5.) What is your character’s comfort zone, then throw them a major curve ball. Challenge them and give them a twist of fate.

6.) Create an ending BEFORE you write the middle. Endings are tough. Know them upfront.

7.) Finish your story by letting go of it. Nothing is perfect. Move on. You can do better the next time.

8.) Deconstruct a story that you like. What do you like best about it? Break it down. Recognize the elements.

9.) Put your story on paper and not just keep it in your head.

10.) Discount the first few plot/story ideas that come to you. Get the obvious stuff out of the way and clear your mind for new story ideas that will surprise you.

11.) Give your characters opinions. Passive characters are boring.

12.) Ask yourself – why must I tell THIS story? This will be the heart of your story and the essence of storytelling.

13.) Ask yourself – If I were my character, how would I feel? Emotional honesty brings authenticity and credibility to your writing. If the story puts the character in over-the-top circumstances, the emotional honesty can help the reader relate to the character and draw them in.

14.) What are the stakes? Give your readers a reason to root for your character. Stack the odds against your character and make them worthy of their starring role.

15.) No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let it go and move on. The idea or writing might be used at another time when it’s more suitable.

16.) Know the difference between doing your best and fussing.

17.) A coincidence that gets your character INTO trouble is a beautiful thing, but a coincidence that gets your character OUT OF trouble is cheating. Don’t cheat.

18.) Take the building blocks of a movie or story that you do NOT like and rearrange them into a story that is better.

19.) A writer should identify with a situation or a character. Figure out what would make YOU act that way to make it read as authentic.

20.) What is the essence of your story and then figure out what is the most economical way to tell that story.

FOR DISCUSSION:
1.) What tips did you find most helpful?
2.) Are there tips listed that you are eager to try?

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26 thoughts on “Pixar Storytelling – 20 Points Writers Can Learn From Animated Stories

  1. I could relate to all 20 tips. My biggest hurdle is #16, as I fuss and nitpick my manuscript to death before sending it to the publisher. Excellent post, Jordan. Thanks for sharing these wonderful tips.

    • Even the simple #2, I found truth in. My current WIP has personal elements to it and I found that I had diverted the story by adding things that were accurate but slowed the pace. I had to delete and virtually start over.

      I catch myself “fussing” too.

  2. I judged a contest for unpublished writers last year. They submitted 30 pages. Too many of the entries, although well written, neglected #14 above. Stuff happened, but there were no consequences for their characters. If a reader is saying “so what?” then you need to raise the stakes. Many of them had “bad stuff” happening, but it didn’t seem to matter to the character. Readers should know the possible outcomes of each conflict, no matter how trivial. Characters should make choices. Hard choices. As Deb Dixon said, the choices should be between “it sucks” and “it’s suckier.”

    • I like Deb Dixon-isms too. Her GMC book is on my shelf.

      I totally agree that writers often depict things on the page that would scare the hell out of me, but their character laughs it off or doesn’t take it seriously. Writing should trigger a visceral reaction, tug at the emotions or pull the reader into a scene they can feel, otherwise it’s just words on a page. Thanks, Terry.

      P.S. – I’m enjoying your food pics on Instagram.

      • I have Debra Dixon’s hardcover book on my shelf, too (though it’s one of the ones that frequently gets loaned to others). That tall grey book with the bright blue letters “G M C” contains a goldmine of writing advice. I have the first edition, written in 1996, but the advice in it still applies. Great stuff. Anyone who struggles with understanding scene structure and such should grab this book today.

        • The funny thing is, according to what I heard Deb say at a meeting, was that the entire concept was something “off the top of her head” when she needed to write a blog post or some other article. How it grew!

          • You know her? What a great teacher! Her books is one I’ve recommended to countless people who were struggling with structure. (When I loan the book, it’s one I usually have to go after if I want it back… lol).

  3. I saw value in all of these and will print them out to keep with me when I’m brainstorming.

    #8 Deconstructing a story I like–I’ve been doing that a bit with some JA Jance novels I’ve been enjoying. Among other things, I found that deconstruction gave the lie to one of the often touted rules of writing: Don’t introduce too many characters at once/have too many characters in your story. When you do it well, it’s no problem.

    #7 Finish story & let go: THIS I need to learn at long last. My productivity will make leaps once I take this one to heart. Which goes hand in hand with #16–fussing.

    #18: First thing that came to mind was that I always hated the movie Top Gun and never watched Tom Cruise after because I was extremely irritated that they killed Goose off and not his character. Someday I may just have to make it right. LOL!

  4. ThatThatthThat’s a super list. I’ve had a particularly hard time with:
    7.) Finish your story by letting go of it. Nothing is perfect. Move on. You can do better the next time.

    It’s something I’m working hard on to overcome. I recently kind had this re-emphasized in a painting project in which I’d been working for weeks on a painting but just couldn’t get the results I was looking for. Then one night after the Mets lost another incredibly heartbreaking game, I suddenly felt I had nothing to lose and this set me free to be myself. I painted over that painting and produced a painting that I am very happy with. I did things in that new painting that I would never have done if allowed to think too much about it—but it ended up being just what I wanted most. You do have to keep moving and not get stuck in over-thinking…. there comes a time when you need to think for edits and what not but in getting that first draft or getting some of that ‘energy’ down on paper or canvas, it helps to keep moving and to feel free.

    • Great insight, John. That quote about “books are never finished. They’re abandoned” is true. I choose to believe that my best/fab book is my next one. Because we learn from every project, this must be true. Thanks for your comments.

  5. Love this list. I found it a while back and have used it in workshops. It’s a good head-clearer. Even for experienced writers.

    • I find that I need constant reminders because my mind flexes on what truly sinks in at any particular time. “Brushing up” on tips just reinforces good foundational concepts that may click from project to project.

      Thanks, Kris.

      • I agree, Jordan. Sometimes visiting new places (or new books) isn’t as satisfying as revisiting a familiar place (or a favorite book). I always reread my favorite books on writing.

  6. Fabulous article, Jordan. Every word.

    I love the part about deconstructing a movie or story. Every writer should deconstruct at least ten novels in their favorite genres. For those who don’t know what we mean by story breakdowns, visit Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog. In fact, today she provided a story breakdown of The Hunger Games. Alex is another terrific teacher, and I own all of her books. I love using movie examples, because nearly everyone has seen certain movies. It can be harder to find books everyone has read.

    Like Sue, I smiled at #16. Sometimes, perfection is the enemy of “good enough.” (No, I didn’t say that, did I?)

    • Alex is a fun person and an excellent writer, too. We’ve done joint presentations before, on plotting. My “W” plotting method is simpler and rudimentary compared to her detailed methodology. Mine is purposefully geared toward recovering pantsers, like me. We need simple to make the leap.

      Alex’s presentation is a screen writer’s approach to plotting. She breaks down Hunger Games, which is a classic example of turning points since Suzanne Collins is a former screen writer.

      • My background and degrees are in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science (even though I’ve taken lots of advanced writing/acting classes to soothe my artistic soul). So even though my creative soul can relate to the pantser, the analytical part of me knows what can happen without structure. I’ve worked on many large, complicated, high $ engineering projects and have been called on to “fix” messes that could’ve been avoided with better planning on the front end. I guess that part of my background helps me to analyze writing. I’m a big fan of plotting and beat sheets and outlines and note cards, because I know that they work (even if they may not be as much fun at first). I think it’s helpful for all fiction writers to study screenwriting principles and take some acting classes. I’m envious of my son, who is not an actor, but nonetheless was lucky enough to take one of John Astin’s acting classes at Hopkins. Btw, John Astin, a teenage math whiz, began as a math major at Hopkins (https://hub.jhu.edu/magazine/2012/summer/staging-a-revival/). I’ve noticed that many of the regulars have very unusual and diverse backgrounds, an amazing combination of left and right brain thinking here. Anyway, some people may believe that plotting inhibits creativity, but I’ve learned that understanding structure actually frees the mind. I tend to think more like a screenwriter these days, but novelists actually have a little more flexibility in terms of plotting. In the end, though, writers should use whatever methods that get the job done. Everyone is different.

  7. Good morning; it’s still morning in South Alabama at two in the afternoon. The school bus didn’t come by this morning so I thought it was Sunday.
    Anyway this was great! And I would like to suggest that anyone with an open mind to story telling as well as story writing attend the National Storytelling Festival the first weekend in October up in Jonesborough, Tenn. It’s a highlight of my year, and I always learn something new, plus there are probably around ten thousand other people that feel the same. Check it out.

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