When it comes to pure storytelling, is there a company doing better than Pixar? Pixar Animation Studios is a Disney subsidiary based in California and, since 1979, has produced some of the best-ever, film-presented stories. Part of Pixar’s success was thanks to early influence from George Lucas’s vision and Steve Jobs’s money, but much of their ongoing success comes from 22 storytelling rules Pixar writers religiously follow.
Toy Story. Finding Nemo. Dory. The Incredibles. Wall-E. A Bug’s Life. Monsters, Inc. Cars. And now Luca, to name just a few. What these blockbusters have in common is storytelling. Pure storytelling. But storytelling that follows Pixar’s rules.
Here at the Kill Zone, we have storytelling in common. Whether we’ve got our writing hat on or our reading hat off, at the end of the day, on the bottom line (insert your own concluding cliché here), we all love good stories well told. Must be something in our ancestral DNA.
Let me go around the Kill Zone room and spec out people’s storytelling style / rule adherence. (Sorry if I miss one or more of the usual suspects, but there’re only so many musical chairs at this party.)
Let’s see. Gonna start with JSB. Jim’s a crime guy, now working on a great hardboiled series starring Mike Romeo and HB has genre rules that Jim well knows, but probably breaks. Terry writes mystery & romance series. Same with her, she probably rule breaks. Debbie? She’s into action mysteries, I’d call them. John cranks out high octane thrillers; reportedly doing well. Kay and Ruth are traditional cozy gals with rules of their own while Deb does tall tales and short stories of redemption. Dale. Where’s Dale? He’s got his niche in empowered library cozies which, I’m sure, has its unique genre rules.
Joe’s retired from the contributing mill but always has time for an insightful and highly intelligent comment. Plus, he’s first to get up in the morning. Dr. Steve is building a legacy with middle-grade fantasies while Harald writes about Neanderthals who could be plucked straight from the Canadian Senate.
Sue—your crime works are so bloody powerful that if they get any stronger you’ll need to be institutionalized. Harvey writes right across the board. He’s, by far, the most prolific among us, and I think should be tested for meth. And Reavis Z is in a league all his own, making up rules as he writes along, and up there with GOATs like Brady.
Yeah, we’re a diverse pack, us Kill Zoners. But we’re storytelling fans and creatives at heart with one more thing in common. We understand there are storytelling rules. (I think it was Somerset Maugham who said, “There are only three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”)
And we’re a delinquent bunch here at the Kill Zone. As much as we respect “the rules”, we know rules are supposed to be broken. Provided, that is, we know what rules to broke and do so intentionally at potential peril of killing our darlings.
Pixar calls BS on the 3-rule crap. They have 22 rules their screenwriters follow, and they’re generous enough to share these storytelling rules with us lowly novelists.
What got me going on this post was a piece on Jane Friedman’s site the other morning titled Why Write This Book? The contributor, Jennie Nash, opened by stating that in 2013 Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats wrote down the 22 rules her collaboration team used to generate content—Academy Award-winning content. Ms. Coats shared them on Twitter, to which they went viral, and are now quoted so often that they’ve taken a life of their own. In no particular order, here are Pixar’s storytelling rules (guidelines, if you’d like):
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.
Kill Zoners — What Pixar storytelling rules hit home to you? And what rule or rules could you add to the Pixar list? Don’t be shy. Let us know in the comments!
Garry Rodgers is a retired murder cop and coroner who specialized in forensic death investigation. Now, Garry’s reinvented himself as an indie crime writer working on a new hardboiled detective fiction series titled City Of Danger.
Outside of crime-style storytelling, Garry Rodgers hosts a popular website and blog at DyingWords.net. Garry’s also a Transport Canada certified marine captain. Sometimes he putts around the Pacific saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island at British Columbia’s west coast.