Pixar’s 22 Storytelling Rules

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.



48 thoughts on “Pixar’s 22 Storytelling Rules

  1. Good morning, Garry. Thank you for sharing this. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not much of a Pixar guy — personal taste — but this list is terrific and your post in the Keeper of the Day.

    The rule that hit home for me was/is Numero Uno. Quitters never win and winners never quit.

    Also, thank you for mentioning me as one of the gang, even though I am now on the periphery rather than in the scrum. It means a lot.

    Have a terrific weekend, Garry. Thanks again.

    • And good morning to you, O early riser. “Quitters never win and winners never quit.” Yes. It ranks with, “You never finish something you don’t start.” And, “Arse in chair. Fingers on keys.” Enjoy your day, my friend!

  2. Thanks for bringing these up (maybe again for many), Garry. For me, this one resonates:
    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.

    • There’s so much “Write To Market” advice out there, Terry, and I know it pays. But when you find that combination of what pays and what’s fun, it’s gold.

      • My challenge is always getting outside of the “me” when I’m writing. Just because I like or dislike something doesn’t mean it’s the same for readers.

  3. Great post, Garry. Thanks for showing us the list. I hadn’t seen it before. I have to admit that a lot of the rules sound familiar, things we’ve been taught her by JSB, Larry Brooks, Kris, John, Jodie, and many others.

    I’m going to print it out and keep it beside my writing chair, along with JSB’s SUPER STRUCTURE and an outline I made of Larry’s GREAT STORIES DON’T WRITE THEMSELVES.

    Have a great day!

    • Merci, Steve. I spend part of every day doing some sort of craft improvement reading/research. When I stumbled on Pixar’s rules, they kinda hit home with me – many being familiar but presented in an interesting way. I felt it was worth sharing and it’s easier to cut and paste to make word count than come up with something original. And you enjoy your day, too!

  4. Garry, these seem less like story telling “rules” than story writing prompts. They do help you think about your story, to add flesh and muscle…but then you have to actually write it with craft, which is more amenable to the word “rules” (though we eschew that word here at TKZ…I prefer to use “fundamentals” or “guidelines.”)

    On this list, I especially endorse #12. I’ve been teaching “list making” for a couple of decades. I got into the practice early via Jack Bickham.

    #19 is longstanding, and comes as close to a “rule” as there is. Don’t break this one!

    Of course, I have a different take on #7: Come up with your middle to figure out your true ending!

  5. I like the one where you rearrange the movies you don’t like into what you would like. I do that all the time with both movies and books. Helps with my “what if” thinking.

    Very cool post and thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Ben! I have to say I’m not much of a movie watcher these days. When the kids were younger, I could recite right from many of the Pixar flixs but nowadays I’m back to reading vs watching and listening. However, “To infinity and beyond!” still rings in my ears.

  6. Thanks, Garry, for sharing this interesting list.

    #17 – “No work is ever wasted.” Even if you put unused scenes in an outtakes file and never look at them again, practice writing reinforces craft skills–like playing scales on the piano. More important, they teach you why you *didn’t* need those scenes.

    As a corollary of #9, I would add: Ask what’s the worst thing that can happen next? Then make it happen.

    • You’re most welcome, Debbie. Somewhere I heard the advice (Stephen King, maybe?), “Put your characters in a heap of trouble, then raise the stakes.” Sounds like fun to me 🙂

  7. Good morning, Garry! What a fantastic post to start off this Thursday. I remember reading a top ten version of those rules way back when they were first circulating. Interestingly enough, now that I see the full list, #12 and #18 really resonate with me. Mind you, all the “rules,” which as you noted above are really more like “guidelines,” are important to me.

    However, #12’s idea that the first few things you come up with will be standard, expected etc is so true in my experience. Years ago I read famed science fiction editor and writer Gardner Dozois advise doing the same thing. “Dig deeper,” reject the first 3 or 4 ideas as too pat, too easy, too obvious. It’s hard to do in practice, but well worth it.

    #18 really hit home with me, because I’ve found myself guilty of “fussing” in outline. My novella “Lunaticking, that was just published yesterday in High Moon, took a while because I began fussing with it, rather testing, but one thing about a looming deadline, it clarifies the mind (to very loosely paraphrase Samuel Johnson). I was able to begin testing the story.

    Thanks for the mention of writer me. I loved your “empowered library stories”. And that’s another thing about these “rules,” they transcend genre. In my case, I’m between the Empowered/Agents of Sorcery and my 1980s library mysteries, and nothing makes the universals of storytelling clear like jumping from one genre into another. And then jumping back to urban fantasy as I did with “Lunaticking.”

    Here’s to another wonderful day!

    • And good morning to you, Dale. I thought this was worth sharing and would trigger some thoughts. The more I do this writing thing, the more I think we should be aware of the ‘rules’ and use them as guidelines and not be strictly bracketed into absolutes.

      Number 14 hits home to me – “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.” It goes beyond a rule and gets to the heart of why we write a particular story.

      Jane Friedman’s post that inspired this post had a link to a short video by Simon Sinek who wrote “Start With Why” where he says “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.” Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMOlfsR7SMQ

  8. Thanks for the shout-out, Garry! Some days, a long institution stay sounds nice 😉

    #9: I’ve never considered listing what characters wouldn’t do to get unstuck, but it makes a ton of sense.

    Somehow I missed Jane’s latest post. Thanks for the reminder to read it.

  9. My pissy addition to these rules is “Edit your writing before you hit send on Twitter or anywhere, else. You are judged by the quality of your writing EVERYWHERE.”

    None of these rules are new. I’ve seen them many times over the years, but having them in one place is great. Having a media company actually follow them is beyond rare.

    • I don’t think there are many new rules out there, Marilynn, but it’s nice to have the main ones condensed and review them from time to time. Stephen King’s “On Writing” has been the most influential resource book for me. I think I might go through it again (for probably the twentieth time) and itemize SK’s “rules” in a KZ post.

      • Interesting. Rules are why I keep the little book of essays Of Worlds Beyond (Fantasy Press, 1947) next to my writing ‘puter. That little book is where Robert A. Heinlein first published his “Business Habits for Writers,” better known as Heinlein’s Rules. He added his business habits as an afterthought to the essay he’d contributed. They’re all the rules I need, and without them, I doubt I’d have written so much as one novel, never mind over 60 and counting. Being an adherent, I know the business habits by heart, of course, but I keep the book handy anyway as a kind of connection to the great man himself.

        • I think it was you who introduced me to Heinlein’s rules, Harvey, or it might have been something I read by DWS. They are clear, concise, and 100 percent true.

  10. Hey, who are you calling a Neanderthal? 😉

    Good post, Garry. #12 hits home for me right now as I’m reading through a printed draft: “Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.” Exactly. I have little postits next to sections saying “BORING.” I need to dig deeper. Thanks for the reminder.

    • I was referring to myself as a Neanderthal, Harald, or a least a Luddite. I like Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules – one of which is, “Leave out the boring parts.”

  11. A couple of the rules seem geared to shorter works like novellas and movies, not longer works like novels. With a script, you can simplify and economize until the cows come home, since the actors, directors, wardrobe, and everyone else will add layer upon layer of detail, but I’d hate to try such starkness in a novel. You need some elbow room to mystify, confuse, surprise, and delight the readers.

    • Right. Pixar’s rules are geared toward film which is a considerably different medium that novels. I’m playing around with screenwriting at the moment and find it’s a big learning curve. Thanks for commenting, Robert!

  12. 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.

    #3 is of special interest to me. Sometimes theme is explicit, conscious; sometimes it’s cryptic, lurking in your “Imaginator 300,” where you can’t see it until your genie/ Creative Engine/ Guardienne has given you the entire story. Surprises happen, either way.

    I remember reading about a movie project where the creators realized the theme was something other than they originally thought, when the movie was already shot and in the can. What did they do? Ha-ha, you’ll have to guess.

  13. Lots of food for thought here, Gary. Rule18 really resonated with me: “You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.” Another version of that is: “When you find yourself changing “a” to “the” it’s time to quit.

  14. This is great, Garry! I have so, so much to learn, and I really appreciate a post like this that’s concise and all in one place.

    #14. If the story doesn’t burn my fingertips as I pound the keys, if it doesn’t shred my soul and make me think and re-think my own existence, I see no reason to sweat out the words. Not that light-hearted entertainment has no value, but for me, there has to be depth, some gold nuggets lurking under the surface to be discovered as I read or write.

  15. Love this. Of course Jim’s right, there are several ways to “title” this list. Rules… well, no, mainly because many writers become apoplectic upon encountering that term. I like “principles” better, because principles empower any process.

    I once read (or wrote, not sure which), that writing advice is half true for half the writers hearing it half the time. Caveat: at least where process is concerned. As far as proven principles go (like much of today’s list), they are always valid for everyone all the time.

    And thanks to Steve for the shout out, and for appreciating my work. And to you, Garry, for sharing this powerhouse post.

    • Hi Larry! Good to see you. Principles vs rules. Yeah, I like that term – principles. In a former life, I wrote a lot of Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) documents. They were often frustrating because in many instances there were different ways to achieve the same result (safely). An old-timer (yeah, even older than me) once commented that the docs should be “Principles” rather than “Procedures” that gave the operator some leeway to use their head and imagination to apply the process.

      Hey – I wonder if anyone ever thought of writing a general SOP for novel writing? Might be the title of your next work 😉

  16. Good evening, Garry. Thanks for another excellent post! Here’s my reaction:

    1. I love lists. 🙂
    2. I love great writing advice that I can refer back to.
    3. I love excellent TKZ posts.

    You’re hitting on all cylinders! I’ve bookmarked this one for keeps.

    On yes. I’d add one more “rule.”

    #23. Never give up.

  17. Enjoyed all the tips but the one I honed in on was:
    20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

    Many years ago, I saw the movie Top Gun, and have forever since been totally ticked off that they killed off Goose and not Tom Cruise’s character. Someday when I have time on my hands I’d love to re-work it and flip that character death and see where the story goes.

    • I have a friend who flew F-14 Tomcats for the US Navy. I asked him how real Top Gun was. He said that if Cruise ever buzzed the tower like that he’d never fly again.

  18. Thanks so much for this list. I tried 4, 12, 16, and 22. I think the “Once upon a time” exercise was the most helpful for me today.

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