A few years ago, Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats published a list of rules for storytelling, a compilation of the wisdom she’d picked up working on animated films. It’s now a widely referenced tool, finding its way into business books and TED talks and even branding webinars. Its universal appeal lies in both its casual tone and random order. This is not a how-to, but a set of rules to keep in mind when you get stuck or to review when you think your writing project is done. And there’s one rule missing.
Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling
#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 love this list – it’s storytelling gold, mined by someone who’s been in the thick of it. It has a gaping hole, though. What about the setting? Writing instructors harp on the importance of inserting descriptive details about place and time. I know I struggle with this aspect of writing, and I have to remind myself to add not just sights but also sounds and smells and even textures and tastes to my work. Could it be that for storyboard artists – naturally visual people – scene and setting is just a given?
It’s true that in Pixar’s world the scenery has to be exceptional to provide a layered backdrop for the tale. That’s how we got the meticulously crafted ocean in Finding Nemo, the familiar bedroom in Toy Story, and Monsters Inc.’s dazzling scare factory. It’s hard to imagine those narratives without the rich tapestry around them. Yet, if we remove the scenery, each story could still be told through the characters’ actions and words alone.
Maybe the most important rule for fiction then is the unspoken one, the one upon which the entire list is built: Shaping characters is primary. The plot or storyboard is about what these characters feel and do, what they think and say, what they love and lose, and so on. These are the bones upon which the color and sounds and tactile elements can be draped. Those sensory details will deepen the reader’s or viewer’s experience, but they can never take the place of the people (and fish and toys and monsters) we care about long after the story has ended.