Pixar’s Storytelling Rules

You can name 90% of these characters. Admit it.

You love Pixar. You know you do. From Toy Story to Brave, they’ve had a lot of good stories. (Though I have to admit I haven’t seen Brave yet… was it good?) Why do you love Pixar?

Because the stories frigging rock. Up is one of my favorite films, right from the silent sequence as Carl and Ellie grow old together. How many films can make you cry in the first fifteen minutes? It’s just beautiful how Pixar just seems to know how to write good stories with great characters in rich, rich worlds. I wish I knew what their secret was.

But wait! Pixar Story Artist Emma Coats has released some “story basics” from Pixar. Here’s a sampling:

#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.

I encourage you to check out the entire list, available here. I want to highlight one of the items here, though:

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

 I love this rule. It just makes sense, and I see it in one of my favorite writers: Joss Whedon. (You didn’t know he was a Pixar writer, did you? Yep! He wrote the first Toy Story!) I think about Firefly and all the coincidences that make life hard, but I’m fairly certain there’s never a coincidence that works in the crew’s favor. (unless you count River, but let’s not, OK?)

What do you mean I’m a plot point that has the best lines?

Why is this point so important? Why is it that coincidences can’t work in favor for the protagonists?

We want to see our protagonists win. If a coincidence makes them win, they’re not the heroes. Blind fate is the hero. Luck is the hero. We can’t cheer luck, as much as Sky Masterson might disagree.

Hey, I didn’t cheer for luck. I just prayed to her. Totally different. Plus, it’s catchy.

Basically, we want to see heroes win by their wits and determination and sheer force of will. Coincidence doesn’t do that. Coincidence giving them problems, more complications to overcome? That’s a good thing.

So, keep that in mind as you write. Coincidence: always in service to the bad guys!

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4 thoughts on “Pixar’s Storytelling Rules

  1. Luke, thanks for the resource of the list, and the awesome observation about using coincidence. It reminds me of something I read in a book about plot once – every step of the way, think about what mistakes the character can make and what can go wrong… and write them into your story. Let those problems drive the action, and then figure out how your character is going to get out of them.

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