Pixar is synonymous with thoughtful films featuring developed characters and storylines guaranteed to hit you directly in the feels. How do they manage to crank out poignant hit after hit film? In 2011, former Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats tweeted a collection of storytelling rules she learned from working at Pixar. These rules have become known as “Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling.” Today I’m going to share these rules with you and expand upon how I use them in screenwriting.
1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
Audiences want to relate to a character and root for them; whether they achieve their goals or not is less important than the character evolving and learning along the way.
2. You have to 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.
Are you writing for you? There’s nothing wrong with writing a story as a passion project, with no intent to sell it or produce it. But if you are writing a screenplay and you want others to watch it, try to keep in my what you would like to watch.
3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about until you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
Your first draft should be focused on just getting the story written. In your next drafts, you can play with the theme!
4. Once upon a time, there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally, ___.
Be able to explain the action of your story in this way!
5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff, but it sets you free.
Get your characters into and out of scenes as quickly as possible. Let the audience infer what has happened, rather than spelling it out for them.
6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
Conflict and challenges are the lifeblood of a successful script. What do we learn about your character by throwing obstacles in your way? Ensure you’re raising the stakes and make sure you have plenty happening that makes your character struggle.
7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working upfront.
Some writers suggest working backward. If you know the ending, you can figure out later how to get there.
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.
You can’t do much with an unfinished script, but a finished script can always be rewritten and improved!
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.
This is a great brainstorming technique. Not all writing is actually writing. One part of writing your screenplay is just eliminating other possible options!
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.
There’s nothing more helpful than studying the films and scripts that resonate with you!
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.
It’s not a screenplay until you can share it with someone. Your stories are meant to be told, so don’t let it swim around in your mind forever!
12. Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third, fourth, fifth – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
Surprising yourself can often lead to surprising the audience!
13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
Even the most passive character has a point of view. If your character doesn’t have a reason for being there, then maybe they shouldn’t be.
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.
And that’s what makes your story unique! Find the reason why you feel so strongly about your story idea, and make sure that logic jumps off the page to the person reading it.
15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
Be real! Focus on what’s honest, instead of what works best in the story. Honesty will open storytelling doors and make your characters more relatable.
16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
Make us want to root for your protagonist from the very beginning.
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.
Absolutely no writing is a waste of time! Whenever you’re writing, you’re growing and improving!
18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best and fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
Back up. Zoom out. Look at the bigger picture. Are you making your point? Get feedback early and often, and don’t lose yourself in the details.
19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
Your characters shouldn’t just luck out of problems; they need to do the work to fix them. This can often be a source of growth and change.
20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How do you rearrange them into what you DO like?
21. You’ve got to identify with your situation/characters; you can’t just write ‘cool.’ What would make YOU act that way?
Real-life feelings and interactions sometimes make the best basis for your script’s scenes. When was the last time you felt left out, ecstatic, jealous, or obsessive? What happened to you to make you feel that way? Work it into your screenplay.
22. What’s the essence of your story? The most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
Simpler is often better! What’s the most straightforward path to get your protagonist from point A to point C?
I hope this list of rules was useful. Don’t think of them as strict rules you need to follow to craft a successful screenplay, but more like guidelines that can get you back on track when you’re struggling with your script. It’s a great guide to help you simplify your writing process and get down to the essential elements for a good – no, a great – story. Happy writing!