￼PIXAR’S 22 RULES OF STORYTELLING
I bet you’ve seen these before—at least a few of them quoted here over the years. The list is all over the internet. I found it at iO9. But this week I’d like to share all twenty-two of what Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats shared, via Twitter in 2011, with a few remarks from yours truly.
#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
I couldn’t agree more. I’m going to expand that out of the story, too. I think, as readers, we admire authors for their efforts more than their successes. It should come as no surprise that stories work best when the people in them, like the people writing them, are imperfect souls doing the best they can.
#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.
This one I’ll push back on—at least a little. In some parts of the publishing business, especially in YA, though maybe not even there, you can run into agents and editors with a bit more of a marketing bent than I think is actually necessary in the lower-stakes world of publishing. But in almost all cases, a novel can go places movie studios fear to tread. Think of how the poor sheltered minds of TV viewers where shattered into a million flaming shards when HBO stuck to George R.R. Martin’s novel—at least to begin with? Then think back to how many times you’ve said some version of, “The book was better.” I’m looking at you, American Psycho…
#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about till you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
I’m a firm believer that all novels, however seemingly “frivolous,” are about something and having some sense of that up front is a good thing. I also continuously preach that we should always give ourselves the freedom to have a better idea.
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
I’ve never really tried this exercise but I could see how this could really work in terms of crystallizing, in our own heads, what story we’re actually telling. It feels compatible with my own thoughts on story structure as well: keep it focused.
#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
Another piece of advice that’s definitely more valuable to the screenwriter than the novelist, who begins and ends with unlimited time and budget. Still, I’ve read over-long, bloated novels, too, so think about this one.
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
This reminds me of the whole Lester Dent thing: shovel more grief onto the hero… Yes!
#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
I have had an ending in mind for every novel I’ve ever started writing, and almost never for a short story. This one, I think, is optional. If you’ve written a great novel having not known how it was going to turn out when you started, you have proven that this might be helpful, sure, especially if you have to pitch it before writing it, but not essential advice.
#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.
Agreed! I’m a firm believer in getting your writing out there and moving on to the next project. Write, submit, repeat.
#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 terrific exercise—try it!
#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.
Here I’m honestly not sure if she meant pull apart the stories that you wrote, or stories you like by other authors, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to try both!
#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.
In other words, no one care about your great idea. True!
#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th—get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
I like this idea. I even like the magic number five. Let’s all try this!
#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
A character here and there can be passive/malleable if something interesting comes out of that. Not every character is the hero or the villain of the story. Maybe this is the character that drives the protagonist crazy, waiting for them to do something about the problem, until finally they have to take on the problem themselves, and thus a hero is born. Yeah?
#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.
If you can’t answer that in, literally, one sentence, don’t start writing. Though, as with the question of theme above, you may find that 10,000, 50,000, or even 100,000 words in, you change your mind.
#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
Good advice for approaching a hero/protagonist, I guess, but honestly I think we all have to dig deeper than that. Otherwise, thrillers would only be written by serial killers. In some cases, the question should be: What’s the last thing that would occur to me in this situation?
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
Oh, my goodness, yes. The moment anyone (hero or villain) will be fine either way, there’s no story there at all.
#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.
No one starts out great at anything. Write, and write again. Your pile of failures is the foundation upon which a writing career is built.
#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best and fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
Does she mean, Make this up as you go along? Because that’s what everyone else who has attempted, is attempting, or will attempt the near-impossible task of writing fiction has been doing, is doing, and always will be doing?
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
Absolutely. Or, as Lester Dent said: “The hero extricates himself using his own skill, training or brawn.” I could not agree more.
#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How would you rearrange them into what you dolike?
The same exercise could work with a novel, but might be more “doable’ with a short story. Certainly worth a try, no?
#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write “cool.” What would make you act that way?
See my response to #15 above.
#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
This is the hardest bit for me because it is good advice, but acting on it is difficult to say the least. Sometimes—I might even go so far as to say all of the time—we find the essence of the story, and figure out how to tell it, as we go along. This last one will require a bit more thought…
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Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.