Pixar’s Storytelling Tips

My current obsession, thanks in part to this blog, is storytelling. And I’ve come to the conclusion that storytelling is hardwired into our genetic make-up. Cavemen told stories. And these thousands of years later we are able, inherently, to recognize a story and its elements without thinking about them. It’s an involuntary reaction to the universe: make sense of it.

Stories are how we organize our lives and the lives of others. Movies, TV shows, fine art, gossip, happy hours, letters, text messages, video games—the best of them are usually stories.


But because stories are so ubiquitous and powerful, we don’t need to consciously dissect them and determine their characters, themes, dramatic tension, etc. It’s as natural as breathing, really.

As improvisers, however, we have to think about stories. A carpenter admires a nice desk someone else built; he might even pause to examine how it’s constructed. Similarly, improvisers attempting to tell a story should examine the stories they know, see, love, hate, and live.

No group of writers have done a more consistent (and profitable) job of telling excellent stories excellently than Pixar. And below you’ll find 22 numbered tips from Emma Coats (@lawnrocket), a director and storyboard artist at Pixar. They’re all about how she and her fellow writers attack the infinitely deep subject of storytelling.

This list made it around the Internet about a year ago, but these deserve to be reviewed and revisited forever…

22 Storytelling Tips from Pixar

You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

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.

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.

Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

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 were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

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

Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Also, check out all the rules illustrated in Lego. It’s gorgeous…

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