Pixar’s 22 Rules for Good Storytelling

And how to use them to write better.

A while ago, Emma Coats, a former Pixar writer, tweeted out these twenty-two story rules in 2011. These are the guidelines the writing team uses at Pixar.

It’s a refreshing approach to storytelling. I hope you find them useful.

Pixar’s 22 Storytelling Rules

  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 very different.

  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.

  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 sent out a poll asking the Fictionalist audience what you want to see in an in-depth dive on Pixar’s rules. Here are the three rules you picked:

  • Rule 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.

  • Rule 4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

  • Rule 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.

In my view, these rules are better stated as:

  • Rule 2: Be interesting.

  • Rule 4: Tell a complete story.

  • Rule 14: Tell the story only you can tell.

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Rule 2: Be Interesting.

The cardinal sin of storytelling is being boring. Pixar knows this. That’s why this rule is at the top of the list of rules.

However, Rule 2 has another layer to it. The key is “keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience”. Pixar is telling us to not be self-indulgent. We each have our favorite scenes to write. For me it’s travel through grand expanses of nature. For you it might be inner monologues. For someone else it might be fight scenes. But these are not necessarily the scenes the story requires.

The point is: always keep the audience in mind. Yes, you should have fun while writing, but ultimately it’s not about you. It’s about the audience. So your story must always be interesting to the audience.

Rule 4: Tell a complete story.

In the 1940s, writer and researcher Joseph Campbell described a universal pattern of storytelling. He called it “The Hero’s Journey”.

The Hero’s Journey has three main parts:

  1. The departure, where the hero leaves their normal life.

  2. The initiation, where they face challenges and learn and transform.

  3. The return, where they bring newfound wisdom back home.

Do you see how this rule conforms to The Hero’s Journey? Once upon a time there was a person. Every day he lived a normal life. One day he is given a challenge he can’t overcome. Because of that, he is forced to learn and transform himself. Because of that, he confronts the challenge. Until finally, he wins and returns home as a hero.

In other words: Tell a complete story. A story isn’t very satisfying if the hero dies facing the challenge, or if he decides to run away instead.

Rule 14: Tell the story only you can tell.

Rule 14 is my favorite rule of the list.

All art is self expression. All art is therapy. Writing is no different. We write because we have things to say, emotions to express, feeling-tones to convey — and writing is the only way we know how.

This rule cautions you against following market and culture trends. It cautions you against following the dictates of other people (reviewers, critics, bosses). To create a truly great story, you must tap into the burning desire inside of yourself. There is no other source of greatness.

There is only one way and that is your way. There is only one salvation and that is your salvation... What is to come will be created in you and from you. Hence look into yourself. Do not compare. Do not measure. No other way is like yours... You must fulfill the way that is in you.” — Carl Jung

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