The Disney·Pixar blueprint for storytelling

Sep 15, 2020 · 9 min read


It’s no secret that Disney·Pixar knows how to create timeless stories. The narratives they convey, encapsulate the human condition by centering the essence of each tale around universal concepts. This allows the audience, children, and adults alike, to develop an emotional connection with the story and its characters on a much deeper level. These stories, however, aren’t unrelated by design.

In 2011 Emma Coats, former Pixar storyboard artist, tweeted 22 unwritten storytelling rules that she gathered throughout her time working with fellow writers and directors.

Pixar applies these unwritten rules to create remarkable narratives that leave lasting impressions on their audiences while setting the bar high for aspiring storytellers.

In this article, we’re going to break down our top 5 storytelling rules, out of the 22 on the list, and we’ll provide some insight on how these rules can help writers in any genre.

Storytelling Rule #1

“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.”

This rule can be a tough one to follow because, as writers, we get so hung up on trying to create something perfect, but perfection is an elusive perception.

Most writer’s work ends up in the public eye with it still feeling like a work in progress, which goes for most artists in general. However, when you can let go of your pursuit for perfection, it allows you to create in an unapologetic way, which gives you the power to finish what you start.

This rule makes sense coming from a Pixar storyboard artist, given the scope of work required to progress the development of these grand narratives. This doesn’t mean that the animation studio neglects essential aspects of their stories, such as characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution.

On the contrary, they rely on the advancement of each aspect of the story, which in turn creates a domino effect that leads to the rough draft; and from there, they have the foundation for a complete story.

So from this rule, we hope what you got out of it was a fresh perspective on how to approach your writing and its completion. Now go finish that story, after you read the next four rules, of course;)

Storytelling Rule #2

“Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is part of you; you’ll never share it with anyone.”

We chose this rule because it’s essential to understand what makes your favorite stories so likable. By pulling apart these stories, you can pinpoint the writer’s creative decisions, which you could then apply to your writing to structure it accordingly.

This doesn’t mean that you’re copying them, given that the substance of your story is different, but rather using their technique to support your story’s development.

If your favorite story is in film format, one way to do this would be to find the film’s script, then go through it scene-by-scene to understand how they established each part of the story. This could also be done with novels or any other type of written work.

Storytelling Rule #3

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

This aspect of your story can make or break your audience’s interest over the long run. Have you ever watched a film or read a story that lacks character perspective, or even met a person who agrees with everything that’s said; you lose interest quickly because you’re not receiving anything in return for your time. 

Pixar does an excellent job of providing their characters with points of view, regardless of their acceptance. For example, Woody in Toy Story, when Buzz arrives as Andy’s new toy, becomes jealous and malicious.

These character traits are typically unfavorable; however, in this film, it allows the storyline to progress forward, leading to Woody’s character arc at the end of the film, where he works with Buzz to escape a series of threats to reunite with their owner Andy.

Storytelling Rule #4

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

This rule, in conjunction with the previous rule, makes for excellent character development. As a viewer, you begin to develop a connection with new characters when you can understand their perspective, which allows you to support their pursuits in the face of adversity.

This rule also establishes a sense of believability and interest, which most likely wouldn’t occur in a monotonous plot lacking conflict. One of our favorite Pixar films that does a great job challenging its characters is Coco.

This film gives the perspective of a 12-year-old boy named Miguel, who desperately desires the opportunity to prove his talent as a guitar player, in hopes of one day becoming an accomplished musician, due to a skewed understanding of their family history.

Miguel’s dream leads him down a turbulent path of both discovery and closure throughout the film—providing connection without compromise in the two things he loves most, music and family.

This story does a great job conveying the character’s perspective throughout each challenge that arises, which in turn gives a sense of fulfillment at the story’s end—and that’s what keeps an audience engaged from start to finish.

Storytelling Rule #5

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

Essence: the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, determines its character. We chose this rule because we want you to receive this if you take away nothing else from this article—your story’s essence is its heart and soul, and if you can hone in on this concept, your writing will flow much easier.

There are ways to establish the essence of your story in the beginning, and one way, which has been efficient in our experience, is to write a synopsis. A synopsis is a brief summary or outline about the plot of a book, play, movie, or episode of a television show, by definition.

By writing your story’s synopsis, you allow yourself to put your idea on paper, figuratively speaking for us keyboard users, which you can then breakdown holistically to discover its core.

You can then write your story’s details, such as the characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution, as we mentioned in the first rule. Now go and write that story!

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