The Pixar blueprint for storytelling

May 19, 2020 · 9 min read


It’s no secret that 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 a series of 22 unwritten storytelling rules — which she gathered throughout her journey 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. So 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 that’s perfect, but perfection is a perception that’s elusive.

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

This rule makes sense coming from a Pixar storyboard artist, given the scope of work that’s 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 affect 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 important to understand what makes your favorite stories so likable. By pulling apart these stories it allows you to pinpoint creative decisions that the writer made, which you could then apply to your writing in order 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.

One way to do this, if your favorite story is in film format, 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 quick because you’re not receiving anything in return for your time.

Pixar does an excellent job of providing their characters with point of views, regardless of their acceptance or not. 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 in order 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 great 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 in the story, which most likely wouldn’t occur in a monotonous plot that lacks trial and tribulation. One of our favorite Pixar films that does a great job challenging its characters ic Coco.

This film provides perspective into the life 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 arise, 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, that determines its character. We chose this rule because if you take away nothing else from this article we want you to take away this.

The essence of your story is its heart and soul, and if you can hone in on this concept, your story 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 of 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.

Then from there you can go about writing your story’s details such as the characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution; like we mentioned in the first rule. Now go and write that story!

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