22 (Plus!) Rules of Storytelling from Pixar

June 10, 2012 § 3 Comments

The awesome Emma Coats, showing how she rolls.

Emma Coats

Emma Coats is possibly the most awesome person you’ve never heard of. For one thing, she is a storyboard artist for Pixar, makers of some of the best animated films ever. Films like Up, which future Blade Runners will someday use instead of the Voigt-Kampf test to tell humans from replicants—because if you aren’t crying in the first five minutes of Up, you are clearly not human.

But I digress.

Emma Coats is also awesome because she drops solid gold storytelling advice via her Twitter account. I discovered this because io9.com shared 22 of her fabulous tips, which they got from The Pixar Touch, a blog supporting the book of the same name. Read Emma’s tips, print them out, and post them above your writing space:

#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 v. different.

#3: 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.

#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.

But wait! There’s more! Since that article was posted, Emma has dropped even more golden nuggets, such as:

Excitement over panic springs from doing your homework, being serious about the project, and staying flexible + open to contributions.

Pro tip: accept the first pass is going to suck and keep going anyway. Way more difficult than it sounds. Easy to get discouraged.

Related to the first pass sucking: balance between getting it out as fast as humanly possible & giving yourself something solid to work from.

I could go on and on. Her twitter feed isn’t a slice of fried gold; it’s an entire ingot of fried gold. I’ll be following her with interest!

Oh, and the final piece of evidence that should prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Emma Coats is completely freaking awesome: she plays Gamma World.

Emma Coats, I salute you. You rock!

UPDATE: Emma posted a link on Twitter to Peter Nixey’s expansion upon her rules. Very cool!


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