Thursday, November 14, 2013

Pixar's Rules of Storytelling

In late 2011, a former story artist for Pixar tweeted 22 tips for storytelling that she learned while working for the company. Her name is Emma Coats (follow her on Twitter - @lawnrocket - for her thoughts on film and storyboarding) and after working for Pixar on both Brave and Monsters University, she plans on moving on to directing feature films. She's only 26 years old.

While her 22 tips are by no means representative of some kind of "Pixar story bible," they certainly give a good idea of how most people in the company go about trying to tell a story. Having worked with masterminds like Lee Unkrich and Pete Docter (director of Toy Story 3 and Up, respectively), she's picked up the overall tone that Pixar uses in their films, as she explains in detail in this article from the Washington Post. Since I'm so fascinated by the writing process, I went through all of her tips and picked out a few that I thought were especially useful or interesting.

As a writer, you want your main character(s) to succeed - in one way or another - by the end of your film. Unless you're some masochistic person who finds joy in torturing the people you've created, this is almost always the case. However, an audience is not going to appreciate a character who has everything handed to them; that's no fun for anybody. We want to see our characters fail. It makes them infinitely more human and relatable. If my best friend brags about not studying for a test and still gets an A on it, I'd be like "hey man, good for you" while secretly loathing him behind his back. If that same friend studied his ass off for the test, got a D, studied some more for the next test and still failed, I would admire him way more than if he didn't study and did well. Like your grandma always says: nothing else matters as long as you give your best effort.

Endings suck. Every writer will tell you that it's a blast to create characters and toss them into ridiculous situations, but you always have to be careful about writing yourself into a corner. Vince Gilligan and the writers of Breaking Bad are actually kind of notorious for this; to every writer's jealousy, however, he always seems to find an ingenious way to get his characters out of high octane, high stakes situations. Something that every writer needs to be aware of (myself included) is that we are not Vince Gilligan.  We need to know how our stories end. Not only will it help to flesh out your story and let you do things like foreshadow and plant items for later payoff, but it also just makes your life a hell of a lot easier.

This rule really struck a chord with me, probably because I'd never thought about surprising myself with my writing. It makes a lot of sense though. I want to write something that I would personally enjoy, which means that if I want to surprise my audience, then I have to surprise myself as well. Part of me hates the idea that I have to get rid of so many ideas, but that's what writing is; revising and revising until you find something that is truly great.

My personal favorite rule: #19. It sums up everything that a great film or piece of writing should be. While it's great when coincidences get you out of trouble in real life, it's a terrible, terrible thing to do when writing. For example, say I have two characters with the same gray Volvo and neither of the driver's side doors can be locked. One car is fairly average, but the other car has 10 million dollars of drug money hidden inside. The characters park next to each other and end up accidentally swapping cars. Great plot. A little unrealistic, but hey, let's go with it. That's a coincidence. If, however, the same exact thing happens at the end of the film and each man ends up getting out with no repurcussions, that's not fair. Your audience has been waiting 2 hours to see some kind of payoff; not only will they be disappointed by a clear lack of character development, they'll feel cheated and will probably hate everything about you. Yeah. Everything.

While nobody is perfect (no Pixar, not even you) I think all 22 of these rules/suggestions can be helpful to anyone who aspires to be any kind of writer. They're definitely something that I'll keep in the back of my head and on the favorites bar of my laptop for a long time.

Here's a link to all 22 Pixar rules and Emma Coats' personal blog.

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