For almost two decades, the artists at Pixar Animation Studios have delighted audiences everywhere with captivating and compelling stories. Creatives everywhere have long respected the studio’s ability to fuse heart and soul into enduring classics of narrative. How is it then that Pixar apparently has no idea how they do what they do?
Last summer, Pixar story artist Emma Coats tweeted a list of 22 story “rules” she learned while working there. Retweeted and passed around ad-nauseam, many took to the list in the hopes of discovering the secrets to the studio’s long time success. Unfortunately, what they found were mostly superficial tips to help writers during the process of writing—not necessarily the reason why Pixar’s film excel over all others.
To be fair, these rules were originally presented as “tweets” and thus were constricted by the 140 character limit. Nothing much of value can be presented in such a short space. Still, many continue to uphold this list as great insight into the construction of a Pixar-like story.
The real secret, it turns out, can be found elsewhere.
The Not-So Helpful
First up, the bad:
Rule 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.
Another call to simply trust the process—woefully turning a blind eye to meaningless writing in the hopes that it will all somehow “magically” work out. Creative writing certainly requires a fair amount of exploration, but the sooner you know what it is you want to say the sooner you can actually go about writing what it is you want to say. The danger, of course, lies in beginning production before that theme—or purpose—has made itself known. Cramming it in last minute requires multiple re-dos and countless hours of overtime.
Rule 4: Once upon a time there was ____. Every day, ____. One day ____. Because of that, ____. Because of that, ____. Until finally ____.
A formula for writing a tale? No thanks. If one wanted to put out a statement (which is all a tale really is) then one could use Twitter or a Facebook update. Stories argue, tales state. Unfortunately the tip above usually leads to the latter.
The balance of the less-than-helpful tips lie somewhere between simple writing advice and the kind of feel-good hand-holding typical of a weekend writer’s retreat in Sedona. “You have to know yourself”, “You gotta identify with your situation/characters”, and “Let go even if it’s not perfect” do not really reveal the reason why so many of Pixar films remain beloved in the hearts of millions let alone how to construct one of your own. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next” and Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind work as great brainstorming techniques but they don’t expose any meaningful secret approach. If it is really true that “those who can’t do, teach” then the corollary to that must be “those who can, can’t teach.”
Extracting the Gems
That said, some of these rules provide useful concrete information that many can actually use to structure a meaningful story worthy of the Pixar name. Some of these actually explain why their films work so well. The first that stands out:
Rule 16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
Dramatica (Narrative Science theory) refers to these stakes as the Story Consequences. Most writers understand the concept of Goals and how they motivate characters to take action, but relatively few understand the importance of providing their characters consequences should they fail. Both exist in a story and both require each other for meaning. In Toy Story, failure to keep up with the move condemns the toys to a life of perpetual panic. Consequences work as a motivator to help propel a story forward—a solid tip that gives a foundation for good strong narrative.
Rule 6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
Very helpful. If one wishes to write a story about the first African-American baseball player and all the issues of preconception that run along with such a predicament, throwing his “polar opposite” against him would help increase the conflict and give him reason to grow. But what would that opposite be? Someone who doesn’t believe he should be playing ball because of the color of his skin? That would challenge him, but it wouldn’t really challenge his own personal point-of-view as he would have been dealing with that his entire life already. Better to throw someone in there who shares a similar predicament but goes about solving it in a different and “opposite” way.
Thankfully the current model of Dramatica provides us with clues where to find this similar, yet different character through its concept of Dynamic Pairs. Pursuit and Avoid, Faith and Disbelief, Perception and Actuality all work as dynamic opposites to each other—put the two Dynamic Pairs in the same room and watch the sparks fly.
In the case of our famed baseball player we would want to construct an Influence Character that was deep in denial. Perhaps an aged coach well beyond his years, obsessed with bringing a losing team to the World Series. Or maybe the baseball player’s wife who, regardless of all the talk of extra-martial affairs and excessive drinking on the part of her husband, stands by his side through thick and thin. Either way, this dynamically “opposite” character would force the baseball player to examine his own issues of prejudice and preconception and whether or not he was living in denial.
So yes, challenging characters to deal with their issues by providing “polar opposites” certainly helps in the construction of a story. Again, concrete, solid advice that can help one write a powerful story of their own.
Rule 7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
Another good one, even if it seemingly runs counter to tip #3 above. Should writers go with the flow or are they supposed to know where they’re going? A meaningful ending bases itself on the thematic arguments that preceded them. They work together to help define the Author’s argument. Which brings us to…
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.
The argument an Author makes runs tantamount to all. The “belief burning within you” lies in the Author’s point-of-view on how to solve a particular problem. Narrative Science helps to give those beliefs a reference point and offers suggestions for formatting a strong and coherent argument to support that belief.
While fun to retweet and pass along, the majority of these 22 rules of Pixar storytelling do little to explain the rampant success of that studio during their first decade. If it is true that these were gleaned from “senior colleagues” then it is quite possible that those responsible for such great storytelling have no idea how they were really able to get there in the first place.
The real secret to Pixar’s undeniable success lies in their ability to write complete stories. Whether it be the dynamic clash between Woody and Buzz in the first Toy Story or the thematic interplay between Linguini and Remy in Ratatouille, each and every story effectively argued a specific approach to solving a problem. Managing to incorporate all four throughlines necessary to convey this message over a decade of production astounds those who managed to only do so maybe once every ten years. Pick any film and one can easily identify the Overall Story Throughline, the Main Character Throughline, the Influence Character Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline. Other studios and other films can usually only claim to be able to do the first two (though some even struggle with that). Finding Nemo went so far as to weave a second smaller, yet no less important, sub-story into the final product. A truly remarkable accomplishment that bears full witness.
The reason for the apparent drop-off in love for their most recent films? A departure from these principles of solid story structure. Both Brave and Cars 2 fail to weave convincing arguments, the former going so far as to have both principal characters flip their point-of-views—a tragedy leaving many wondering what the film was even trying to say (beyond how cool Merida’s hair looked).
For the genius to continue and for those interested in repeating that success, an understanding of how narrative works to argue an approach to problem-solving becomes necessary. Narrative Science theory, and Dramatica in particular, provides that insight. It provides the secret “keys” everyone hoped to find when they first stumble across these 22 rules of storytelling. Understanding why so many of their films appeal to both the hearts and minds of countless millions can go a long way towards insuring the same kind of love and acceptance in one’s own work.