narrative lessons from pixar

Pixar story artist Emma Coats has tweeted a series of “story basics” over the past month and a half... guidelines that she learned from her more senior colleagues on how to create appealing stories:

#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 very 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 do 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.