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Pixar's Rules of Storytelling (2013) (aerogrammestudio.com)
513 points by evo_9 on Mar 11, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 74 comments

> 4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

This one reminds me of writing advice from South Park's Trey Parker: write better stories by figuring out how to replace all your "ands" and "buts" with "therefore".


> 20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

This one strikes me as an especially great idea! Rewrite something bad to make it good. There are certainly some shows I've bitched about (like a lot of people) but I would have a hard time dissecting it to find what's wrong with it, and even harder time fixing it. Having to do it would certainly be educational.

A good example of the rearranging is from Nerdwriters YouTube https://youtu.be/Gksxu-yeWcU

Just a minor change in order of the same scenes completely changed a movie.

That was one of the best film critiques I've ever seen. I especially like the fact that:

- the original movie was explained because I had never heard of it; and

- a short version of the re-edited movie was spliced together so that you could see what the author had in mind.

Overall, this is a compelling demonstration of how simply changing the order in which the viewer gets information can make a so-so story great.

Also, it makes me want to see both Passengers (even though it's supposed to be predictable) and Solaris (because it's not supposed to be).

Same, I hadn't seen the movie either. I've picked up a lot of good movies lately via similar film analysing youtubers. Even though it sometimes spoils some movies, it makes others great to watch because you can appreciate the 'science behind the rainbow' even if the rainbow is not to great to look at nowadays.

I attended a screening of Passengers that was followed by a QA with the writer afterward, and it was pretty uncomfortable at times.

He said he wrote the movie because he really wanted to explore the idea that sometimes people choose love even when it has hurt them--he used the example of people who get cheated on, yet stay with their partner and work it out.

But it became clear that he was so interested in this aspect of the movie that he just could not get perspective on the central violation of Jennifer Lawrence's character, which is truly horrific. Being awoken early, to spend your entire life on a spaceship you can't escape, by someone who wants to have sex with you... that's some pretty clear callouts to core human fears like slavery, claustrophobia, rape, etc.

A plot device that was just supposed to be an obstacle to love, is totally overpowering. Based on the questions, a lot of the audience couldn't get over it, me included, so the happy ending just felt forced, hollow, and unbelievable.

I take Passengers as a great example of why it might be good sometimes for studios to bring in someone new to rewrite a script. I think any good writer, coming to that script cold, would recognize the power of the core horror and start from there.

Passengers spent a while high on "The Black List," which is a consensus list of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood. I wonder if that put the writer in a position to maintain more than the usual amount of control for a spec script.

Christopher Nolan's "Following" and "Memento" come to mind as interesting, artistically succesful films in which scenes' chronological order bear non-obvious relation to their sequence. Wonder if anyone's mapped the chronological structure of fhe scenes. Bet there'd be an interesting shape there.

Item 4 is one I've seen elsewhere: https://www.amazon.com/Invisible-Ink-Practical-Building-Reso...

In fact, I recall a Pixar writer said it was one of his favorite books.

Actually, I found it (same blog):


Apparently the author claims neither he nor Pixar came up with it.

I've read dozens of books on storytelling and Invisible Ink is one of my favorites.

> 4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

I believe this line comes from Brian McDonald and am witness to his use of it in a writing class he led at Seattle's 911 Media Arts circa 2000. (The number in their name was in reference to the original address on E Pine St.)


He is both an accomplished writer and excellent instructor for writers. I found his guidance to work well in tandem with McKee's STORY.

His early works are of spectacular quality (e.g., White Face), and this reminds me to get caught-up on his more recent material.

Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

That leads to a cliche - the nobody who becomes a hero. That's so Pixar.

Biography movies of real people aren't like that, because real life usually isn't.

That's funny. When I read it, I don't see a prescription for that at all. What I do see is setting a proper introduction and baseline for your story, so that when it truly begins (one day...), your audience understand what about it is special and why.

it seems to me like anither short hand for describing a three act structure:

first act: once upon a time there was ____. Every day,____.

inciting incident: One day ___.

second act: Because of that, ___. Because of that, ____. third act: Until finally ____.

Just curious, what in the story spine sentence with blanks is suggesting heroes, or people at all?

> Biography movies of real people aren’t like that

There was a great comment the other day about the interview story structure, and how to make a story about average people into an interesting narrative:


It's just exposition, conflict, rising action/climax, resolution

The hero's journey is a very very popular and very old story telling mechanism.

Everyone does it and despite that, it seems not many people are getting tired of it.

Though it's quite fun to know how a movie is going to play out next, some can even surprise you in how they do it.

Movies are escapism.

If coincidences are just coincidences why do they feel so contrived?

A good rule of thumb in storytelling is that coincidences that help your protagonists will feel like the writer just cheated to get out of a corner they wrote themselves into, whereas coincidences that hurt your protagonist are more easily accepted.

If you feel you really need this lucky coincidence to save your character, you can fix that by going back earlier in the story and earning it. Your hero getting shot, and the bullet being stopped by a lighter in his pocket we've never seen before, will feel like a cheat. But if he helped a homeless guy earlier, and the homeless guy insists he take his lucky Zippo, and then the lighter saves his life, most people won't complain.

Just a little justification goes a long way, and helps make your world and story feel real and complex.

Exactly. You can have pretty much anything happen, if you put in the antecedents so that it is reasonable for it to happen.

Because in the same way we're primed to understand certain shape patterns as faces, we're primed to parse our world as a story.

A lot of "reason" is really just narrative logic. It's much more weakly predictive and less rational than scientific logic, but it's far more persuasive.

"How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?"

Are you allowed to combine multiple movies? If so them I'm off to combine "Howards End" and "The Hurt Locker" into something more to my taste....

>Are you allowed to combine multiple movies? If so them I'm off to combine "Howards End" and "The Hurt Locker" into something more to my taste....

That's a lot of what someone like Tarantino does.

combining movies was an exercise in a creative writing class I took

JK Rowling has said she wrote something like 20 versions of the first chapter of the first (Harry Potter) book and if you read them all, you would have known all the major plot points for the first several books.

Storytelling is about more than just deciding the plot. It is very much about staging the reveal of details.

There's a full Khan Academy course specifically on Pixar storytelling techniques.


Wow, that's awesome. I love Khan Academy.

I have been running a Pathfinder (table top rpg) campaign for the last several years. A lot of these rules are great hints for a dungeon master as well as for a writer.

However, I think these rules can easily be "how to write a shallow but emotionally compelling story" (surprise, surprise).

That said, having these rules on the table (so to speak) is useful for when you as story teller want to have something other than the obvious happen (ie, know the rules to break them). Try occasionally having extra, useless characters just to confuse people. Have detours and details that turn into their own story. Slow down or speed-up pace just for the heck of it. Let the players find ways to short-circuit all the apparent barriers and then have something different happen.

"Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way." I make this my personal rule when replying to something on the internet: if it's the first thing you thought of, there are already 20 other replies saying exactly the same thing!

You gotta be careful though: often times, first intuitions aren't so bad, and further iterations can get more and more complicated until there's no freshness left at all.

I think the point is to build on the first intuition rather than consider it "well done". It is to actively accept that may be you are missing something that can help convert the first intuition into an even better idea. Therefore, I wouldn't say you need to discard the first idea/intuition but rather to not think of it as the final product.

Not necessarily. For example: I need a chase scene in my story here.

If you're telling a modern story, your first inclination is either a car chase or a foot chase. You certainly CAN just spice these up (put them in a surprising location being the easiest) but there is value in trying to find a different way (chase on Segways, or maybe on animals stolen from the zoo, etc).

> For example: I need a chase scene in my story here.

This is not the greatest example because it's very rare that a story needs a chase scene to drive it forward. The end result will boil down to "they get away" or "they get caught" and both of these can be accomplished instantly, no full chase sequence required. Chase scenes are things you add to visual media because they're exciting. You never get them in books!

A better example might be "I need to establish that this character is not very smart" or "I need a reason for this character's parents to be dead" or, heh, "I need a way to make it so that this chase scene also develops the plot and/or characters".

And for good solutions to the last problem, you can look at e.g. The Terminator or the entirety of Mad Max: Fury Road...

> This is not the greatest example because it's very rare that a story needs a chase scene to drive it forward. The end result will boil down to "they get away" or "they get caught" and both of these can be accomplished instantly, no full chase sequence required. Chase scenes are things you add to visual media because they're exciting. You never get them in books!

I disagree. A chase scene is a great way to build tension or provide a test of character, and maybe even a way to provide exposition. Using "The Hunt for Red October" (since I just watched that over the weekend), the first half of the film is essentially the main character chasing after a sub. It's not a fast-paced foot chase, but it provides a character test (how far he's willing to go to catch the sub), obstacles that are interesting when overcome, and provides an urgency to some of the exposition that's delivered at the film's start.

IMO you need to be careful about going too far the other way though - if you start going with the non-conventional choice too often, or where there isn't justification for doing so, it can start to feel forced/different just for the sake of being different.

You can't go so over the top that it doesn't fit your story. Like a space shuttle chase scene in a low key romance is not going to play unless you've done a LOT of work to pay it off. Everything needs internal consistency, but you still need to add layers to keep it from being dull. So long as the core trope is there (chase scene with the reversals etc) your audience will be able to follow what is going on and be in for the ride. The hard part is not being stupid about it.

Like a space shuttle chase scene in a low key romance

Or a space chase scene in ancient Jerusalem? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=il26svFhWM8

Yeah, that was the first thing that came to my mind :)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seven_Basic_Plots ... not that Pixar is likely to have a plot of the "Tragedy" kind

True, although it's the one thing that made 'Up' more than just okay. The prologue(?) is heartbreaking and quite the tragedy, and could be a satisfying (if sad) story all by itself.

Stories are more interesting to me when it feels like the characters are consistent and real, and their motivations are driving their actions, not the invisible hand of the storyteller that already has an ending and theme in mind. Because in this case I have something to learn from it.

Undoubtedly. However old sci-fi authors did do well out of making the concept the focus. They were often much much weaker at characterisation and characters really only existed to explore the high concept. In some ways they were like an essay but in story form.

As someone who grew up reading these, I would have liked better characterisation but concept focused stories still appeal to me.

Sure but that sort of approach of making the concept the focus depended on giving the concept depth and richness.

The Pixar approach allows nothing to have depth but everything to still work emotionally. Any variety of original, well-craft fiction will have "meat" whereas this sort of thing is more or less just "sugar" instead.

The Mote in God's Eye and its sequel are perennial faves of mine in this regard.

Individual characterization is nothing special, probably par for the course for SF of that era, but nobody is stupid and nobody is evil and watching everything play out organically is just fascinating.

For me, concocted stories (if done right) are an exercise in human creativity & ingenuity. The characters are an amplification of our own character traits, and the situations are metaphors for our own lives.

If done masterfully—this overrealization captivates me, and the emotions I feel at the end are real. And I can learn something new about myself for it.

It's interesting the focus on the beginning and the end. It seems that would mean you should think a lot about how things at the end are similar or different from the start, like circumstances and character, and how you feel about all that.

The Harmon circle story method, the beginning and end are pretty much the same place, the character changes and learns.


Yup, if you know the beginning and the end, theoretically there are only so many ways to get there. The trick is picking the most interesting route that also creates the emotional journey you want the audience to go through.

Someone already critiqued 19 so I'll speak against 16: Sure, stack the odds against the characters' success... But don't go overboard unless you're writing a tragedy.

If the odds are too against the characters, the resolution is going to feel contrived, even if it makes sense and it's not really a Deus ex Machina.

Stacking the odds against a character can also tie into justifying the character and the story to begin with. Jackie Chan always has the odds stacked against him because if he just used his immense skills to beat people up for two hours, he wouldn’t be sympathetic or likeable and the movies wouldn’t be very much fun at all. You have to justify your hero or else your hero is just a bully.

You still have to have 'all is lost' moment to make win much bigger for the audience.

I think you can just escape contrivance if you make the success come at great personal cost. Of course, if the cost is too great it becomes a tragedy.

> 22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

I find it interesting that "your story" can be interpreted ambiguously in the last rule. But I guess it's a coincidence.

The result is that the stories of their kovies feel telegraphed in advance. Coco definitely felt that way to me. It was still worth watching for other reasons but there is very little in the way of real suspense or surprise. On the other hand that doesn’t seem to be a problem for kids movies.

I violently disagree with 19. The overuse of contrived means of creating tension is lazy, predictable, and frustrating. More unpleasant is the tendency of characters to become inexplicably stupid, inexperienced, and illogical under those circumstances. I’m not asking for purely rationalist fiction, but if the tension is utterly contrived, I check out.

Contrived tension is no more useful than contrived resolution of tension. When the characters suddenly act like idiots born yesterday, they lose any sense of depth or agency. If you want a prime example of what I’m talking about, watch The Walking Dead.

Speaking as someone who really likes #19, you may be reading subtext that isn't there. Coincidences, in small doses, are the foundation of stories. Every story gets one extraordinary coincidence, because extraordinary coincidences happen all the time (just not usually multiple times to the same actors within a short span of time, which is where Deus ex Machina starts being levied). Star Wars is premised upon the coincidence that Luke should stumble upon a droid sent by his sister to find his father's mentor. Dune is premised upon the coincidence that the Kwisatz Haderach should be the son of the Duke who is assigned to Arrakis. Both these stories happen to use handwavey hoodoo to imply that maybe some ineffable higher power orchestrated these events to keep them from being complete coincidences, but this isn't strictly necessary.

People want to see the main characters overcome obstacles, and the above rule is just giving authors permission to spend more time considering how they overcome those obstacles (again, avoiding Deus ex Machina) than considering how they get into such trouble in the first place. In fact, this is sort of the opposite from what you're mad about: if the writers for the Walking Dead were more willing to simply let bad things happen rather than contorting their characters in stupid ways in ill-considered attempts to justify those bad things happening, it might have turned out better. :) (And of course, this doesn't mean it's a bad thing to avoid coincidences, it's just that audiences won't care about coincidences that create drama rather than resolving it.)

The number of coincidences in the first 40 minutes of The Force Awakens is staggering.

In Star Wars, that kind of thing is often considered to happen due to the will of the Force, like finding Anakin on Tatooine. Some would call it lazy writing, but I don't mind in Star Wars' case.

Dune is based on notions of grand manipulation over thousands of years; there is really no coincidence at all. I love Star Wars, but the writing is not particularly good.

Coincidence in fiction is ultimately a contrivance, and I don’t mean the initial conditions. 19 talks about coincidence being fine to get characters into trouble, but not out of it.

I read Dune as how that grand manipulation went wrong because of multiple coincidences. So i would not agree there is no coincidence at all in Dune.

Right there with you. A coincidence to kick the action off at the very beginning can be cool. Using it as glue leads to really awkward transitions, but I'll forgive it once. More than 2 uncanny coincidences in a season? No longer uncanny, I often stop watching.

Dexter became a coincidence parade after the first season. But I couldn't keep watching once he became bad at murder. Relatability isn't a virtue if your character starts with a premise of prenatural skill, power, emotional baggage or any other attribute. I do not want to see dexter leave his wallet at a crime scene, let alone over and over again.

I stopped watching Arrow after it became clear that every single villain was going to be related to him in some way. "A-ha, what you didn't know is that I was your father's limo driver!"

I stopped watching True Blood when Bontemps started running out of citizens without a mystical hidden identity. If that show had been given another season the sherif would have been revealed a water elemental.

I could go on.

Rule 19 reads:

> 19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

The rule means basically what you said. "To get characters into trouble" means basically the first third of a movie or so, or the point in the movie that "kicks the action off". So I'm not sure what in that rule can be reasonably disagreed with.

I feel like a reasonable man. I was writing about a nuance, a restraint on the unqualified use of the word "great".

Now you've given me a thought experiment. How to give a treaty of versailles treatment to a rant about TV shows.

I think you read the word "contrived" into a place where it was not. I think it's more like, "the characters heard legend that A could happen, but despite this they need to accomplish B. And of course, at the worst possible moment A happens and now they have to overcome it." It's like nature's chekhov's gun.

You're reading it backwards. The point being made is "never get your characters out of trouble by coincidence", not "always get your characters into trouble by coincidence".

I don't see item 19 as saying characters suddenly act like idiots or change their behavior. Stephen King uses this in a lot of his novels - where separate independent events occur to create a really bad situation. You, the reader, can see these things occurring and are converging to that situation, which creates tension.

19 has nothing to do with character.

    19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
Are we looking at the same #19?

This rule seems like a pretty obvious reference to Deus ex Machina. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deus_ex_machina

19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

It doesn't mean contrived is great - it just means sometimes bad things happen and you have to deal with it, and we often don't understand the root causes. But if you rely on random good things to solve your problems, you won't have a very satisfying story.

This is just saying it is fine if a random car crash starts the conflict. But if a random car crash takes out the big bad, it's cheating.

Came here to say this. Artificial tension is the worst. There are so many genuine and real reasons for conflict to arise. I would add to your list that it's incredibly frustrating when the tension would be resolved immediately if two characters just had a conversation to clear up a misunderstanding.

Wow, violently disagree?

So stories like The Fugitive, The Shawshank Redemption, Fight Club, Leon, Snatch, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Up, Die Hard, and The Big Lebowski sucked because they made use of this technique?

Pulp fiction is great, in part, because of 19.

"Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating."

This is one of the rules I have a problem with. It's weird that so many people defended it with the interpretation they inserted into it while you rightfully critiqued it because you took it at face value.

Coincidences are rarely great. At best, they're a necessary annoyance.

You must have loved The Last Jedi.

I'm glad Harry Potter was not written by these rules.

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