Wednesday, July 11, 2012

22 Storytelling Tips from Pixar

(If you haven't read these, yer welcome.)

Recently, Emma Coats (storyboard artist for Pixar's Brave, among other things) tweeted 22 deceptively simple tips on storytelling. My wife brought them to my attention in the car the other day; she just handed me the list, printed from an email. I was distracted and thinking about other things (like driving—I keed!), but when I started reading the tips, I sobered right the hell up.

These are beyond fantastic. If writing were a pop quiz, this is the shit I would scribble on my forearm in sharpie. Go follow Emma right now @lawnrocket. And if you haven't seen it yet, go watch Brave—gorgeous doesn't begin to do it justice.

Without further jibber-jabber:

PIXAR'S 22 STORYTELLING TIPS (as tweeted by bad-ass Emma Coats) 

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.


Don't those make you want to lock yourself in a room with a notebook for weeks on end? (Is that just me?)

One final tip before I go. This one is mine, and it's about blogging:

Yes, your blog is important, but your family and your fiction are more important. If you have to take time off from your blog (say, to finish long overdue revisions on a novel), don't apologize for it. Very few—if any—of your readers are going to be camping out, wondering when the next post is going to drop. If anybody gives you shit, give 'em the ol' mental middle finger. You know what you're dealing with/going through/working on—they don't. Do your work, and get back to the blog when you can. You're only human.

Be back soon, guys. Got some junk needs doing.


  1. I love #19. It just resonates. Magic/wizards are a cop out. (Please Mr Gandalf, don't turn me into anything....unnatural)

    Hope the "junk" gets worked out to your satisfaction.

    Excellent post on SFWA btw - that's how I found you.

  2. Thank you! I appreciate that a lot.

    Here's hoping on the junk front! :)