Advice from Pixar and a Few Thoughts of my Own
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. My thoughts are in parenthesis:
#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes. (Trying, failing, and getting up again is what gives a character heart. Characters are vulnerable when they are trying and strong when they are successful. Vulnerability is key to audience bonding).
#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. (It’s the emotional component that endears a character to the audience. Don’t get too clever with other elements– trying to be hip, smart, or cool).
#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. (We rarely know what we are writing until after we’ve written it. Once you have a first draft you may be surprised by what the story is really about. Take out everything that doesn’t enhance or support what is really going on at the heart of the story).
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___. (Simple simple simple. If you can’t tell the story using these beats and described in one or two sentences go back to the drawing board).
#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free. (What an audience wants is a simple story filled with complex emotions NOT a complex story filled with simple emotions).
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal? (This goes back to vulnerability. Adversity doesn’t build character it reveals it).
#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front. (If you know you are going to Boston from LA there are lots of ways you can get there. But you don’t get anywhere if you don’t know exactly where you are headed).
#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. (If you write one script you have a project. If you write lots of scripts you have a career. Keep writing. Keep moving forward in your career rather than continually reworking a single project).
#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. (When you are stuck write what you can write. Write what you know about the story even if it is based on a list of “my character would never do THIS.” After you’ve written the list ask yourself what would it take to get your character to do each of the things you believe the character would never do? As long as you are writing something you are moving forward).
#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. (What moves your heart? Work on stories that profoundly speak to you).
#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. (Incremental progress is key here. You’ll never know what you have if you don’t write it down. Be content to write a crappy first draft. Then at least you have something to work with).
#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself. (Keep pushing your story and character to extremes. What is the most unlikely thing that could happen? What would make your character completely unlikeable? Then how would you turn that around?)
#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience. (Specifics make great characters. A character’s specific world view colors everything he or she says or does. Look at the Nine Character Types on the navigation bar above and then ask yourself “Is this how my character sees the world?”)
#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. (Never write anything that bores you or in a genre you don’t respect. Both approaches are death to the finished story).
#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations. (I disagree PROFOUNDLY with this advice. I don’t think you should ask “what would I do in this situation” unless you share the character’s specific world view. See the Nine Character Types on the navigation bar above. You should, instead, ask what would some do who believes THIS is true about the world, about love, and about life).
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against them. (The story is in the struggle).
#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. (Let your character’s lead you. Sometimes you have to write 30 pages of a first act you’ll never use. YOU needed to know this information– the audience doesn’t).
#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining. (Don’t be a sloppy writer. Work hard to get it right. But don’t let the pursuit of the perfect rob your audience of what is wonderful but imperfect).
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating. (I love this one. Coincidences that lead to problems, danger, challenges, or threats are surprising. Coincidences that lead to escapes, avoiding consequences, or allowing characters to get what they haven’t earned ruin a story).
#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like? (Ask yourself what is missing here, or out of place, or not the result of cause and effect? It’s often easier to learn from someone else’s mistakes than to recognize your own).
#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way? (I’ve got to disagree here too. Ask yourself what would a character with a specific world view do in this situation? What would push his or her buttons? What would challenge a character with this world view the most?)
#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there. (What is the single image that defines your story? What’s the poster? As crass as that seems it’s the briefest short hand of the story).