22 Rules for Storytelling According to Pixar

Proven pointers you can apply to your own screenwriting.

“The beginning of a conversation, not the last word.”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last fifteen years, you’ve heard of – or, at least, seen something by – Pixar Animation Studios, the creative force behind Toy Story, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, Inside Out, and many other animated short and feature films.

To date, their work has won 210 awards, including seven Academy Awards for “Best Animated Feature Film”, and as of October 2015, its fifteen features have made more than $9 billion worldwide.

In fact, Pixar hasn’t had a single flop.

From Inside Out | Walt Disney Studios, 2015

From Inside Out | Walt Disney Studios, 2015

Such consistent success merits further study. So when a former Pixar story artist tweets a series of storytelling aphorisms, we best perk up and listen! Emma Coats first shared these insights in 2011, but they’re no less relevant today. She describes them as “a mix of things learned from directors & coworkers at Pixar, listening to writers & directors talk about their craft, and via trial and error in the making of my own films”.

Without further ado:

#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.

From WALL-E" | Walt Disney Studios, 2008

From WALL-E” | Walt Disney Studios, 2008

A provocative list, to be sure, but one which was intended “as the beginning of a conversation, not the last word,” Pixar veteran Stephan Vladimir Bugaj reminds us. “After all, a hundred forty characters is far from enough to serve as an ‘end all and be all’ summary of a subject as complex and important as storytelling.”

In an effort to continue that conversation, Stephan released a free ebook elaborating on Coats’ reported 22 “Rules”. It’s not a Pixar product, nor is it endorsed by the studio or its parent company, but it’s nevertheless an illuminating read.

What do you think of the 22 rules? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

 Michael Koehler, with


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