22 Tips on the Pixar Storytelling Formula

Pixar Storytelling Formula
The Pixar storytelling formula has been used over and over again by the company to create emotional and successful screenplays. How does it work?  

If you're like me, then you're a huge fan of Pixar's storytelling. It's hard to believe this animation company used to be a struggling group of friends, now, they've built a mega empire of original ideas and their name is synonymous with beautiful character development, thoughtful arcs, and now an incredible storytelling formula.  

Director and Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats (@lawnrocket) tweeted out 22 tips for storytelling, one of which ends with "Endings are hard, get yours working up front."

These tips have helped carry e through my projects on both the film and television side. I try to incorporate them in beat sheets, outlines, and just any brainstorming activity as well. 

Today we're going to go over Pixar's 22 Storytelling rules, see how it's a formula to success, and leave you in a good place to start writing your story

Let's go. 

What is Pixar's Storytelling Formula? 

First off, no formula can fix you as a writer. That takes time and actually writing. What I'm excited about is that this "formula" will actually help you spread your wings and go out there and write the screenplay you think expresses your original idea. Think of these techniques as a guideline for screenwriters of all levels. 

Pixar's Screenwriting Tips: 

  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.

What's next? Learn Pixar's story development process!

With one of the best critical and commercial records in movie-making history, there are a lot of things Pixar does right.  One of their greatest strengths is their ability to consistently craft great stories.  So what’s the Pixar story development process like, and what can we as independent filmmakers learn from it?

Click the link to learn more! 

Your Comment

22 Comments

Good stuff!

June 13, 2012 at 11:14AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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Chris

Aren't these the guys who made cars 2 and kung foo panda? Listen, I would rather listen to Uwe Boll's opinion than this. Screenwriting is nice and all but you really have to understand what truly matters in film. I watched the commentary for up and Bob Peterson said it wasn't about story, it was about character. Well it's none of that crap. The secret is the camera. I like the Pixar camera but it doesn't hold up to the Avenger camera... You know what I mean?

June 13, 2012 at 1:04PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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Julian

Are you clinically insane?

June 13, 2012 at 1:04PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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Julian

I believe sarcasm was intended, but then... did you just respond to yourself asking if you were clinically insane? I don't know if that's insanity but that's... something.

June 13, 2012 at 2:44PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

troll.jpg

Anywho, very informative.

June 14, 2012 at 4:03AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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Tyler

I don't want free tips from industry professionals, characters and story are crap, and the camera is the secret to a movies success. Does that sound dumb to you because it does to me.

June 13, 2012 at 1:13PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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Luke Neumann

Uh, no, I don't. And Kung Fu Panda is Dreamworks.

June 13, 2012 at 2:22PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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Jessica

Julian, are you a kind of... clinically sick troll?
By the way excellent post. The points are simple and effective.

June 14, 2012 at 3:45AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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Tatum

I lol'd at this. Well done.

June 16, 2012 at 1:32PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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Cars 2 was a slip up, Kung Fu Panda was Dreamworks, other than that, Pixar has made the greatest animated movies of all time and some of the overall greatest movies of all time. If camera is what matters, not character and Story, than why in the world would anyone read a book. They have no camera to back them up, just Character and story, and then when they are made into movies with camera, they get botched (Harry Potter). The Avengers Camera was good, and even the characters, but the story was weak, and that is why I would never rate it as high as all but two Pixar movies (Wall-e and Cars 2).

June 16, 2012 at 3:07PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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Jacoby

Why is Wall-E in the same breath as Cars 2? You didn't like Wall-E??

June 16, 2012 at 4:23PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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Luke Neumann

Not at all. I thought Wall-e was a brilliant story that was exciting and new. I just felt like it wasn't as entertaining as the other Pixar's have been. That is not to say it wasn't entertaining, because it is better than any other animated films out there that are non-pixar, but as new and interesting as the plot was, I thought it was less of a movie to watch. It was better than cars 2, but cars 2, despite all my instincts about movies telling me to dislike it, still was an entertaining movie and a joy to watch, which, though it is not the greatest movie because of that, is still a movie worth watching.

June 18, 2012 at 9:46PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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Jacoby

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

June 14, 2012 at 10:53AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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Sal

This, along with the Trey Parker/Matt Stone "never link scenes with 'and then' when you can use 'therefore' or 'but'" is some of my favorite simple writing advice.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/celebritology/post/matt-parker-trey-...

June 14, 2012 at 11:05AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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The Story Spine (#4) isn't Pixar's, it's an exercise from playwright/teaching artist Kenn Adams.

June 19, 2012 at 4:49PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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tim

I thought this one was poignant: "Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating."

June 14, 2012 at 11:39AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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Tim

my favourite tip too!

June 18, 2012 at 5:12PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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Since it was just as day or two ago that another guru instructed would-be writers to consult Shakespeare, maybe we're just getting a diversity of views for which no one should be asked to hang, but this list is the sort of thing you'd give to a Martian, who knew nothing about narrative, meaning literature.

It's true that utter ignorance of storytelling traditions outside recent movies and TV is pretty much the norm in the movie business, including among people who would like to think of themselves as current or future master storytellers, but you'd still think folks would be ashamed of approaching the medium quite this way.

June 14, 2012 at 3:44PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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HowardG

Are you saying that movies and directors have no idea how to tell stories and do a botch job of it?

June 18, 2012 at 9:51PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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Jacoby

A good knowledge of literature, while I believe is very important for any writer or filmmaker (or any intelligent human being)...doesn't always help you that much when you're in a visual or temporal medium.

Lists of "things to do in a screenplay" sounds like formula. It is not...by that I mean, this advice here is great. I mean, out of 22 things, only maybe one or two doesn't connect with me or seem to be valid for me. Wait. No...that was just off the top of my head. I just re-read the list and I can't find a single thing that isn't useful to me as a writer or filmmaker.

June 20, 2012 at 3:55PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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Daniel Mimura

Excellent!

August 2, 2012 at 4:24PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

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I love what you guys are usually up too. This type of clever
work and reporting! Keep up the awesome works guys I've incorporated you guys to our blogroll.

June 25, 2014 at 7:07AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

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