Originally tweeted by Emma Coats, Pixar’s Story Artist, the 22 rules of storytelling are great advice for any author to follow, and I believe they are a staple in how Pixar continues to tell such relatable and heartwarming stories over the years.
Some are more useful than others. Remember, you don’t have to use all of the rules to write a story; picking and choosing the ones that apply to you at the moment is the best approach.
1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
Example: At the beginning of Cars, Lightning McQueen is rude and self-serving, but throughout the course of the movie, it is his journey that is truly important, not whether he wins the Piston Cup.
How to apply it yourself: This doesn’t have to do with whether your main character succeeds in the end or not, though success can still be attained. What the audience is looking for is change, growth, evolution. How is your character growing as they go along their journey? What are the little moments that you (and therefore, the audience) can celebrate?
2. You have to 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.
Example: Writing a battle scene even if you’re not so good at battle choreography. You can’t skip it.
How to apply it yourself: Think about whatever you, as a reader, would be upset at the author skipping. This is what you, as an author, cannot skip. If you don’t like writing certain scenes, but they are crucial to the plot progression, write them anyway. If you’re not good at writing certain things, learn them; do your proper research.
3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about until you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
Example: A story may be written with the intention of discussing prejudice but end up more focused on the corruption of power.
How to apply it yourself: You may set out to write a story about learning to love adventure, but as you write, the story may evolve into one about something else entirely. Don’t be rigid about your theme. If the story wants to grow in one way, don’t try to force it back into your original vision. Once you reach the end, your story’s theme may have changed. That is when you can rewrite – to help it match the new theme more cohesively throughout.
4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
Example: Toy Story – Once upon a time there was a boy named Andy with a roomful of toys. Every day, he would play with his toys, Woody the cowboy being his favourite. One day Andy turns six and gets a new favourite toy in the form of Buzz Lightyear. Because of that, Woody becomes jealous and tries to push Buzz out of Andy’s life, but they both get lost. Because of that, Buzz and Woody must put aside their differences and work together to get back to Andy. Until finally they become friends. This can even be simplified further, but I’ll leave it here.
How to apply it yourself: Simply write out the above outline and try to apply it to your own story.
5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff, but it sets you free.
Example: In Harry Potter, there are many classes and many students at the school, but only the main people that Harry interacts with are given details. Until they are needed for the plot, they might as well not exist.
How to apply it yourself: Don’t give the reader a whole cast of characters to memorize. The best thing is to tell the story as simply as possible. If there is anyone who can be cut out, cut them out. Only give the reader what they need to know in order to understand the story, nothing more.
6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
Example: In The Hunger Games, Katniss is fully expecting her name to be called. She is prepared for it, but she is not comfortable with Prim’s name being called. She must also deal with the fact that Peeta’s name is called; she must portray herself as likable to the audience although it goes against everything she believes in (and her personality); she must win the Games to survive. All the while, her every moment is being broadcast across the country whereas she used to be a very private person.
How to apply it yourself: The main thing about this rule is to get to know your characters. How well do you know them? Does the plot challenge them physically, mentally, morally? What could you add to make it more interesting?
7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
Example: In Percy Jackson and the Olympians, the main villain is to be Kronos, King of the Titans. He is set up in the very first chapter of the first book, and everything in the books leading up to that is working toward bringing him back. Figuring out how much Percy has to grow in order to face Kronos at the end helps fuel the middle (where that growth takes place). How much experience does he need to have, who does he need to meet, what information does he need to learn, etc.?
How to apply it yourself: What is the plot of your book leading to? What is the big climax of the story? Figure out how the story’s problem is going to be resolved, then work your way up to making (or building) that problem.
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.
Example: Science Fiction author N.K. Jemisin did not publish the first book she wrote, but she still finished writing it, wrote another book, got it published, and then was able to revisit her first book.
How to apply it yourself: Leaving a story unfinished not only lowers your confidence, but it drains your creative battery. In this way, writing a whole bunch of short stories is the best practice because it gives you experience in writing the full wave of a story, the catalyst, building the problem, solving the problem, and the resolution. If you’re writing a novel and don’t like how it’s going – it doesn’t matter! You can always fix a bad story, but you can’t fix an unfinished one.
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.
Example: Dr. Frankenstein creates his monster, flees in terror when it actually comes to life, and the monster escapes. What wouldn’t happen is that the monster would be beloved by all, because of its ugliness and the general taboo of its nature; it wouldn’t simply drop dead, because of Frankenstein’s abilities and the fact that the story must continue; it wouldn’t accept that it is a horrifying creature and go into isolation because it has human needs and wants to experience connection. Therein point, the creature would seek acceptance from others and run into problems along the way because of its other traits.
How to apply it yourself: Simply take out a piece of paper or pull up a document and make a list of things that wouldn’t or couldn’t happen going forward. You can start with the most outrageous example first, working down to a couple of examples that would be plausible. You may even find that there are two or three options as to where your story might go, each of which could lead the story in completely different directions.
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.
Example: I like Harry Potter because of the idea of learning magic at school; I’ve always loved learning and magic seems like such a cool thing. I like Percy Jackson because it incorporates Greek myths, and they’ve always been so interesting to me; it brings ancient and modern together. I like The Mortal Instruments because, again, it’s a modern world with a hidden world that the main character doesn’t know about; they learn the truth and must combat a new reality.
How to apply it yourself: Think of a story you really like. It could be a book, movie, comic, or tv show. What about that piece of media do you like specifically? Do you like something because of a particular brand of romance that’s in it? Do you like it because of a trope or something that relates back to your own life? You should always be writing the story that you want to read, so knowing what you like is a great way to figure that out.
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.
Example: Lord of the Rings was originally an oral story that J.R.R. Tolkien told to his children, but his son Christopher, who was five at the time, complained about the lacking consistency of the story, so Tolkien wrote it down. Now the world can read it.
How to apply it yourself: Write it down. This could be by keeping documents on your computer, having a journal, or putting clippings and notes looseleaf in a folder.
12. Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third, fourth, fifth – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
Example: Normally I can guess predictable writing. However, in The Hunger Games, the obvious things never seemed to be coming next. There was always something that seemed unlikely when it first happened but made sense by the end.
How to apply it yourself: Write down your first idea. Cross it out. Repeat until you get to something that doesn’t seem likely but still fits. You have to be careful about it not being so “out there” that it doesn’t make any sense to your audience.
13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
Example: How boring would any story be if there is no conflict? How bland would it be if every character agreed on everything? Not only is it not realistic (as people are always fighting over one thing or another), but it’s not good for moving a book forward.
How to apply it yourself: You may have one or two characters who are wishy-washy about what they believe in, but characters are much more dynamic and interesting if they have strong opinions about things. It gives the reader more information about these characters, makes them more memorable, and makes the reader wonder what happened in the character’s life to make them think this way. As the author, it may be hard to write, as you know everything that needs to happen and how to fix the problem, but your characters aren’t meant to know the right course of action to fix the problems. Give them opposing views, even if they agree about certain things. If you don’t know how to write characters with strong opinions about strong things, first give them strong opinions about weak things.
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.
Example: The story of Up is about letting go of grief and learning to live for yourself. Carl has spent so much of his life living for Ellie that when she’s gone, all he’s left with is a shell of himself. Through his adventure, he learns to live without her. This story is important because it helps so many others deal with similar feelings. Yes, it’s fun and colourful and humorous, but it’s also a way of teaching.
How to apply it yourself: Is there something you want people to take away from your story? Why can’t the same story be told from the perspective of a different character? Why can’t your main character live through a different plot? Think about why you want to start/have started, and how this story will impact others. How can you enhance that concept/idea?
15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
Example: You might be in awe of walking through a wardrobe and suddenly finding yourself in another world. You might be terrified of your home was suddenly attacked by pirates and the only way to survive is to invoke parlay to barter with their captain. You might swoon if your significant other arranged the perfect date for you.
How to apply it yourself: Put yourself in the character’s shoes. First, think about how you would react in the same situation. Do you have the same experience that the character has? Would you be able to accomplish what they’re trying to accomplish? What emotions would run through you? Next, consider what your character knows and how you imagine they might feel. Are they someone to cave under pressure, who feels intense self-importance, or who always tries to do the most morally right thing? Adjust your initial assessment to match their personality.
16. What are the stakes? Give us a reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against them.
Example: This can be anything from small stakes (character wants a job) to big stakes (character must save the world).
How to apply it yourself: Beyond initial reasons (we want them to succeed) why should we be rooting for them? Perhaps they need the job so they can feed their newborn child. Perhaps they’ve been alone all their lives, finally found a family to care for, and the world is suddenly being threatened (their family along with it). Perhaps all their life they’ve believed one thing about themselves only for that belief to be ripped away, and they must prove something new. It may also be useful to ask others for their opinion. (“Would this make you root for this character to succeed?”)
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.
Example: You may write an entire backstory of a character that you have to then cut entirely out of the story, only for them to be incredibly important for a sequel or side story.
How to apply it yourself: If you ever need to delete sections or rewrite a part of a story you’re working on, don’t delete it! Simply keep the work in a separate document or notebook. You may find that it comes in handy later on.
18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
Example: You finish your story, but when you reread it, there are a bunch of things you want to change. No need to worry, you can edit and rewrite. When you read it again, you still don’t like the changes, so you change again. And again. And again.
How to apply it yourself: There will always be things you wish you could’ve done better. Looking back on a story after publishing can sometimes be the worst thing because there will always be something you want to change. Don’t be nitpicky. Accept that some things should not be adjusted and just leave them be.
19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
Example: The widely hated character Jar-Jar Binks is a victim of this. A lot of people believed that he escaped all sorts of dangerous situations by coincidence, however, it seems that the original intention for the character was to make him into a Sith Lord and have him pretend to have been incompetent the whole time, so a reveal could happen later. Unfortunately, so many people hated the character (because of this rule) that this idea was scrapped.
How to apply it yourself: It is very tempting to use this when you’ve written yourself into a pickle. When you’ve given your characters a problem that they cannot solve on their own. Something to remember is that whenever this happens, some rewriting must be involved. If you’ve run into this issue, write a note of what they must get out of or possibilities or even just what happens next. Perhaps try some of the other rules on this list (number 9 is especially helpful when you are stuck). The only time I believe coincidences getting people out of trouble is allowed is in humour or comedy (e.g. Neil Gaiman’s Pirate Stew) where it is used to poke fun at this very thing.
20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How would you rearrange them into what you DO like?
Example: This is the reverse of Rule 10. Personally, I think of the movie Raya and the Last Dragon, which I didn’t dislike but I didn’t particularly like either. I only watched it once, a while ago, but some things I would change would probably be to build up more of a friendship between Raya and Namaari before the betrayal, then have it solely Namaari’s responsibility to regain Raya’s trust. The story itself is about trust, but it feels like Raya is the one who placed her trust in someone, only for it to be betrayed and the world to be ruined. She is justified in her paranoia, so it should be on Namaari to prove herself trustworthy, not on Raya to trust someone who has already betrayed her. Faith is okay, but not when someone has already let you down.
How to apply it yourself: The next time you watch a movie that you dislike (or at least don’t love), watch closely. Instead of complaining about the movie, think about what you would do to “fix” it so you would like it better while keeping the story the same.
21. You have to identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
Example: In anime, a common trope is the detached, “cool” character. E.g., Todoroki from My Hero Academia, Shun from Bakugan, Kaiba from Yu-Gi-Oh, Light Yagami in Death Note, Levi in Attack on Titan, etc.
How to apply it yourself: “Cool” characters are often side-characters who the main character thinks are cool, and who they are/the actions they take are often what the MC aspires to be/do. They don’t make good protagonists because not many people can relate to “cool” people. Coolness is traditionally accompanied by mysteriousness, which is lost when jumping into the thoughts/motivations of a character; it is not something that can be relied upon as a trait. Just write your character as humanly as possible. When they are faced with a decision, think about why they are making the decision. What motivates them? What makes the decision easy/hard for them to make?
22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
Example: This is a log line, meaning the story is told in a single sentence. “The miracle of a magical family is breaking apart due to generational pressure, and it’s up to the only child without a gift to mend the damage and save the family.” (An easy one, but guess the movie!)
How to apply it yourself: Often this talks about the main problem of the story. Also, mention your main character and their motivations. (You may give their name but it’s not necessary.) Do not spoil the ending; say what they have to do but leave it open-ended. I wouldn’t recommend framing this sentence as a question.
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