The 22 PIXAR STORYTELLING RULES: Lessons for Screenwriters

Pixar films are some of the most well-crafted stories in cinema history. And so it’s no wonder that there appear to be Pixar storytelling rules that writers and directors of these movies typically follow.

In 2011, a Pixar story artist, Emma Coats, wrote and tweeted a list of “Story Rules” she learned while working for Pixar. Note: She has now stated she wishes she had called them “guidelines” instead.

The so-called guidelines were essentially a number of tips for writers and filmmakers to follow when developing their own films. These rules are incredibly useful for screenwriters, not only for animation screenplays but for any genre.

So we’ve taken a look at these 22 rules and broken down what you can learn from them as a screenwriter. Here are what Pixar’s storytelling rules can teach you for your own writing process:

The 22 Pixar Storytelling Rules: 1 -22

Pixar Rule No.1: You Admire a Character More For Trying Than For Their Successes

As an audience, we love to see our favorite characters achieve their goals. It’s what we hope for throughout the film. However, it isn’t their winning that makes us love them so much. Instead, it is that they try in the first place and they keep trying even when the odds are stacked against them.

This first Pixar storytelling rule is used in Cars (2006), for example. The film follows race car Lightning McQueen, whose biggest dream is to win The Piston Cup. However, when he finds himself trapped in a town called Radiator Springs, he must fix the damage he caused to the roads before he can get to the race. 

  • Although we are rooting for him to win the cup, it is Lightning McQueen’s journey that is so important.
  • In the beginning, the car is obnoxious and self-serving.
  • By the end, Lightning has met some good friends and learned some important life lessons that lead to him becoming a better person (or Car?).

In the end, Lightning doesn’t actually end up winning the race. Instead, he helps Strip “The King” Weathers to finish his last race after he is injured. This, in the end, offers much more gratification than Lightning winning the cup ever would have. 

It really does prove that we admire a character far more for trying and learning in the process than for their actual success. This is applicable to any kind of genre. And it’s an important element to consider in the planning stage; what is your character going to try at and what are they going to learn in the process?

Cars (2006) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Pixar Rule No.2: You’ve Got to Keep in Mind What’s Interesting to You as an Audience. Not What’s Fun to Do as a Writer. The Two Can Be Very Different.

The next Pixar storytelling rule is an interesting one. Writers often get bombarded by new ideas and thoughts that we just have to use in our next screenplay. And while these are often good ideas, and entertaining to write, they might not be so entertaining to watch. 

For example, you might have a great, heart-wrenching scene at the end of your screenplay…but it might also require killing off a much-beloved character. You might think this will tug at the viewer’s heartstrings – and it might – but it might also just anger your audience. 

Or maybe you have a cleverly-written moment full of ground-breaking techniques, but one that would also be about five minutes long and would only disengage your viewers. 

As much as we are writing screenplays because we enjoy it, we are also often looking to engage an audience. This can’t really be done if we are too busy writing scenes for our own self-interest and focusing too much on the ingenuity of what’s on the page.

Pixar Rule No. 3: Trying For Theme is Important, However You Won’t See What the Story is About Until You’re At the End of the Story. Got it? Now Rewrite

This rule gets to the idea that the writing process is often what leads you to truly understand what the story is about. You might have an idea of what you are trying to write about.

However, you probably won’t fully realize what you are trying to say until you’ve written the story out in actuality. There you will see all the kinks and contours of the theme you’re seeking to express.

Furthermore, this rule highlights that the rewriting process is inherent to good writing. The first draft will never be the completed version. Instead, the first draft is the ground you build from. In order to truly realize the best version of your story, ironing out different versions will be necessary.

Pixar Rule No.4: Once Upon a Time There Was______. Every day _______. One day________. Because of that,______. Because of That,_______. Until Finally______.

Story structure is especially important in screenwriting, and it is often what script readers look for when searching for great writing. This Pixar storytelling rule shows a model that is simple, but effective.

Take Toy Story, for example. This classic tale follows the model to a T.

Once upon a time there was a boy, Andy. Every day he played with his favourite toy, Woody. One Day Andy gets a new toy, Buzz Lightyear. Because of that, Woody was no longer Andy’s favourite toy. Because of that, Woody attempts to get rid of Buzz. Until finally, they become friends. 

Obviously, this is an oversimplified version of the film. But it still lays out the story into its essential beats. So having a basic structure like this can be a great place to start. It provides clarity on who your protagonist is going to be, what their main conflict is and where you want them to end up. Then, you can begin to fill in the details. 

Toy Story (1995) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Pixar Rule No.5: Simplify. Focus. Hop Over Detours. You’ll Feel Like You’re Losing Valuable Stuff But it Sets You Free.

One of the difficulties of screenwriting is ensuring the plot does not become too convoluted. Sometimes, it is important to step back and take a look at the bigger picture. Is it really necessary to have a specific scene?

What you have written might be great, but if a script becomes too complicated it could take meaning away from the story you are trying to tell. 

  • One way to apply this Pixar storytelling rule is to write the screenplay as you first imagine it- detours and all – and then go back.
  • If deleting a scene doesn’t harm the plot in any way, get rid of it. The more focused your screenwriting is, the better. 

This rule teaches us that complicated plot lines aren’t necessary to write a great story. It also teaches us that it is important to see the bigger picture when writing a screenplay.

A question you could ask yourself is: What is the worst that would happen if this scene was deleted? Would it change the main narrative arc? Answering this question will allow you to see whether the scene is important or an unnecessary detour.

Pixar Rule No.6: What’s Your Character Good At/Most Comfortable With? Throw the Polar Opposite at Them. Challenge Them. How Do They Deal?

The sixth Pixar storytelling rule could be valuable for developing your character arc.

Take Pete Docter’s Up, for example. After the death of his wife, Carl has created a comfortable routine for himself. He is alone and he doesn’t take any risks. He thinks he is happy that way. Until Russell comes along.

Russell is his polar opposite; young, adventurous, excitable. Russell challenges Carl out of his comfort zone and we see how he deals with this throughout the film. 

Carl has many ups and downs but he eventually learns the importance of having other people in his life. Russell has challenged him and he ends up being a happier person for it. 

Putting your character in a situation that is completely unfamiliar to them causes a huge amount of character development. This is because the character is forced to adapt and change in order to come through the other side. It typically creates conflict as the character bumps up against this challenge and can ultimately lead to a satisfying resolution.

Russell Up Pixar

Pixar Rule No.7: Come Up With Your Ending Before You Figure Out Your Middle. Seriously, Endings Are Hard. Get Yours Working up Front.

Some may argue against this Pixar storytelling rule. Tarantino himself has stated that writers should never be working towards the end and that a film is about the journey. However, this can, in fact, be helpful advice. 

  • Working out your ending first gives your characters a direction, something they are working towards even when neither they nor your audience knows it yet.
  • This can make your middle much more powerful because you can use the ending to build a more tension-filled plot line. 

If you don’t know your ending, the rest of your story could lack the attention to detail it could have had if you had known everything that was going to happen. Attention to detail makes the story world more believable and cohesive. Moreover, it leads to the sense that everything in the story is meaningful. It can be fun to go with the flow, but careful planning is often the key to a more cohesive screenplay.

While every screenwriter has their own process, varying that process can often be a way to breathe new life into your writing and/or story. So figure out your ending first and see what difference it makes to your writing process. It might not work for you. But it can be another way to shape the story into a satisfying structure.

Wall-E Visual Storytelling

Pixar Rule No.8: Finish Your Story. Let Go if It Isn’t Perfect. In An Ideal World You Have Both, But Move On. Do Better Next Time.

Writing a screenplay is a learning process. You are constantly developing your skills and learning from mistakes. Sometimes it can be disappointing when your great story idea doesn’t make the excellent screenplay you thought it would. But, if you are truly passionate about it, keep writing the story. 

Perhaps after you reach the end, you will be able to see it from a new perspective and you can improve on it. If not, don’t worry about it. A lot of writers make the mistake of clinging to one screenplay they believe is going to be a huge hit. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

The best thing to do is finish your screenplay. And if it isn’t what you thought it would be, don’t let that discourage you. Move on and learn from it. 

Questions To Ask Yourself

  • What could you have done differently?
  • Was it the plot as a whole that didn’t work?
  • Maybe you wrote the story as a feature, but it would be more effective as a short or TV show? 

Even the most successful screenwriters have their losses. Not every screenplay can be a hit, so don’t take it too hard and use it as motivation to do even better the next time. It’s still a worthwhile exercise to build and complete a story. After all, practice is the only way you’re going to get better. And writing a lot of unfinished stories isn’t going to teach you as much as completing a story will.

Inside Out Animated Film Script

Pixar Rule No.9: When You’re Stuck, Make a List of What Would and Wouldn’t Happen Next. Material to Get You Unstuck Will Show Up.

This is a Pixar storytelling rule that encourages you to try out an exercise. Writer’s block is the worst, and when it happens we tend to make it worse by overthinking it.

Just taking a moment to relax and come up with every possible scenario can be incredibly helpful. You can even start with writing the most outlandish plot lines to help open your mind. Presenting each scenario in a list might even help you come up with a great idea that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

While on occasion ideas might just come to you without any prompting at all, sometimes we fear we will never have a good idea again. But you will! There are so many possibilities for your story, you might just need to unlock them.

Writing a list can be the perfect way to find the right direction for your screenplay. It’s easy to become fixated on a particular set of story beats and ideas. But by experimenting with new, even outlandish directions, you may stumble on a way to unlock the story. It’s all there in your head, sometimes you just need to experiment and dig a little deeper.

Pixar Rule No.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.

No material is original and this Pixar storytelling rule proves that. Nothing comes from nothing after all and we are often inspired by the other stories we hear and see. Those are the stories that probably inspired us to become screenwriters in the first place. 

If you examine those stories more closely, you might find what it really is that attracted you to them in the first place. Recognizing what you found inspiring about your favourite stories – whether they are books, films, or even song lyrics – could help you to emulate the messages they carry in your own screenplays

Pixar have done this with many of their own films. For example, the Bond movies and comic book heroes inspired The Incredibles. Whilst Mousehunt influenced Ratatouille‘s conception.

Ironically, using works that have already been done before to discover new parts of yourself can lead to you creating something original. This is because you are putting a part of yourself into your screenplay and, consequently, into the world. So, although we have established that no material is original, there is also a rule that nobody can create something exactly as you can. 

If you can find a part of yourself in the stories you enjoy, if you can recognize those pieces of you, you are on the way to making something original. It might not have never been done before, but then again, everything has been done before. Just not in the way you can do it.

Ratatouille (2007) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Pixar Rule No.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.

Coats’ next rule is true to all kinds of creative work but especially screenwriting. The new idea in your head may be brilliant, but it is just an idea and it will remain abstract and confused. 

If you put it on paper, however, what was once just your imagination becomes real. It is now a possibility and something you can share with others. Making a career as a screenwriter means having to have real tangible evidence of your talent. The way to do this is just to write. 

This way you can begin to organize your plot, develop your characters, and see clearly what works and what doesn’t. It is so easy to come up with a great idea but put off writing it maybe because we’re not confident in it, or we think it’s not developed enough. But have faith that the story will grow. 

Storytelling isn’t an exercise of perfection. It’s a process of building and of trial and error. Only by making your idea a reality will you begin this process.

Pixar Rule No. 12: Discount the First Idea That Comes to Mind. And the 2nd, and the 3rd and 4th and 5th. Get the Obvious Ones Out of the Way. Surprise Yourself.

As a writer, you probably have an overactive imagination. New ideas come and go so easily. But there is a lot of content out there and not every idea can be original. So, to make your screenplay stand out, it is important to try and make your idea as original as possible.

That doesn’t mean your entire idea should be forgotten. There could be something great in your idea. But don’t go for the obvious plot line and instead, try and dig a little deeper.

For example, maybe you want to write a Romance, but there are a million Romance movies out there. So, how could you make yours more original? Think of genre, location, time period etc. All of these things can make a huge difference to your screenplay and make it stand out far more. And sometimes it takes a while to get past the influences on your initial idea and into the more original parts of it.

For instance, writer-director Pete Docter’s original pitch for Monsters Inc. was quite different from the story we are all familiar with. Originally the film was going to follow a 30-year-old man, who is haunted by the monsters he drew as a child. But this first idea was discounted and, while the original idea was good, Monsters Inc. eventually became something quite different, whilst still retaining something of the initial idea.

Monsters Inc

Pixar Rule No. 13: Give Your Characters Opinions. Passive/Malleable Might Seem Likeable as you Write, but It’s Poison to the Audience.

This is an important Pixar storytelling rule to take heed of. No matter how great your script is in other departments, without compelling characters, it will still be lacking. You must avoid making your characters too passive.

Pixar never shies away from giving characters adversarial or distinct opinions. This often makes their relationships with other characters more complex, which ultimately makes them more relatable. People are messy. They can be opinionated, and emotional, and often say or do things they regret. But they also have a lot of redeeming qualities too. 

Being the good guy doesn’t mean having to be plain. Your character can have buckets of personality and cause conflict, but still be the hero at the end of the day. 

For example, in Toy Story, Woody and Buzz have not-so-desirable character traits.

  • Woody sometimes acts out of his own self-interest, and Buzz has a sizeable ego. In the end though, we still root for them.
  • Woody takes care of his friends, has some great one-liners and truly loves Andy.
  • Buzz’s ignorance, meanwhile, can be endearing and brave, along with his dramatic tendencies.

Neither of these characters is passive or malleable. In fact, they’re both very stubborn, but they are beloved by audiences. This is because they are heroes with relatable qualities. Everyone has flaws and so it’s rewarding to see that reflected in the characters we see on-screen too.

Pixar Rule Number 11: Complex heroes

Pixar Rule No. 14: Why Must You Tell THIS story? What’s the Belief Burning Within You That This Story Feeds Off Of? That’s the Heart of It.

“Write What You Know”. You’ve probably heard the phrase millions of times before. However, this piece of advice is often misconstrued. And it is easy to see why. After all, it’s doubtful that Steven Spielberg had quite such a close encounter with a great white shark before writing Jaws

  • The phrase isn’t advising you to write about your everyday life.
  • What it means is that there should be a part of you in everything you write.
  • Whether certain characters are based on people you have encountered, or you hint towards parts of your own life that had an impact on you, there should be something in your screenplay that connects you to your writing. 

This Pixar storytelling rule encapsulates it perfectly. There is no use writing a screenplay if you have no idea why you’re writing it in the first place. Although sometimes an idea just hits us and we can’t pinpoint where it came from, there will always be a belief within us that drives our need to tell the story. 

If you can identify that belief, you can use it to develop your screenplay. This belief will give your story meaning and purpose. Most importantly, it will have a part of you in it. 

The reason this is important is because it’s easier for a reader or an audience to connect with your story if they can identify with the heart of the film. And it is easier to write a screenplay other people can connect with if you can connect with it yourself. So, next time you begin to write, ask yourself why it is so important for you to tell this story.

Coco Official Final Trailer

Pixar Rule No. 15: If You Were Your Character in this Situation, How Would You Feel? Honesty Lends Credibility to Unbelievable Situations.

Pixar storytelling rule number 15 offers another way to create tangible emotional connection. When writing a screenplay we often find ourselves writing scenarios that would be unlikely to happen in real life. 

For example, in a sci-fi or fantasy story, often average characters are thrown into crazy situations. It would be unnatural for these characters to be unphased by these situations. We certainly wouldn’t be. So having a normal human reaction makes your character more relatable to the audience. Of course, this also depends on your character’s backstory, age, gender etc. 

So the first step in making your screenplay believable, and therefore credible, is asking yourself how you would feel. How would you react to, say, a rat cooking your favourite meal? You would likely think you were going insane. So realistically your character would probably think the same. 

Your audience will be less skeptical to unbelievable situations if the characters are just as skeptical. This way it feels less as if you are simply asking your audience to suspend their disbelief without question. Instead, your character is asking the same questions as the audience.

You could even take this further and ask yourself how society would feel. For example, in The Incredibles, fear-mongering leads society to shun superheroes. This strikes as a pertinent contemporary theme and therefore adds a credible and honest scenario to an otherwise fantastical situation. 

The Incredibles Pixar Storytelling

Pixar Rule No. 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.

Pixar storytelling rule number 16 is applicable to most successful screenplays. The main character’s motive has to be one the audience can understand and align themselves with. That way they are more likely to root for the character, and more likely to read, or watch, to the end of your film.  

But along with having an understandable motive, the stakes have to be high. There has to be a significant obstacle in the way of the character achieving their goals. Or, even more thrilling, significant consequences if they fail. 

Great screenplays tend to have a great villain, and the villain is usually stronger than the protagonist. This is what makes them unpredictable.

Pixar use this rule in most of their movies, but one of the times it’s at its most effective is in the 2012 film Brave.

  • In the film, if Merida doesn’t succeed, her mother will remain a bear forever. 
  • Merida and her mother, Elinor, have a broken relationship that can only be properly fixed once Elinor is human again.
  • However, the tension is built and she is only able to save her mother at the last minute. The odds are truly stacked against her.

This hooks the audience in and results in a compelling and unpredictable story.

Trailer - Brave Official Trailer #1 - New Pixar Movie (2012) HD

Pixar Rule No. 17: No Work is Ever Wasted. If it Doesn’t Work, Let Go and Move On. It’ll Come Back Around and Be Useful Later.

Sometimes you start out with an idea and, for whatever reason, it doesn’t quite work. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be used later on. Sometimes all you need is to move on from an idea go to gain a whole new perspective on it. 

  • The work you did on the old idea might be relevant for a new, different project.
  • Or perhaps if you are looking for a new project to begin, you could look back on the ideas you dismissed and it might trigger some inspiration.

As the phrase goes “anything old can be made new again”. Putting a twist on an old idea might lead to a great screenplay, one that you probably never imagined when the original idea came to mind.

The point is, no matter how much time you spent on a project that never quite got off the ground, your work wasn’t a waste. So, don’t be too hard on yourself next time an idea doesn’t quite work out the way you want it. It might, one day, morph into something that turns out even better than you originally envisioned.

Pixar Rule No. 18: You Have to Know Yourself: the Difference Between Being Yourself and Fussing. Story is Testing, Not Refining.

When writing a screenplay, there will always be elements we wish could have gone better. But once you have written the best version you can there is no point fussing over little things, constantly writing and rewriting. 

That way, the script will never be finished. Try not to obsess or focus too hard on writing flawlessly. Ultimately, there is no such thing. Try out new things, and if something doesn’t work change it. However, it’s important to know when you’re truly improving your work and when you are just fussing. 

It can also be difficult to let go of the vision we had for the story when we started. When we’re writing the story might change slightly and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But sometimes we cling to the original idea because that is the one we fell in love with initially.

However, trying to force it, when the story simply wants to go in another direction, can damage the screenplay. So let the story go in the direction it is pulling you in.

Inside Out - Official US Trailer

Pixar Rule No. 19: Coincidences to Get Characters into Trouble are Great, Coincidences to Get Them Out of it Are Cheating.

Pixar storytelling rule number 19 is something you can see in a lot of screenplays. In Pixar stories, there are usually a great series of coincidences that lead the characters into trouble. 

For example, in every Toy Story movie there are a series of unfortunate events that lead to the toys getting lost: 

  • In the first movie, Woody accidentally leans on an object that knocks over a bunch of other objects that knock Buzz out of the window and into Sid’s lawn. 
  • In the second movie, Woody gets broken, meaning he can’t go to Cowboy Camp with Andy. He is put on a shelf and finds another toy, Wheezy, who is put up for sale in a garage sale. Woody rescues him from the garage sale. However, he is coincidentally then found by a crook, who steals him and tries to sell him to a museum in Japan. 

This is something readers and audiences will accept because they are clever coincidences that lead to the main conflict of the story. Without them, there wouldn’t be a movie. 

However, using coincidences to get your characters out of trouble is, frankly, lazy writing. As stated in rule number 16, the odds should be stacked against the protagonist. It shouldn’t be easy for them to get out of trouble. 

When they do, it should be the characters who get themselves out of trouble. This is where the core of the story happens after all. It’s the engine; the conflict at the heart of your protagonist‘s struggle that will force them to learn, grow and change.

Pixar Rule No. 20: Exercise: Take the Building Blocks Out of a Movie You Dislike. How’d You Arrange Them into What You DO Like?

This exercise is the reverse of rule number 10. Being sure about what you do like is important, but knowing what you don’t like can be equally as useful.

There are probably tonnes of movies you have seen where you thought if they had just done this instead of that it would have been so much better. Or if they had gotten rid of one plot point and focused more attention on another, you might have come out of the theatre not regretting having ever bought the ticket. 

So, next time you see a movie you dislike – if you can stand to – give it another watch. Then take it apart. Rather than just complaining about what you don’t like, come up with alternative solutions. What it is that you don’t like about certain movies and screenplays? And how can you, therefore, remedy that with your own work?

Improving your writing skills is all about doing little exercises that, at first, we might think are surface-level, but in the end get to the heart of why we want to write and consequently what we want to write.

Pixar Rule No. 21: You Gotta Identify With Your Characters/Situations. You Can’t just Write “Cool”. What Would Make YOU Act That Way?

If you don’t have a connection to your story, it is incredibly hard to write from an honest place. Pixar storytelling rule number 21 is a brilliant way to make sure you are connecting with your characters. This makes them more realistic and makes it easier for audiences to identify with their problems. 

Whether you are writing a comedy, a drama or an action film this technique can be used for all types of characters and situations.

  • If your character acts bitterly towards another character, what would make you feel bitter towards another person?

An example of this technique being used in Pixar comes in Finding Nemo. The film is based on a real-life event.

  • The writer-directer Andrew Stanton had always wanted to make a movie about fish, but he needed a story that he was emotionally connected to. 
  • Then one day he went to the park with his five-year-old son and spent the whole time imagining all the ways his son could be hurt.
  • He then realized that his overprotectiveness and fear was suffocating them both. This feeling fed into the plot of the film. It was a visceral feeling that makes the plot arc of the film visceral too.

This shows how important it is to be able to identify with the fears and motives of your characters. If you can relate to them yourself, you know you are telling a story that comes from a place of real emotion.

Nemo Pixar Storytelling

Pixar Rule No. 22: What’s the Essence of Your Story? The Most Economical Telling of It? If You Know That, You Can Build Out From There.

The final Pixar storytelling rule asks you to forget about the details to begin with. Instead, what is the core of your story? What is it you want people to take away from it? And what is the simplest and most effective way to tell it?

Once you know what the essence of your story is, the rest will follow. So don’t spend too much time in the beginning worrying about intricate plot points, especially if you’re not sure what the heart of the film is yet.

Following the guidelines above is a great way to figure out what you are trying to say, who your characters are, and why this story is so important to you. That will all be hugely helpful in figuring out what the essence of your screenplay really is. Then hopefully that will be felt throughout the script as you plot it out.

Overall, like any other form of storytelling, screenwriting takes a lot of soul-searching. Writing “cold” as Emma Coats puts it, will never have the same results as a story written with a real purpose and connection to the characters.

So, next time you begin to write a screenplay, delve into the Pixar storytelling rules as a guide. After all, the evidence of their success is clear in the pantheon of incredible Pixar films. The proof is the pudding, as they say.

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This article was written by Lauren Dunlop and edited by IS staff.

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