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Tradecraft, Pt. 1: Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

Tradecraft: noun ˈtrād-ˌkraft – skill acquired through experience in a trade; often used to discuss skill in espionage.

One long standing hope since the Rabbit Room’s inception was that this online community would become a place where we look over one another’s shoulder’s at what we’re reading, thinking about, listening to and learning. In an effort to focus in on learning how to grow in art, life, and faith, I present this new Rabbit Room series: Tradecraft. These posts will look behind the curtain into the mechanics of how things work in the world of thinking, composing, engaging and creating. I hope the content of this series will reach well beyond the arts themselves and into every facet of life.

We begin with Pixar and the art of storytelling.

This past July, Emma Coats, a storyboard artist at Pixar, compiled a list of narrative wisdom gleaned from her years working in their animation studio. She originally released these insights as tweets, which accounts for the unusual abbreviations and contractions. Lots of wisdom here. She twote:

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 jumps out at you? Do any of these surprise you? Are there any you disagree with? Are there any you would add?



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