Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Pixar's Rules of Storytelling

There is a graphic representation of Pixar's Rules of Storytelling going around "teh Intertubes," courtesy of Beau Chavassus, which I will insert here and hope you can enlarge it. These supposed rules were created for screenplay writing, but I think some of them are immensely important for novel writing. My alter ego (no, actually just me, editing as www.fallingforwords.com) reads manuscript submissions for Rhemalda Publishing. I can tell you which rules took me years to understand, and now  as a reader bother me the most. I can sum up rules 1, 4, 6, 13, 16, and especially 21 with one phrase: I have to care about what happens to your main character before you put him or her in mortal danger.

Writers are often told to start with action. This is early writing advice, to get you past beginnings on the first day of school, as someone wakes up, staring into a mirror, recounting family history, etc. But  you can't swing too far on the pendulum. Start me off with a plane crash where only your main character survives, and I'll mourn the dead. Start me off with your main character's actual life (with movement toward goals, which may be a better term than action) and then I might care more about him or her than the other passengers on the plane.

I would say don't start with Michael Bay, exploding things action (unless you're writing Transformers 7). Start with forward momentum. Start with building tension. Start with Harry Potter trying to get out of the cupboard under the stairs, Mrs. Frisbee feeling her son's forehead for fever, the rabbits in Watership Down staring at a man-made sign and wondering what it foretells. Then move to Hagrid's Apparition, Mrs. Frisbee's desperate appeal to Rats of NIMH, and the bulldozers destroying the rabbit warrens. Analyze the beginnings of your favorite novels and movies. There's a very good reason FINDING NEMO doesn't open with Nemo's disappearance.

I'm not sure if these are actually Pixar's rules, but they're great guidelines anyway. Once upon a time, _____. Every day, _____. Then one day, _____. Don't skip the "Every day" part. As I've heard it phrased before, tell me what makes your main character different from everyone else. That's the first question that should be answered, in my opinion. 

-- Kate


  1. Yes! I sooo agree! There's nothing worse than getting thrown into a story and being immediately expected to 'feel' for characters that you don't know.
    Thanks for the post!

  2. Where to start a story is always tricky. I agree with T. up above - nothing worse than being thrown into a story when I don't know anyone yet. Love the basic formula, especially the "Every day - " part. Thanks!

  3. Oh, good, I'm glad it's not just me. :)

  4. Great advice! I've always thought that I should take a screenplay course because I think I'd learn from it.


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