For the last month or so, I’ve been back in the writer’s chair, sipping the writer’s coffee and attacking a new narrative script. I’ve been largely focused on plot development and character arcs, so it’s very fortuitous that a familiar article is making its rounds in the blog world – Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling.
It’s no secret that Pixar consistently produces some of the most solid pieces of storytelling out there. Their writers have a fantastic grasp of the human condition, plot and character arcs and escalation. They know how to make things hard, risky and rewarding and how and when to raise the stakes. They are masters of their craft.
Interestingly, I feel that Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling pair well with some fascinating advice from Henry David Thoreau. Let’s explore them together and try to discover how these two different artists’ philosophies compliment each other.
Any writer, regardless of their medium, can benefit from Pixar’s rules. Here are some of my favorites:
1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
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?
13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
Most of these relate to characters. Good storytelling, at its core, comes from good character development. Without engaging, compelling and complex choices, all your hard work on the plot will be meaningless.
Thoreau’s Unintended Advice for Writers
One of my favorite pieces of advice for writers is not for writers at all. It comes from Thoreau’s Walden:
“Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”
A story’s plot is a series of moves. They key to effective storytelling is using as few moves as possible. Even the most complex and twisting stories should be able to be boiled down to a few basic moves, leading the characters from point A to B to C and concluding there. Too many moves and things either get confusing or coincidental – neither of these is a good storytelling.
Conclusion – Back to Basics
When we take Pixar and Thoreau together, we see both sides of a coin. You can’t have compelling storytelling without a powerful plot and your powerful plot is meaningless without engaging characters. They support each other. Therefore:
Keep your stories simple, keep your characters complex.
Follow this rule, and you’ll be well on your way to successful storytelling.