Former Pixarian, Emma Coats’ 22 Pixar Story Rules

Pixar Emma Coats 22 Rules of Pixar Storytelling

Emma Coats has been making waves for the last few years with her series of Twitter posts regarding “Pixar Story Rules”. We originally came across her list on the companion website to the book The Pixar Touch in May of 2011, but as of this year, it caught a rather large resurgence thanks to some astute readers that didn’t want this great list of “rules” to be forgotten.

Although she is no longer with Pixar (she’s pursuing live-action directing), if you enjoyed the list of rules and want to hear Emma expand on these ideas (and you live in or near Austin, Texas), we’d strongly suggest you pre-register for the Austin Film Festival and Conference which will take place on October 18-25, 2012.

As I recently learned by attending the VanArts Pixar Artists’ Masterclass, there is such a wealth of information that can be gained by attending these types of events if you’re a writer or just want more insight into the Pixar writing process. At the Masterclass, Matthew Luhn referenced several of the things that are mentioned in several of the “rules” — he referenced #4 and #9 a lot. Also keep in mind that although this list is compiled by Emma, she doesn’t take credit for creating all of the rules themselves (they are a compilation of her thoughts as well as teachings from the other Pixar story team members).

Here are the 22 rules – courtesy of The Pixar Touch website.  

  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.

You can continue to follow Emma on her Twitter page.

Comments 2
  1. I really hope I can go to this! Better start planning now! One of few events near me that I can actually see myself going to. Very happy to hear about it. Thank you for the info!

  2. You're welcome! Glad to hear it's near you – so many of these events are hard to get to because they're so scattered – it's nice when it closer to home!

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