I don’t often post on writing but I was playing with Pinterest this evening and came across this – a list from my favourite animation house, Pixar.
The storytelling ‘rules’ were originally released on Twitter by Emma Coats, Pixar’s Story Artist. And I wondered about the rules in respect of my own writing.
- 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 very different. Too right! It’s the thing that makes waiting for reviews an absolute nightmare, because no matter how much one thinks one might have met the audience’s expectations, there are no guarantees.
- 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. The Gisborne Saga changed from being about a man, to a woman’s perception of that man and the story that emerged from that.
- Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___. Linear for me, linear, linear. I can’t write any other way.
- Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free. I find that so hard. I love wonderful words, the more the better. I want readers to have to reach for dictionaries, I want them challenged by word, emotion… I want them to FEEL!!!!
- What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal? Well I think I do that to Ysabel all the time. I think she’s possibly the least boring character I have ever written.
- Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front. Now how apposite is this! Two nights ago, in the middle of writing Chapter One of the final book in the saga, the ending screamed to be written. So it was. And I could see threads moving backward through the story…
- 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. At some point I have to give it up, pass it over. That’s hard!
- 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. Oh, such an excellent idea! Can’t wait to use this. Although I did think that in Pixar’s case they can cleverly create an ‘ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN’ moment.
- 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. I pull apart Dorothy Dunnett and can never get to the bottom. She is quite simply incomparable.
- 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. I always put things on paper. It’s like painting a picture.
- Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself. The surprise for me is that whilst a rough plan might be in my head of the journey to be taken, the story invariably takes hold of me and tells itself, using me as a mouthpiece.
- Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience. Oh, I think we can safely say that Ysabel is never passive, never malleable. In fact one reviewer said ‘But sometimes … I just want to slap her!!!’
- 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. I was shocked when TV killed off Guy of Gisborne and I thought to myself that he should have lived a different life. It was obvious then that I had to write a different life for him. Besides, the Armitage Army believe firmly that Guy is SND. (So Not Dead!)
- If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations. I suppose in a first person narrative, one has to live the character’s life. Perhaps then I AM Ysabel. I’m sure Freud would have something to say. Seriously though, I couldn’t conceive of writing characters’ turmoil without having some experience of that turmoil myself.
- What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against. I think the odds are repeatedly stacked against Ysabel and Guy. That tension is what should, by rights, give the story wings. Only the readers can judge if that’s the case.
- No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later. Maybe that’s why writing the ending first is SUCH a good suggestion. Because the threads flow back through the story and grasp the narrative and pull it forward.
- You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining. Overworking is applicable in every art form. It’s one thing I learned at Art School.
- Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating. Ouch. That’s one to watch out for.
- Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like? Hmm.
- You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way? The thought that I could lose anything or everything that matters.
- What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there. Love. And Revenge. How best to tell it? Let me see…
**The curious thing is that if ever I had my ‘druthers’ and I was 40 years younger, I would LOVE to have been a writer or animator for Pixar!!!**
Great post. Lots of useful stuff here. I love the idea of examining a movie you hate and seeing if you could make it work.
Well, it wasn’t a movie, Anne, but the the Beeb’s/Tiger Aspect’s version of Robin Hood would have completely been re-written by me. In fact I would have re-written and re-named it The Gisborne Saga. Oh, it’s been done, you say?
re: #5 – None of your characters are boring, but you’re right about Ysabel: I argue with her, cheer her on, and yell, “Look out behind you!” more than any other fictional character I know.
You and everyone else! Do yo think she’s the kind of person you’d like to meet one day?
I like this post – all very to the point with no messing around – Good ol’ Pixar!
I love Pixar. I love the sharpness of everything they do – emotion especially, so i figure their words are wise.