This wonderful set of writing rules from Pixar story artist Emma Coats is currently being shared around the Internets: The Pixar Touch – history of Pixar – Blog – Pixar story rules (one version).
I agree with most, but I think they would be more useful if divided up as “first draft”, “second draft” and “pre-writing” rules.
How I would divide them:
First Draft rules:
Stuff to keep in mind as you plow through the first telling of your story.
#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
#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.
(This is tricky. And where I kind of disagree. I often have a strong idea of my beginning, a vague idea of the middle, and no real clue about how it ends. However, I do try and keep in mind how I want my characters to change. I do try and know my characters as well as I can, and figure out what they want and what they need. So I do keep in mind where I’d like for them to end up- but the actual plot machinations of how that works should arise organically from their actions. It’s troublesome to have an ending solidly planned out that you want to arrive at, because forcing that to happen may involve being dishonest to the characters’ needs.)
#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.(Never heard this one before- love it! Also- when you’re stuck, it’s often because at some point in the story, you’ve been dishonest about your characters, and prioritized story/plot above them. Now they simply cannot proceed in accordance with what you want happening. So go back to that dishonest moment and change it- and move forward from there.)
#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.
(This sometimes means discounting the first draft.)
#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.
(THIS. YES. YES. YES. Each project of mine absolutely MUST start with a belief burning within me. Anytime I attempt a story off of intellectual curiosity, or a desire to do something “different” or “cool”, it almost always fails. It has to matter to me desperately. And this is what I look for when I read a story or see a play. I need to have a strong sense that this story mattered incredibly to the author- that there was a reason this story must be told.)
#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.
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
(Honesty, honesty, honesty.)
What to look out for when you rewrite.
#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.
(The first draft must ALWAYS be fun for you. The second draft is when you work as the reader/audience and not the artist. Ideally, you find a way to merge both of your needs, so that you’re neither indulgent nor a sell-out.)
#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 ___.
This could go under First Draft rules as well, if you’re struggling to come up with the basic story. But it’s more useful when rewriting to see if your story can be simply summarized in this way.
#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
#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.
(Yes, but FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT. Finishing stories is just good practice.)
#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
How to find inspiration.
#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.
#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
I love Pixar movies (some more than others) and their storytelling precision is just amazing, but at times I do feel that their ridiculously well-crafted and scientifically honed stories leave me feeling a little cold. It’s just a little too perfect. A little bit of messiness is good. Now that they’ve become a box office machine, they don’t take any risks. They can’t afford any lose ends, any ambiguity- they can’t afford to break any of their own rules. But I would love to see them try. Just to keep us guessing, and excite us once again.
AND OH YEAH. I finally started writing script pages of my Meera Project yesterday!
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