Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling (Part 1)
The principles powering the most successful creative company of the last half century
I re-read Ed Catmull’s book Creativity Inc (he’s a co-founder of Pixar) and it sent me deep down the rabbit hole.
I came across Pixar’s “22 Rules for Storytelling.” They’re incredible, and I’m breaking each one down in a three-part mini-series. First seven today.
You can check out last week’s piece on using data to enhance your storytelling here.
A message from... Me!
The interest in this tweet blew me away...
One way to become a better storyteller:
Take your two favorite authors. I recommend one non-fiction and one fiction.
Copy, word for word, their best work. Do it by hand.
I chose Paul Kalanithi and Neil Gaiman.
It’s the single exercise that improved my writing the most.
— Nathan Baugh 🗺️ (@nathanbaugh27)
Jan 5, 2023
In my experience, there are two ways to get good at storytelling:
- Study the greats (what this newsletter is for)
- Practice, practice, practice
I do a lot of practice through StoryWork.
And so many of you liked, commented, and sent me DMs about the practice I decided to turn it into a guided course for you.
Check it out:
In 2011, Pixar employee Emma Coats tweeted (way before threads were a thing) Pixar’s “22 Rules for Storytelling.”
They’re a masterclass in story, psychology, and human connection.
Today, I’ll break down what makes the first seven so effective.
Pixar’s Rules for Storytelling: 1-7
1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
It’s a funny thing — we want the main character to succeed. But we want it to be hard. The ups and (mainly) the downs, the struggle and strife, the doubt and worry, are what give stories life.
No great story has ever been told about a character who did everything right.
2. You have to 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.
Steven Pressfield, in his book Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t, sums it up like this:
“When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, you develop empathy. You acquire the skill that is indispensable to all artists and entrepreneurs – the ability to switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer / painter / seller to the point of view of your reader / gallery-goer / customer.”
As a storyteller, it’s your job to nail that sweet spot.
3. Trying for theme is important, but you won't see what the story is actually about until you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.
The easiest way to never start a story is to get stuck on “theme.” The truth is, very few people know the deeper meaning of their story until that story has been told.
Embracing the idea of a “sh*tty first draft” is the greatest unlock as a storyteller. After the first telling, then you go through to add that second level of intricacy and meaning.
Remember: it’s rare any creative work is the same in its final state as in its first draft.
4. The story spine: Once upon a time there was __. Every day, __. One day __. Because of that, __. Because of that, __. Until finally __.
Structure, structure, structure. But let me break down what each of these actually mean:
- Establish setting – the “normal world”
- Show character in normal world
- Boom, something happens to throw the normal world into chaos
- Another thing happens to make it harder for your characters
- Yet another thing makes it harder for your characters
- Your characters overcome and are better for it
One thing I want to hit on: the double “because of that.”
Pixar including the double “because of that” shows the importance of raising the stakes throughout your story. Stakes are the reason your audience can’t look away.
5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
In the outline JK Rowling used for the 5th Harry Potter, an 800+ page book, she included one main plot and five subplots.
That’s it. 800+ pages. One plot, five subplots.
There’s no need for your story to have more than that. Assuming its shorter, aiming for just one or two subplots is even better.
When time and space is limited, storytellers are forced to be more creative and ambitious through character and plot without relying on other gimmicks.
Simplicity also makes it easier for your audience to track and remember your story.
6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the opposite at them. Challenge them. Make them respond.
Stories are about the transformation the Hero goes through from beginning to end. But how do you make a Hero transform?
You don’t tell her how amazing she is. Instead, you challenge her to overcome her weaknesses.
7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
Without knowing your ending, it’s easy to wander off track. The right ending serves as a target – a guiding light – to keep your story on the most concise and effective path.
The right ending is like a magnet pulling your story forward.
Talk next week,
PS: Jack Raines and I created a course to give you the tactics to build, grow, and monetize your newsletter. Check it out here.
🗞️ Newsletter: Sieva Kozinsky writes The Business Academy 1x per week, hitting on either a business insight or investing opportunity. One of the few I have a 100% open rate for.
- I included this last week with a link to a random YouTube video. Right link this time :)
🎙️ Podcast: An AI-generated podcast between Joe Rogan and Steve Jobs. Incredible, yet somewhat terrifying how real it feels at certain parts.
🎉 Virtual Summit: SparkTogether — a marketing event where speakers will only tell stories. You know I swooped up a ticket right away.
💎 Hidden gem: A 1,600-year-old, 65ft x 20ft Roman mosaic was found in Syria.
📙 Book: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is one of the most inspiring books for anyone who wants to create anything of any kind.