Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling (Part 2)
The principles powering the most successful creative company of the last half century
I spent yesterday morning going through Kendrick Lamar’s song ideation process.
You can bet you’ll see a piece on that after we wrap the series on Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling next week.
You can read part 1 of the series here.
In 2019, I was in my last year of college getting an industrial engineering degree. But I spent most of my time writing a book (or tailgating). I studied everything I could find on storytelling, character creation, world building, narrative arc, etc.
But the most important thing I did, after months of having just one chapter to go, was finish the damn book.
That’s why, to me, Pixar’s 8th rule of storytelling is the most important advice I’ve received on just about anything.
Pixar’s Rules for Storytelling: 8-15
8. Finish your story, even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on and do better next time.
I’m a firm believer there’s one way to get good at anything:
Storytelling is no different. The first draft of my book was horrible. My first tweet got no likes. But my writing is drastically better now because both of those things got finished.
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.
I’ve found one method that almost guarantees staying stuck – not writing anything, giving into the block.
There’s one thing I’d add to Pixar's rule: change your location.
Go on a walk
Make some food
Take a shower
You can make the list of what wouldn’t happen next in your head, too. No better way to get the juices flowing than some movement and thinking.
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.
Reverse engineering is a common tactic in tech, manufacturing, and other “hard” industries. But not as much in the creative world.
Your favorite speech is from MLK? Go listen to it and pull apart what he does – his cadence, his hook, his closing, his word choice. Your favorite book is by Margaret Atwood? Go read and pay attention to how she incorporates theme, point of view, and character development.
Can’t stop buying coffee from Starbucks? Study their copywriting, packaging, and store (& app) layout.
11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, just an idea, you'll never share it with anyone.
Anne Lamott’s essay Shitty First Drafts captures this idea perfectly:
“The idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.
People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.
But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.”
12. Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third, fourth... get the obvious ones out of the way. Then surprise yourself.
Ed Sheeran likens his songwriting process to that of a dirty faucet. Turn it on, it flows dirty. Leave it on long enough, clean water starts to flow.
This is the same concept Pixar applies to stories.
13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable as you write, but it's poison to an audience.
Nobody wants to spend five minutes with someone average. That’s like going on a date and saying someone was “nice.” Probably true, probably won’t be a second date.
Make your audience know your characters are worth their time. Give them opinions, strengths, and weaknesses. Even if the audience doesn’t like your character, they’ll be intrigued by her.
Which is more important.
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.
In startups there’s a phrase “founder-market fit.” It’s a fancy way of saying ‘why are you the one to build this company?’
Pixar is asking a similar question here. What about this story is uniquely you? And can you embed that into the story to make it special?
15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honestly lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
You founders reading this, try replacing "character" with "customer" or "user." Pretty powerful mental switch.
Emotional truth is a concept I’ve thought a lot about lately.
Tim O’Brien says:
“As with all fiction, the answer is simple: if you believe it, it's real; if you don't, it isn't.”
The word ‘fiction’ can be replaced by ‘stories.’
PS: Jack Raines and I created a course to give you the tactics to build, grow, and monetize your newsletter. Check it out 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:
🗞️ Newsletter: Stacked Marketer has become my go-to source for actionable marketing tips.
It covers breaking news, useful tips and tricks, and insights for all major marketing channels like Google, Facebook, TikTok, native ads, SEO and much more (try it free).
📹 Video: Rick Rubin comparing the creative processes of Eminem and Jay-Z is the coolest thing I've seen in the last month (thanks, Joey).
📜 Essay: Jay Acunzo wrote about storytelling misconceptions, and I loved it.
📙 Book: Stardust by Neil Gaiman is an example of a beautifully told story.