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The definitive business advent calendar: 22 December – Pixar’s rules for storytelling

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From our earliest years we’re told anthropologists have never found a culture or civilisation that didn’t tell stories. There’s even evidence to suggest that our brains are hardwired to understand the world by story

If we listen to a powerpoint presentation with boring bullet points, a certain part in the brain gets activated. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And… nothing else happens. When we are being told a story, not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.

Disney executive and former singer Kendal Jolly claimed Disney’s mission has remained the same throughout its history – to make magic. And one of the most crucial business tools employed, he said, was storytelling. In fact, after his experience with the company, he is convinced that storytelling can be applied as a leadership tool in any organisation, for building corporate culture and business growth.

And with Pixar now being under Disney’s belt, we backtrack to a few years ago when former Pixar employee, “Brave” storyboard artist Emma Coats, tweeted the 22 rules on telling stories she’d learned from her seniors at Pixar.

This list of rules was widely embraced as it was pretty much applicable to anyone. And much of its advice, such as, “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”, is still as applicable as ever. 

At the forefront was the rule “you admire a character for trying more than for their successes“.

She said: “Indiana Jones fails at nearly everything he tries to do. The deck is always stacked against Ripley’s survival. These characters move forward when there’s no hope of success, miles after any one of us in the audience would have given up. Success without trials is meaningless, as you probably know if you’ve ever got something easy and then tried to share your triumph. If you tell people how you found $300 on the sidewalk and bought a second PlayStation, the response you get is going to range from, ‘Cool story, bro’ to outright hate. 

“However, if you spin the tale of how you bet your PlayStation on an arm-wrestling contest and lost to some guy and you trained and trained and faced him again and lost your whole home theater this time, and you went and studied with an arm-wrestling master who trod upon your dreams but you couldn’t be dissuaded from facing this guy again and you lost again and now he owns your vacation home – you’re still going to meet with outright hate because seriously, you have awesome stuff and you’re making terrible decisions. The hate is laced with admiration, though, because you never give up.” 

The rest of the list goes as follows:

(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 very different.
(3) Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about till 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 recognise 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 first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third, fourth, fifth – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
(13) Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likeable 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 and 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.

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