Out of the Mouths of Babes – Sort of, Part 1

If you’ve seen Cars 1 and 2, Toy Story 1, 2, or 3, Wall-E, or any of a number of animated films produced by Pixar, you’ve seen engaging stories that appeal to all ages. Though produced for children, Pixar’s films are equally enjoyed by adults. In some cases, the kids are just the excuse for the adults to go to a Pixar movie. (Wall-E and both Cars movies are among my DVD collection.)

In addition to its movies and its revolutionary advances in computer-generated imagery, Pixar is also famous as a Steve Jobs project–the one he joined when Apple originally kicked him out. Eventually and post-Jobs, Disney bought Pixar, and it’s been a good merger.

The computer-generated characters in Pixar movies would be nothing without a good story to showcase them, and to ensure that, we have “Pixar’s 22 Rules for Phenomenal Storytelling.” They’ve shown up on Pinterest and on other blogs, but I thought I give them a little different spin and describe the impressions these rules made on me and how I related them to my writing. I’ll do the first eleven this week, and the remainder for the August 20 writing post.

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Phenomenal Storytelling

1. You admire a character for trying more than for success.

When you think back on any Pixar movie, this is really its central theme. Perhaps it’s better phrased as “It’s not the destination, but the journey, that matters.” Of course, we all want to get to the “destination,” a completed book or story, but getting there is sometimes more important. Don’t “try” to write; just write. Don’t self-edit when you’re in the writing zone. Just write.

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.

We like to do lots of fun things as writers–twist and turn a plot, dump in a surprise ending, and so on–but we have to remember we’re readers, too. Yes, write what appeals to you, but remember you’re not the only one who’s going to read it. I hope.

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 re-write.

I can’t count how many times this has been true for me, especially when writing a short story. I sit down with something in mind, but it goes in a completely different direction. Sometimes I think I have a whole other person inside me who just takes over, and she’s obviously a better writer.

4. Once upon a time there was _____. Every day, _____. One day _____. Because of that _____. Because of that _____, until finally, __________.

I don’t usually outline, but this is perfect to remind me of just what the writing process is–short, sweet, to the point.

5. Simply. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff, but it sets you free.

I have a work in progress whose opening scene involves a person who isn’t sure if she’s alive or dead. I really liked it when I first wrote it and after I tweaked it. Now, I realize it has nothing whatsoever to do with the work in progress, so it’s time to “hop over that detour.” I never completely delete anything. Cut and paste to a new file. You never know when it might come in handy. Recycled writing.

6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

How real life is this? Doing this to your characters would certainly make them real, not just shadows on a page. Just reading this rule got me thinking “What if I…?” 

7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard. Get yours working up front.

I agree, endings are hard, but sometimes they’re not that easy to come up with. Of course, if the ending is so divorced from the middle, there’s always that great R-word: re-write. (See Rule Number 3.)

8. Finish your story, then let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world, you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

It’s never good for the ego to go back and read stuff you’ve written 10, 20 years before. Moving on is exactly the thing to do. I’m a better writer than I was 10, 20 years ago. I’ll be a better writer 10, 20 years from now.

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.

This is another rule which made me do a forehead smack–what a great idea. I think we see now why I’m not a writer at Pixar.

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.

We all know what appeals to us in a story or novel. That’s why we read an entire series by the same author or books of a similar ilk. For me, it’s strong, believable characters who struggle with their frailties. So, what kind of characters do I write? Yep, you got 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.

How many of us have kept our ideas for the world’s greatest short story or novel in our heads? We probably do that because our insecurity says, “Nah, it can’t be that good.” Our inner critic isn’t the best judge, after all. It won’t be the world’s greatest story unless we put it on paper.

What do you think of Pixar’s 22 Rules so far? Inspiring? Nonsense? (Just remember the writers of those multi-million-dollar grossing films followed these rules of story-telling.) I’d like to know what you think.

Tune in next week for Rules 12 – 22!