Pixar’s rules of writing are a great read for all storytellers, however, some of the rules aren’t so clear on what they mean, or are always considered from a film making perspective. Because of this, I’ve decided to give them my own spin and interpret them for myself, and other authors / novelists / writers out there.
I hope it helps! Let’s go…
#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
The journey is more important than the goal. Your character doesn’t have to ‘win’ in the end, they can ‘lose’ and learn something. (Please make them learn something, so the reader doesn’t feel like their time has been wasted.) If you plan a story whereby the middle isn’t ‘soggy’ because it’s full of attempts, struggle, and fails, that is good. Your reader wants your character to sweat, learn, and discover themselves along the way.
#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.
This is exactly why so many writers use an outline! The mind will completely wander off into its artistic ‘woods’, and struggle to find its way out! With a map, you can constantly refer back to it and guide your protagonist out. ‘Interesting’ is best when it’s not reflecting over coffee with another character, or waking up in the morning with some introspection about the day. Skip all that, and throw them straight into the main movement of the story. If you don’t, your editor will only tell you to edit it out anyway!
#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.
Personally, I believe theme is natural and authentic when you don’t think about it. Theme can also be subjective, too. When a reader finishes a book and a friend says, ‘what’s that about then?’ The answer might be, ‘Well, it’s all about Identity, really.’ Or another reader might say, ‘It’s about Love and Loss.’, or ‘Family’. Beauty is in the eye(s) of the beholder! I half agree that you won’t know what the story is about until you get to the end. You may start off with a clear idea, and it may evolve over time (if you weren’t committed to a plan to start with), but whatever the deal, you might realise the last chapter must become the first chapter. And you won’t know that until you’ve written it. So no editing until you’ve done the first draft!
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
Once upon a time… Your story must have a problem for your character, and they must realise they have to do something to fix it. (a point or goal). Every day… Make them try and fail because they don’t know how to fix the problem (make them try and fail a lot in more and more difficult ways). One day… Something happens which completely throws your character off-kilter so they can’t continue as they were. Because of that… They have a revelation about themselves or others. Because of that… They change course and try something completely out of character (and may risk more than could have ever dreamt.) Until finally… they win or fail, but either way they discover something about themselves and are changed because of it.
#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
James Patterson is the world’s best selling author (I think I read that somewhere), but you might not have read one of his books. Chapters are short and many. Pick up one of his titles and read a chapter at random. Notice how the protagonist is immediately at a location, addressing a concern, faced with a revelation (of information) or conflict, and forced into action. Now look at your chapter. Simplify it. Focus in on the point of that chapter. Reduce the number of characters, but keep the best traits of them. Edit out unnecessary detours in the story (keep it on track). You’ll produce a tighter story and your genius will shine through.
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
Story is about opposites. Find a list of them and build a story around that. Make your characters deal with opposites. Opposites make for good reading, writing, and story. Always use opposites. If something/someone isn’t an opposite, change them/it or remove!
#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
‘Your ending’ can be ‘an ending’, it doesn’t have to be ‘the ending’. You must have an end in mind before you start. Otherwise you’re on a car journey with no destination and you’ll never arrive.
#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.
You’re not a writer if you never finish. Finish means you stop editing and release it into the wild (self-publish) or send it out (to agents) or move on to something new. You can try and call yourself a writer, but you’re not. Writers finish. Also, note that every writer hates their first work. They know that, but have moved on, getting better as they go. For that reason, be like your peers and heroes. Write, Publish, & Repeat.
#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.
Being stuck, means your plan has failed you. Go back to the plan. You did make a plan, right? You can even write the wrong thing first. That’s OK. You can also write really badly, that’s what first drafts are for. Give yourself permission to be rubbish whilst writing. Soon, being ‘stuck’ will be a distant memory.
#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.
Read to learn, not just to be entertained. Reflect on a chapter of fiction after you’ve read it. What happened? Why do you think the author focused on that scene, when they did? What was good and bad? Who were the characters and why were they used? How did that chapter connect to the previous or the next? Congratulations, you’re not in a dreamworld you’re in a complex puzzle which needs analysis to deconstruct. It’s the difference between being a Reader and a Writer.
#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.
It’s not a story if it’s in your head. You can hold a premise, an idea, a concept, a theme, a character(s). But you can’t hold the entire thing so stop kidding yourself. Write it, badly if necessary, but get it out.
#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
Sticking with the first thing which comes to mind is a trait common with newbie writers who believe their ‘art’ and ‘genius’ will hide any flaws in their story. It won’t. Professionals (readers or otherwise) will spot your dumb clichés a mile away. This is where your plan should be valuable. Write a list of ten things which ‘could/might’ happen. Pick the 10th one. Try it. It works.
#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likeable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
Remember the point about #6 ‘Opposites’? Equally, your characters can’t and shouldn’t sit on the fence, unless they are a character who must do that for the sake of the story. Even then, everyone around them shouldn’t! Your character must have as much internal fuel as external impetus. This fuel will spill out of them, all the time, in dialogue or narration. It also helps readers recognise different characters without pro-nouns (Mike said or Clare said etc).
#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.
I interpret this as ‘make sure you really want to tell this story’. You’ll be compelled to write it because it is better than all the others. You won’t know if it has legs until you get into the meat of the story (plan it out!), but you have to pick something. Make sure it’s solid, and exciting for you to write til the end. Ideas for a story are rarely unique. Don’t worry about if it is original or not at the start. Your creativity will ‘activate’ and soon begin making it your own. It will be impossible not to.
#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
Writing characters is Acting, first, in your head, then, on the page. If you can’t imagine your character for real (how they talk, walk, wear, smile, react etc) then you probably don’t know them well enough yet. If it helps, base them on someone you know/knew, or a combination of different people you’ve met. What were your characters doing before the story started, and what will they do after the story ends? This past and future will shape the decisions they make.
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
Kill your character! Not literally, but maybe. The stakes for your character will either be Actual Death (not a good idea for your protagonist), the Threat of Death (but not actual death, hooray!), or a Fate Worse than Death. What’s worse than Death? Shame, Guilt, Embarrassment, and these can be Personal (their perspective on everything they’ve ever known must ‘die’ so they can be ‘reborn’ into a better person) or Professional (perhaps they lose a lifetimes integrity?) Whatever type of Death you pick, make it clear, and show their fear for it.
#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.
Imagine I told you that you’ll find all the fame, fortune and success you want in life with your 6th novel. Wouldn’t that make you want to write the first five really quickly? Those first five won’t be wasted. They will be the growth you need to go through to reach your best work.
#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
This is one of the vaguest points of the Pixar 22. I imagine most people don’t know what this means without explanation. I also don’t know. My guess is you need to learn how you best work. This means trying and failing, identifying your strengths to focus on them, and equally, to identify your weaknesses and drop them, or build them into strengths. You can’t know these before writing, and you may need to write a million words before they become apparent. Hopefully, a lot less! I also believe this point means, getting your story out there, either into the hands of readers, or other writers / editors to give you a true assessment of your work. If it stays in your little bubble, it will never be truly ‘great’. Its greatness is not yours to decide.
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
It is plausible for a character to see a warning sign for a hole in the ground and fall into it. It’s not plausible for that same character to fly out of that hole with a superpower. Don’t treat your reader like they’re a dummy, otherwise they’ll fling your book across the room. As a new author, your reader is just looking for reasons to drop your book and move onto another. Don’t give them implausible characters, actions, and situations.
#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
You can do this for a film, but not so much a book, because we shouldn’t be wasting our time on books/stories we don’t like. The only value I can see in this point is to know what you like and don’t like, and not to dismiss anything you’re not prepared to explore yet. When I started writing, I loved the novel length form and hated shorts. I also loved literary world and hated genre. Both these views have now completely flipped after exploring the values, strengths and weaknesses of each. Don’t be presumptuous about your writing ability until you’ve explored it.
#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
This is a tad trite in my opinion. I interpret this to mean, ‘show, don’t tell’. Don’t tell me something is ‘cool’, show me how that coolness is understood by the character. What effect does that cool have on them, and why? Readers aren’t dumb, and they want to figure out if your character thinks something is cool by themselves, because then they will feel smart and keep reading.
#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
Don’t waffle in your story. Remember I mentioned a plan throughout this? Start with the most basic way of telling the story, then look at it during editing. Maybe you can tell the same story from another characters perspective and it be way more compelling to read. Maybe you need to alternate chapters with another character? Maybe you need to tell the story in reverse? Or tell the ending first, then continue from the middle. Authors / Editors use all sorts of tricks to reveal a story to the reader in the best possible way. You shouldn’t worry about this too much unless you have a clear vision at the start. Often this will be addressed in the editing stage.
Ok, that’s it from me. What do you think? Have I got something wrong, or does a point need further understanding? Let me know in the comments. Or maybe write out your own interpretation of the Pixar rules for yourself. It’s really fun to do.