Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13

Pixar's 22 essential rules for storytelling


Emma Coats reveals her creative process in a series of tweets, while designer Dino Ignacio transforms them into cards so that they can be easily shared on the Net.

Knowing how to tell a story well is an important skill. While most of us are not born with said skill, experience, practice and characters like Jack Kerouac and Edgar Allan Poe help us improve this trade. Following this trend, but focusing on cinematic creation, ex-creative at Pixar and writer Emma Coats published a wonderful series of tweets with the 22 essential rules for creating a good story.

Some of the rules are psychological exercises that are not related to the composition of the piece but to the self-understanding of the writer (see rules 10 and 20), while others have more to do with the practical aspects of writing (11 and 17). In general however, they are pragmatic rules that allow the writer to focus on his or her work and the final result. The main issue with this kind of “recipe” is that they are the creative equivalent of processed food. These rules are a formula, a processed result from Coats’ mind and her experience at Pixar, and as we know, Pixar’s area of expertise is making good formulas. Nonetheless, beyond following them to the letter, we can use these as ‘magic cards’ that we can pull out of our sleeves when we stumble upon a blank wall during the process of our narrative creations.

Her rules can be used to communicate data and to make films. Whether you’re the creator of data presentations, infographics or data visualisations, this is a list that can enrich your work.

These “cards” became even more magical when Dino Ignacio, the director of Electronic Arts, illustrated them; he created a series of image frames comprising the 22 rules and uploaded them to ImgurNew Window. Now, these rules that helped Pixar become the storytelling giant it is today, have become memes that can be spread throughout the Net. Each one of these rules is illustrated with an image from a Pixar film to simulate (or serve as) motivational posters for those who set out to write.

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#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.

#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.

#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 recognize 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 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable 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 & 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.

Related Articles