For the past five years, Pixar has served as my film school. As a storyboard artist, working mainly on “Brave” but more recently on other projects, I had the privilege to collaborate with an incredible creative team.
As we hashed out the details of our narrative, I learned a lot about the basics of storytelling, and I have used Twitter to share them with others. Here’s some of what I’ve road-tested from my work trying to bring Princess Merida, other Pixar characters and my own creations to life.
1. You admire characters more for trying than for their successes.
2. Remember that what’s interesting to an audience can be very different from what’s fun to do as a writer.
3. Theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about until 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 are your characters 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 and let go, even if it’s not perfect. Move on, and do better next time.
9.When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next. Often the material to get you unstuck will show up.
10. Pull apart the stories you like. You’ve got to recognize what you like in them before you can learn from them.
11. Putting an idea on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, you’ll never share it with anyone.
12. Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third and fourth—get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
13. Give your characters opinions. Passive, malleable characters might seem likable to you as you write, but they are poison to the audience.
14. Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that feeds your story?
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 a reason to root for your characters. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
17. No idea is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on—it will come back around to be useful later.
18. You have to know yourself: Learn the difference between doing your best and fussing.
19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
20. What’s the essence of your story and the most economical way of telling it? If you know that, you can build out from there.