Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling – How to Tell A Good Story

More than any words you say in your presentation, your audience will remember what they “see” in their minds while they are listening. Learn the secrets of great storytelling. Everybody loves a good story.

The art of storytelling is essential to effective public speaking. No matter what our culture, we grow up feeling that hearing a story is somehow a reward. Stories are the best way to explain the complex, motivate, and train.

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

By Emma Coats

These rules were originally tweeted by Emma Coats, Pixar’s story artist. Number nine on the list—when you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next—is a great one and can apply to writers in all genres.

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

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

7 . Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. 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 first thing that comes to mind—and the second, third, fourth and fifth. 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.

Pixar Animation Studios' Up showcases Pixar's great storytelling.

Great storytelling is key to powerful and persuasive presentations. (Film poster from Pixar’s Up.)

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 do you rearrange them into what you do like?

21. You must identify with your situation and/or characters; you can’t just write “cool.” What would make you act that way?

22. What’s the essence of your story? The most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Thank you Emma!

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Versions of this article, Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling, originally appeared on Aerogramme Writers’ Studio and on the Ragan Communications website. Follow Aerogramme Writers on Twitter @A_WritersStudio. Ragan Communications is a great source of information for communicators. Their conferences include the Ragan Speechwriters Conference which I have been honored to keynote.

Executive Speech Coach and Hall of Fame Keynote Speaker Patricia Fripp works with individuals and companies who realize that powerful, persuasive presentation skills give them a competitive edge.

 
  1. Thank you for passing this along. This advice is valuable and can applied beyond speech writing. These concepts are ones I’ll use.

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