Pixar’s Rules For Storytelling #1: Finding Ideas

You may recall Bloop Animation as the group who put together the video for my post, The Pixar Theory. Recently, they’ve been delving even deeper into what makes Pixar, well, Pixar with a new series about storytelling. The video is below, along with a transcribed version.

(The following is a transcript of a video written by Dean Movshovitz and based on The 22 rules of storytelling by Emma Coats):

Choosing an idea is all about finding the essence of your story. Most good stories revolve around watching a character struggle outside of their comfort zone.

We love watching characters have their polar opposites thrown at them.

A rat who wants to be a chef? Think about that idea for a moment. What could be worse for a rat than to have a passion for cooking? To dream to be a chef in a gourmet French restaurant?

Like most storytelling rules, this one is as old as time.

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell distilled all the famous classic myths into arc narratives:

A HERO lives in an ORDINARY world until someday she gets a CALL TO ADVENTURE and is sent off to a STRANGE, different, scary and exciting WORLD with which she is not familiar with.

This is exactly what Pixar talks about.

Think of Woody the cowboy. He’s extremely comfortable being Andy’s favorite toy and the leader of the toy community. What is the worst thing that could happen to him? What will make him the most uncomfortable?

How about a new, shiny toy taking his place? His prestige? His identity?

This polar opposite is more than just a worst-case scenario. It is a change that forces our hero to react. To deal with it. And in the best movies, grow and change.

It’s not enough to have something “bad” happen. It has to be something that makes Woody act emotionally and be called to action. We’re looking for tailor-made catastrophes.

Pixar managed to find even more polar opposites for Woody. In Toy Story 2, he discovers a whole side of his identity he didn’t know existed; a past family. And he’s forced to choose where he belongs.

In Toy Story 3, Woody is afraid of being left behind completely. Yeah, Andy plans to take him to college, but Woody and Andy’s best years are behind them.

Most of the movie is surviving in the world without Andy. But at its emotional core, it’s about Woody letting Andy go.

The end of the movie, as Woody and Andy both say goodbye, shows both of them accepting the end of their time together.

The movie wisely introduces an example of what happens to a toy who can’t reach this level of acceptance. They become twisted and malicious like Lotso the Bear.

From an extremely nervous father (a small fish who must cross an ocean to let his son go) to a superhero stuck inside the most mundane of lives, a heartbroken old man who must take responsibility for an innocent child, an aspiring monster who just isn’t scary, a racecar who must slow down (emotionally and physically), Pixar excels at putting their characters in the worst place possible for them.

But why is this rule so important? Because this polar opposite, this infringement on a character’s cushy life, is the essence of story.

Let’s get back to Remy, the rat who wants to be a chef. Once you have that premise, you immediately get layers of conflict.

Conflict is the fuel of any story. Remy is different. His friends and family don’t get him, which makes him lonely, rejected and disappointed. These feelings cause him to feel torn, as if he has to choose between his abnormal passion and his family and community. A passion he can’t really pursue.

He can’t take one step inside a restaurant’s kitchen without someone trying to kill him. Once you have this essence, you have a seed you can sprout into a story. And you also have a good tool to keep it economic.

What isn’t part of this essence probably shouldn’t be a part of your story. Uncomfortable characters are so appealing because we all feel uncomfortable. And once our cushy existence is taken from us,  we need to reconcile these new circumstances.

The difference is that Pixar characters go the distance. They will go to amazing lengths to get their life back.

Whether it be space, the ocean, or Sid’s room, watching them react to their new circumstance, fight and grow is what makes Pixar movies so emotional and enjoyable.


Hope you guys enjoyed these thoughts! Stay tuned for Part II, which delves into making the characters of Pixar. And if you enjoyed the video, please send your love to Bloop Animation for their excellent work.

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9 thoughts

  1. I liked the insight of putting the character not just outside their comfort zone but in the opposite of that zone, pushing them out as far as possible. It sounds obvious once you say it, but for that to work somebody does need to say it. Looking forward to more.

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