A shot from my recent tour of Pixar's studios.How Pixar’s 22 Storytelling Rules Apply to Your Business

How Pixar’s 22 Storytelling Rules Apply to Your Business

Unlike how most people get started writing and creating online, which is typically very lonely, Pixar thrives on collaboration.

Employees there aren’t afraid of criticism, but rather embrace it, for it makes them and what they create better. Entire scenes they may have worked tireless nights on can get cut if they don’t build on the story being told.

But they must realize critiques lead to better outcomes. And in this case, these outcomes are some of the most profitable movies in the history of film.

So how should what Pixar does to collaborate and tell stories impact how you create your work?

A few years back, a former Pixar employee, Emma Coats, tweeted out the below rules on telling stories she’d learned from her senior coworkers at Pixar.

They’ve made their rounds in various corners of the web, but after having had a chance to tour the Pixar office earlier this year, every time I’m stuck on something I’m writing (such as a simple blog post or a script for a video) I’ve started to refer to this list more and more.

In this post I’ll share my personal take on each of the rules and how they can apply to you as a self-employed creative.


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

As you’re encouraging your audience to do something, like write the next page of their screenplay or sell their first product, let them know that actually being wildly successful at it isn’t the point (at least not as first).

Qualifying for the Boston marathon isn’t going to happen the first time you put your shoes on. You go run once. You start to run more often. You start getting faster. You build the habit of running. You eat healthier. You do this for years. Then, if you worked hard enough, you may be fast enough to run in the elite event.

Once you’re audience has done something multiple times they can get better at it. Let them know there is a grind to be great, noticed, hired, or whatever their goal is.

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 very different.

Sometimes what you’re audience needs most might not be the sexiest thing to create. Step-by-step technical tutorials on how to code a widget or organize their recipes may not be very fun to make, but can make a huge difference to whoever finds them.

That’s why Chase often says at the end of podcast, “Serve hard.”

This isn’t about you. It’s about them.

So figure out what their biggest problems are and solve them.

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.

How often do you write something start to finish and then not go back and edit it except for grammer? I used to do this all the time in college when a paper was due the next day, but online, an audience deserves better than that.


The first draft of anything is shit.

Ernest Hemingway


Write what you’re working on at least once through, take a break, and come back with fresh eyes. Rearrange sentences, remove the weak ones, look up better words, and make what you’ve made better the second (and third and fourth) time around.

© Pixar

4: Once upon a time there was … Every day, … One day … Because of that, … Because of that, … Until finally …

Every time you’re stuck on what to create next, figure out what your audience would be expecting. The important phrase in this one is “because of that”. I simplify it to “so that”.

For example, you separate the dry and wet ingredients, so that you can properly mix them separately, so that when you mix them together they are evenly distributed, so that your brownie don’t taste like dirt.

Handhold your customers and clients through what needs to be done. They’ll be thankful they didn’t have to figure it out on their own.

5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

Don’t make things complex for complexity’s sake.

If you can explain something easily enough by just writing it in a blog post, then don’t spend a bunch of time making a fancy video or infographic for it.

Don’t use fancy words to try to sound smarter either. Don’t say monetization. Just say make money. Don’t say content marketing. Just say writing.

6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

What’s easy for you may be hard for your audience. Think about all the types of tasks, projects, and systems you use every day. Then break those down into step-by-step tutorials so they can learn how you work.

Being able to do a pull-up doesn’t happen overnight. There is a progression you should go through.

The best way for your audience to get better is by taking on a challenge to learn the next step they can’t currently do. Then the next. And the next. And so on.

brave_hair

7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

We often do this on the Fizzle Show. We think, “what’s the big takeaway” before we ever hit record.

Write the last line of your novel first. Plan the last scene of your short film first. Design your final slide of your presentation first.

People remember endings better than beginnings.

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.

Focus on shipping, not perfecting. That’s why we made the Just Ship It Challenge.

Should you take more than 30 days to create and launch your product? Perhaps.

What really matters though, is you actually launching. Launch in beta if you have to. That’s what we did with Fizzle. We shipped it, then kept making it better.

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.

I like to reword this one as writer’s block happens, but talker’s block doesn’t.

Any time I’m struggling to put words to paper I just treat the action of writing like talking.

I choose someone I know and start writing directly to them. You don’t get writer’s block when you’re writing an email to a friend. So pretend the blog post, script, or book you’re writing is for your best friend or spouse and just keep writing. Then go back to #3 and edit it later.

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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.

Take notes all the time. When you’re watching a movie, write down your favorite quotes or why someone is your favorite character. Read a lot of stories. (I like to end my day with a novel.)


If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.

Wilson Mizner


Almost every creation is heavily influenced by other creations. Know which creations impact you the most and then use them in your stories.

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.

Everything is perfect in your head. That joke was hilarious before you said it and made a fool of yourself and offended everyone in the restaurant…

Writing ideas down and working through them should be part of your thought process. We don’t carve our ideas into stone tablets anymore.

Write on huge whiteboards. Get a cheap notebook with huge sheets of paper. (Chase and Stephen Pressfield are fond of Foolscap notebooks.) Create sketches, outlines, and mindmaps. Ideas need work, and the best way is usually in analog, not digital.

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

This is one of the best filmmaking lessons I’ve ever learned. Don’t do what people will expect first. Throw out your first idea. They’ll know and expect what happens, which makes the experience less unique.

If you want to tell a good story, keep the audience guessing.

(One exception to this is often scary movies, which make you jump even when you know something is going to pop up on the screen because they know you’re expecting it.)

walle_billboards_v2_story_v2

13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

Share your opinions. You don’t want to be known as the bland, boring person in your niche.

Take a stand on something. Corbett did it with “The Great F-Bomb Debate” and the comments blew up.

Instead of trying to please everyone, be yourself and share what you think.

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.

Don’t be afraid to share why something matters to you. I started writing and caring about personal finance after college because finances were one of the reasons my parents got divorced.

I was afraid for a long time to share such personal details though. What if my parents read my site? Would they feel ashamed? So I didn’t share it and I became just another money blogger.

Share what’s in your heart. People will resonate with it.

15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

Put yourself in your audience’s shoes.

What are they struggling with? What are their biggest obstacles? What keeps them from doing more of what you are encouraging them to do?

And if you don’t know the answers to these questions, ask them. Either email them each question directly or send out a survey. Even ten honest responses can change your business.

ts3_billboards_story_v2

16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

It’s easy to always talk about the positive, but what about the worst case scenario?

Put some stakes on things. If you don’t let the dough sit, your batter won’t be thick enough. If you don’t learn how to type, you won’t land a job. If you don’t create a side income, you’ll be stuck in a career you hate.

Then flip it around and explain how to avoid the worst case.

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.

I often treat looking back at work I’ve done like the nineteen years of school I went through. Some classes I would sit there wondering “when am I ever going to use this” or “this was a complete waste of time”, but if you try to see the learning experience in everything you can stop complaining and keep moving forward.

The blog you started a few years ago that you don’t write on anymore wasn’t a waste of time. You got better at writing. You learned how to share your work. You dabbled in design and HTML for the first time.

Nothing is a waste. Keep moving forward.

18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

Creating your best work comes from knowing HOW you do your work best.

Take this post for example. I’ve been looking at these 22 rules for a few months, which leads to thoughts about what each of them mean to me. When I was ready to actually write this, I set aside a couple uninterrupted hours to do so. I put on music I do my best work to and got the first draft done in one sitting.

Then I took a break to record a couple podcast episodes. Had some lunch. And then started formatting it, adding image, etc.

I know that I can’t realistically outline, write, edit, format, and schedule a 2,000 word post in a single sitting, but if I properly structure my day and maintain my energy level, I can do it in a day.

Instead of making excuses as to why you’re not doing the kind of work you want to be, make plans to execute on what needs to happen to get you there.

RAT_billboards_characters_v6

19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Don’t focus on giving your audience or customers shortcuts. Focus on what they truly need to know and do to succeed.

Yes, life hacks are sexy and might get your post a lot of traffic, but I’d take hard practice and skill over shortcuts any day. And over the long-term your audience and customers will too.

20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

Take a look at what you don’t like about the business or site you’re building. Make a list of all the things that bother you about the competition.

Then reverse those and make those the pillars of what you’re building.

You can’t really know what you want to change until you know what you don’t like about the present.

21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

Going back to #15, when you’re in your audience’s shoes you can try to think like them, but you can also think about what would make you do something.

Think a while back to when you were where they are now. What did you do wrong? What was your biggest problem? What do you wish you would have known?

Then share those things with your audience.

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 make the first draft or outline of what you’re making overly complicated. Break it down into the essentials.

For example, a business is simply offering value to customers in exchange for another value (typically money).

Break your business down into those essential bits. What value do you offer? Who are your customers? How much would they pay for the offered value?

Simplify, then make it more detailed.


What is your favorite piece of storytelling advice (above or otherwise) and how do you apply to your business?

Please share in the comments below.

Images © Pixar
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  • Michael Ofei

    Excellent write up Caleb! I particularly resonate with no. 13 as I haven’t taken a strong stance or opinion on my blog yet. But it’s certainly something I’m keen to explore. This is a really creative post. I love the images and examples. Thanks for sharing. P.S. I love Pixar!!

    • Caleb Wojcik

      Thanks Michael for the kind words. Take a stand! Then see where your audience stands too.

  • nktokyo

    Great piece Caleb!

    • Caleb Wojcik

      Thanks Nick.

  • http://www.successwithfocus.com/about/ Jeff Jones

    I’m particularly fond of #17. Sure, we learn early that we need to keep moving forward but sometimes we have trouble seeing the failures as positive, necessary steps towards success.

    • Caleb Wojcik

      100% agree. I used to feel the opposite, but once you think about it you’re always laying bricks to further down the road. Just need to make sure you are headed in the right direction more often than not.

  • http://kimanziconstable.com/ kimanzi constable

    #1 hit me right away Caleb and if you think about it that’s spot on. People identify with the journey and the grind is a very important lessons. That’s what leads to success.

  • Jens Reineking

    “Kill your babies (or darlings)” is probably one of the best storytelling advices I ever got.

    In theatre as a director, I had to tell some actors to tone down or cut out some really brilliant bits to make the production as a whole better.
    In writing, I had to cut out really good sentences and paragraphs because they didn’t serve the goal of the text (which also means you have to have a goal in the first place).

    And in business, you sometimes have to let go of this thing you really like but just doesn’t work or screws up all the rest. For me that’s teaching longer courses with weekly attendance face to face. I love the idea but it takes waaay too much of my focus and energy to be a good thing right now.

  • Jens Reineking

    Oh, and there is this brilliant quote from Ira Glass about the taste-skill-gap. It’s tool long to post it here. So this is the goodreads link to it: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/309485-nobody-tells-this-to-people-who-are-beginners-i-wish

  • http://www.kevinbradberry.net/ Kevin Bradberry

    Has anyone done Donald Miller’s Storyline life plan? It sounds good to me, but I don’t want to invest the time in it without knowing someone that loved it.

    • Chase Reeves

      I loved it, @kevinbradberry:disqus. Great thing to go through.

  • http://about.me/kenw Ken Wallace

    I struggle with #14 to the point that I have become paralyzed by it. Excellent post, Caleb!

  • http://kayakonlinemarketing.com/blog Randy Milanovic

    Just be open, friendly and helpful.

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