Tradecraft, Pt. 1: Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

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Tradecraft: noun ˈtrād-ˌkraft – skill acquired through experience in a trade; often used to discuss skill in espionage.

One long standing hope since the Rabbit Room’s inception was that this online community would become a place where we look over one another’s shoulder’s at what we’re reading, thinking about, listening to and learning. In an effort to focus in on learning how to grow in art, life, and faith, I present this new Rabbit Room series: Tradecraft. These posts will look behind the curtain into the mechanics of how things work in the world of thinking, composing, engaging and creating. I hope the content of this series will reach well beyond the arts themselves and into every facet of life.

We begin with Pixar and the art of storytelling.

This past July, Emma Coats, a storyboard artist at Pixar, compiled a list of narrative wisdom gleaned from her years working in their animation studio. She originally released these insights as tweets, which accounts for the unusual abbreviations and contractions. Lots of wisdom here. She twote:

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.

 

What jumps out at you? Do any of these surprise you? Are there any you disagree with? Are there any you would add?

___________________

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Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


25 Comments

  1. Jennifer

    I need to bookmark this and consult it often. I need to start with #11.

    Thanks for sharing!!

  2. Andrew Osenga

    BOOM. That is solid gold. A graduate degree in English might not contain as much wisdom as these tweets.

    Read them aloud in the studio. Lots of “ooh” moments. Nobody understands #18, though. Any thoughts?

  3. Shannon

    Printing. Thank you for posting this list. Kind of like a one-page Bird by Bird. (not to take away from Anne’s book, of course)

  4. untonyto

    Stumbled across this quite by chance. Made my day, very good tips top to bottom – the stuff of epics! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Wondered a bit about #18 myself. I agree with the first part; I think it’s about knowing when you’ve crossed the line into irrational perfectionism—which can kill a story or a work of art.

    The second part, though, I’m pretty sure I disagree with. I’d like to hear her expand on it. I’d say a great story is made in the refining—which is what necessarily happens after the testing. I have a feeling she might be using the terms differently.

  6. Kristen P

    I’m not a story-writer, but #9 seems like excellent life advice. Figuring out what your character (you) wouldn’t do next may be an excellent way to evaluate wise choices in tough situations.

  7. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    I get the first half of #18, but I’m not sure what she intends in the second half either. As a preacher, I live with this idea of having to know when I’ve moved from refining to fussing on a weekly basis. I have to reach a point with every sermon I write where I give it what I call its GED– “Good enough degree.” It’s a tough thing to do with story-telling, since a lot of the power of story comes through nuance and how and when things connect. But if we major on perfecting it, we often end up with something that may be technically well executed, but lacking in heart and motion.

    One of my favorite parts of life as a sermon writer is that every Monday I am required to set aside what I worked on so hard the previous week and begin again.

  8. Erin

    These would look great on an anchor chart in a junior high or high school language arts classroom. Pixar should give it a pretty header (like the one at the top), laminate it, and make it available for educators. It’s fantastic!

  9. Kristen Anna

    Kristen P, I agree. Same with #6, #14 and #22. What is the essence of the story that I’m telling with my life, and how can I live a better story? Reminds me of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Don Miller.

    #17 reminds me of a song by a certain Rabbit Roomer. Just as nothing is wasted in the hands of our Redeemer (Creator and Author), the work of an artist is never wasted, even if it’s never seen by anyone else. (I know that’s not a perfect analogy.)

  10. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    It’s fascinating to read through these as a writer and ask yourself whether or not you think you’ve wrestled with all this stuff enough in your work. On some things I think I pass, on others I think I chickened out a bit.

  11. Sherry

    The ones that jumped out at me were #9, #12 and #19. When I get into a story and #19 (coincidence to get out of a hard spot) is used I feel as though I’ve been cheated! As for #18, I believe that the first part explains the last part, akin to #8. If you’re having to fuss and fuss then you’ve gone off the rails. Fussing is related to perfectionism, which is not at all related to caring enough to do a great job of it.

  12. brent

    For some reason, this list made me think of Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies.” The former is more for intended for giving structure, while the latter is for breaking out of it.. but perhaps they are complementary.

    [My favorite O.S. is “Make a blank valuable by putting it in an exquisite frame.”]

  13. Ashley

    Love this – saw them on twitter and love to see them all together like this. I took the 2nd part of number 18 to be a reiteration of the first part – an exhortation to not get OCD with the fiddly bits. Since she’s talking about story, I think the point is that the “test” (of a story) is where the interest is. The “refining” part is more fiddling (and we can all get Gollumy with our writing, holla!). If you have big stakes, you have the test, and the refining comes after everything is sorted out. So if she’s using a metallurgy metaphor, then the TEST is the part we the reader/viewer care about. ie: “Is this hunk of metal gold? Or is it dross?” We don’t really care about “Can you make a crown with it?” Because once we know it’s gold, we know what it can do. 🙂

  14. ashley

    Love this – love seeing it all together like this. I took the 2nd part of number 18 to be a reiteration of the first part. Since she’s talking about story, I think the point is that the “test” (of a story) is where the interest is. The “refining” part is more fiddling (and we can all get Gollumy with our writing). If you have big stakes, you have the test, and the refining comes after everything is sorted out. So if she’s using a metallurgy metaphor, then the TEST is the part we the reader/viewer care about. ie: “Is this hunk of metal gold? Or is it dross?” We don’t really care about “Can you make a crown with it?” Because once we know it’s gold, we know what it can do. 🙂
    (ps: sorry if this is double posted – I thought my interwebz booted me) 🙂

  15. Renee

    I love this list!

    No. 14 jumped out at me with blinking lights! I have been writing in a serious way for about a year now, and just this afternoon I was taking a walk and feeling a bit of frustration as I pondered my writing. I feel like I am all over the road and I am so anxious to ‘find my voice’, yet I don’t feel even close. I am compelled to write, but at this point, THAT is the burning within me. I will be taking no.14 to the throne of grace in the days ahead.

    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.

  16. JON SLONE

    11. was a hard lesson for me to learn but I finally did.

    7. Is good.

    The part in 3. that said ‘combine characters,’ that’s pretty cool.

  17. Loren Warnemuende

    I think I need to print this and paste it on my computer…okay, maybe not the best place, but you get the idea.

    Number 12 is one I need to think through. I feel like I let my characters get out of dilemmas too easily. I’m afraid to push for the not-so-obvious, harder thing for fear of losing control of the story (which is another issue…).

  18. Zack

    Greatness! I’ve been advised almost verbatim #8 by someone I consider an excellent storyteller. Still can’t do it, but at least #1 makes me want to keep trying anyway.

  19. Glenn

    I actually opened Day One of my high school Creative Writing class this semester with #4. It gets to the heart of a story in such a clear way. Who’s the lead? What do they want? How do they try to get it? What happens when they do? It led to great discussions about how plot arises out of conflict, which goes hand-in-hand with character. So many storytellers – me included – start with premise, not with character and conflict.

  20. Tom Murphy

    With regard to #18, “Story is testing, not refining.”

    I think she means what we do here and what C.S. and J.R.R. did in the original Room. The best part of story is in the telling. Knowing what makes a friend laugh, cry, and shout, and what doesn’t.

    The “editable” parts of a joke, a song, or a story make themselves known if we have the courage to share. I love that we get to share our forgettable jokes, songs, and stories here and take the remainders to less friendly quarters where more perfect storytelling might matter.

    And Grace enough to not have to clarify our less-than-well crafted responses.

    You and I
    by Kristen Wright

    From “In the Year of Letting Go”
    http://kristenwright.bandcamp.com/track/you-and-i

    I know I’m with a friend when I can be arrogant
    Me
    I hold you in high esteem so you can be
    Full of it with me
    With You and I,
    It’s easy

    Chorus:
    You said, “I’m sorry.”
    And I said, “Why?”
    Oh, humility’s for lesser friends than you and I
    You said, “I feel bad, when you try”
    Feeling guilty’s for lesser friends than you and I

    Don’t be so upset when I give,
    You know the towel,
    I love to lift.
    And know there will be days,
    When I loose my mind,
    Just be there, every time.

    Friends like You and I,
    Are hard to find.

    Chorus

    I said, “I’m sorry for the things I say,
    my head has been a mess today,
    I’m sorry my words came out that way”

    You said, “I’m sorry for the things I say,
    my head has been a mess today,
    I’m sorry that my words came out that way”

    Chorus

    “You and I” – Live @ Belmont

  21. Amelia Rhodes

    My favorite was – 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.

    Even as a nonfiction writer I don’t see the theme and the main point until the end. That’s hard to remember in the middle and can be discouraging to keep going!

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