I know myself, so writing this analysis of rule eighteen of “Pixar’s 22
rules of storytelling” (that aren’t really Pixar’s) was done with
#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
Knowing yourself is absolutely essential. It's the difference between doing your best and not just fussing, but ultimately getting stuck and giving up.
But the difference between doing your best and fussing over small details at the cost of the big picture can be very subtle, and while it ultimately does all come down to knowing yourself there are some general warning signs to look out for.
If you’ve spent a lot more time than average on a single page, that probably is a sign that you’ve gotten stuck on details (if you haven’t figured out your own average yet, more than an hour at a sitting is a good starter rule of thumb for “too much time on one page”).
When this happens, hust keep going. If you haven’t solved it in the usual amount of time what you most likely need is time spent not thinking about the problem consciously, not more time ratholing into the block.
If you’re rewriting dialog and description over and over to “perfection” (or are spending time doing any “polish” work) when you still haven’t finished the overall story changes you’ve identified as being necessary for the draft at hand, that’s also a problem.
You can make all those details “perfect” once the character arcs, thematic threads, and plot mechanics are all firing on all cylinders. Even dialog and action just need to be “the right idea” in order to work out those high-level mechanics to the point where the story actually is engaging, emotional and “right”. The nuanced, subtextual writing can come in revisions once the big picture is painted.
If you’re “just thinking” for a longer than average time, then you’re probably worried about doing something “wrong” with a story point you’re not sure about. You need to just do the wrong thing and fix it later.
When you’re stuck, since you’ve already written something for all the previous parts of the story there’s a good chance that something that comes later will inspire the solution to what you’re fussing over. And you can’t find that thing unless you write past the current problem and get into the rest of the story.
My mantra about this is “be wrong early and often”. You can’t fix something in revision if there’s nothing to revise.
And finally, if you find yourself spending more than a moment on time of day, character names, what people are wearing, location dressing details, models of cars or guns or computers, or anything very specific like that — you’re totally stuck and have to force yourself to reengage with the hard work of making story progress that you’re avoiding.
None of those kinds of details really matter at all (if your script goes into production, it’ll probably all change), they’re just an amusing distraction from the hard stuff. (The rare exception is when it’s crucial, and I mean “the story completely falls apart without it” crucial, not “nailing all the details makes me feel smart” pseudo-crucial.)
The second part of this piece of advice deserves to have been a separate rule, since it’s an idea unto itself, a problem you can run into even if you know yourself and understand the difference between doing your best and fussing. Because you can do your best while doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, and still end up with a problematic result.
Packing the idea into half a Tweet also led to a phrasing that can really lead inexperienced storytellers into trouble because they don’t necessarily understand what a Pixar person means when they say “story”. It’s using a shorthand with implied meaning that you may not all get, so I’ll unpack it for you in order to help you make best use of the advice.
This phrase uses distinction between “story” meaning story development and “production” meaning implementation, wherein the expectation is that those involved in the “story” process are creating all the high-level elements (broad characterizations, themes, arcs, plot points, sequences), and those involved in the “production” process are refining the details (dialog, action, settings, moments and scenes).
“Story”, meaning “story development”, is the process of conceiving, structuring, sketching (drawn or written), and testing ideas. During that phase of the process, everything is rough, details are intended only to support the main ideas, and everything can change at any moment through inspiration or analysis.
So what is meant by “story is testing, not refinement” is that when you’re working out the basic structures, themes, and characterizations of your piece you have to focus on the big picture and test ideas in rough form to see if they work at all, not get caught-up in the details by refining the details to “perfection”.
But once the story starts to lock into place, the process of refinement starts. Dialog, description and action are rewritten and restaged, sets are designed and dressed, and so on.
This “iterative refinement” approach, working from rough to fine, is actually an ideal approach for every phase of every artform. Within film production all the different artistic disciplines (animators, artists, editors, etc.) uses the sketch first, test and review, decide, then refine approach for creating their own work.
Getting into the refinement details during the story development process bogs you down and often makes you precious about the refined ideas, getting in the way of testing the ideas, a process in which you need to not be precious about anything because you’ll be throwing a lot away because it doesn’t work.
The testing is the process of sketching (i.e. rough implementation) the ideas and seeing how everything works once you’ve sketched the whole (iteratively, from scene to entire story).
Finding the problems before you dig into the details makes it much easier to make the necessary revisions, not just because you won’t be precious about things, but because sticking to the big picture first means there will also be fewer dangling threads to track across each revision.
This advice has a corollary that is specific to writing spec scripts: you need to stay focused on only what’s most important for your story even during refinement.
A lot of those details (staging, dressing, specific acting choices about action and dialog delivery, etc.) are the job of the director, art director, cinematographer, cast, and others. You want those people invested in your film and bringing their best to it, and to do that you have to respect their contributions by leaving room for them.
Overall the crux of this advice is this: figure out the overarching
structural and thematic elements of your story first, and test those in a
non-precious sketch form until you’ve found something that seems to
work best — then refine it. And always focus on what’s important, the
other details are just clutter.