Part ten of my analysis of “Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling” (that aren’t really Pixar’s) should be pulled-apart to see what you like in it.
(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.
This is something you should absolutely do, as a general exercise in understanding yourself as a storyteller.
But not necessarily in the middle of trying to actually tell or write any particular story — unless you’re stuck, and you’re looking at similar stories specifically to try to find structural and conceptual ideas to get your own story moving again, which is a different use of story analysis than is suggested in the advice. Both are equally valid.
In terms of understanding yourself as a storyteller and playing to your own strengths, this exercise will reveal that the things you like in the stories are a disparate collection of ideas: tonal elements, plot types, specific plot devices, character tropes, pacing, and so on.
You need to understand all of those elements, so allow yourself to consider them all. Write down each thing you like as soon as you think of it (you can organize them into types later), to capture your most honest, unfiltered perspective.
You’ll discover that what you like won’t necessarily be the same from story-to-story. You may like one story because of its pastoral setting and slow pace, and another because it’s dark and action-packed.
Each story will “speak to you” in a different way. Studying and understanding the when, how, and why of each element you like, in context, will help you learn to deploy the different elements in your own stories.
You’re not trying to rip-off other storytellers, you’re trying to understand what you like about your favorite stories and synthesizing that into your own personal palette of storytelling tools.
The analysis will help you determine which of the things you like, and therefore want to include in your own stories, come naturally to you, and which you will have to work at. It’ll help you understand what you need to do to write what you want to write, how you want to write it.
But there is also a deeper digging that you should be doing when performing this analysis: figuring out the core thematic elements that drew you to the story in the first place.
Doing this for several stories will enable you to discover what my friend Barri Evins calls your “Personal Thematic”, a central concept that you will naturally gravitate towards in your own storytelling because it’s what you already gravitate towards as a story consumer.
Here are some example core thematics and a filmmaker who shares that thematic:
- Love Conquers All - Nora Ephron
- The Little Guy Can Stand Up To The Powerful and Corrupt
- Frank Capra
- The Powerful and Corrupt Always Crush The Little Guy
- Alan Pakula
- Things Are Never What They Seem - M. Night Shyamalan
- Only The Strong Survive - John Carpenter
- Be True To Yourself No Matter What Society Thinks - Tim Burton
- Life’s A Bitch And Then You Die - Alex Cox
Not every single one of those filmmakers’ films is necessarily an embodiment of exactly and exclusively that thematic, but elements in all their films draw upon that core idea.
It’s inevitable, because personal thematic equals worldview, an interpretation of what it means to live which comes from individual personality and style. And while one’s worldview gets refined and expanded over time, it rarely completely changes, which means it always shows up somewhere.
Embracing your own personal thematic doesn’t mean being formulaic or redundant: there are vast numbers of ways to embody any given idea into a specific story. Rather, it means knowing yourself so you can use your own personality and style to your advantage — to give yourself a voice.
Of course, your personal thematic does become a refuge when you’re lost in or stuck on a story, and can lead to redundancies. But if you make yourself conscious of your thematic, you can also police yourself against this more effectively, because you know what to look for.
Studying what you like as a story consumer will help you better understand yourself as a storyteller, and that knowledge will allow you to become a better storyteller by focusing on your strengths and strengthening your weaknesses.