A little over a year ago a now former colleague, Emma Coats, Tweeted a series of storytelling aphorisms that were then compiled into a list and circulated as “Pixar’s 22 Rules Of Storytelling”.
Emma clearly stated in her compilation blog post that they were “a mix of things learned from directors & coworkers at Pixar, listening to writers & directors talk about their craft, and via trial and error in the making of my own films.”
We all learn from each other at Pixar, and it’s the most amazing “film school” you could possibly have. Everybody at the company is constantly striving to learn new things, and push the envelope in their own core areas of expertise. Sharing ideas is encouraged, and it is in that spirit that the original 22 Tweets were posted.
However, a number of other people have taken the list as a Pixar formula, a set of hard and fast rules that we follow and are “the right way” to approach story.
But that is not the spirit in which they were intended. They were posted in order to get people thinking about each topic, as the beginning of a conversation, not the last word. After all, a hundred forty characters is far from enough to serve as an “end all and be all” summary of a subject as complex and important as storytelling.
So since Pixar’s name is associated with that list, I decided it’d be beneficial to the world’s storytellers for another “Pixar person” to write a series of articles to look at the aphorisms one-by-one and analyze them.
In the spirit of inspiration, exploration and discussion which the advice was intended I’ll find points of agreement and disagreement, and offer up caveats, expansions, and excisions that I feel make the advice stronger.
And I’ll kick things off by commenting on this online article that the New Yorker published as I was preparing the series:
This article took the “Pixar’s 22 Rules” pages circulating around the Internet as gospel, and built a case around it that Pixar’s approach is formulaic “fast food” filmmaking.
Combining ad-hominem attacks based on poor research with an arrogant tone is unpleasant, to be sure, but rather than mashing any further sour grapes I’ll start the series by looking at a few points in the article and see what we can learn.
(1) Pixar doesn’t actually have “22 Rules of Storytelling,” and the correction that was published indicates that reading the one piece of source material referred to in the article should’ve clarified that point from the beginning.
The lesson there is to always do research about something you know nothing about before you write about it.
This does also apply to fiction writing. Know the world you’re writing about, understand the truth about who, where, and when of your characters before you get into the what, how, and why.
Even if you then diverge from the reality of a given situation, it’s working from a position of strength to know what you’re diverging from.
(2) The article suggests that asking “what are the stakes?” is a limited and limiting approach that stifles creativity and leads to “processed storytelling”.
But asking “what are the stakes” is essential for all dramatic writing. This concept goes back (phrased differently) well before filmmaking, never mind the studio system. If there are no consequences for the main character, you may have a very interesting essay, anecdote, abstraction, or meditation — but you don’t really have a story.
If you’re writing a story, you should always ask yourself “what are the stakes” for your character. Even if you cleverly don’t resolve them.
(3) The article also suggests that focusing on character is another stifling story development mandate.
But stories have always been about characters. Characters give the story their perspective and voice. Even “out there” writing like James Joyce or William S. Burroughs, or experimental films La Jetee and Un Chien Andolou, have characters.
Then again, the author is opposed to “the very notion of storytelling”, so I’ll have to venture further to make my point: The Mona Lisa and The Night Watch tell stories about characters. So does Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.
I’m personally a big fan of instrumental music and abstract film and art as well, but storytelling and character do have a solid, meaningful place in all artforms.
And when you diverge from this, you should do so from a point of knowledge of how and why you are doing so, not a dismissive attitude about these fundamental concepts.
Even if the character is you and your worldview is being expressed in pure abstraction, you should still know and understand your character, what her perspective on the world is, and how that drives tension and drama in the piece.
(4) The article does make a valid point that separating roles and having multiple voices is essential to the creative process.
Collaboration is the lifeblood of the arts. I’m not going to say the Hollywood system is always properly collaborative, but the “individual genius” / auteur theory has created a romantically incorrect perception about creativity that also leads to a lot of people trying to do things they are no good at because if they don’t they’ll seem “less than”. Musicians form bands for a reason. Movies aren’t made by one person for a reason. Even painters once had the good sense to have studios.
You should seek out collaborators you can trust, and cherish them.
(5) The article expresses the wish that the script-to-screen process was faster. Every filmmaker wishes the development process was faster, and filled with more yeses from executives and financiers.
But I also don’t think a solid script detracts from either filmmaking or spontaneity. Rather, I think that it gives the Director confidence to be more daring because she knows that falling back on shooting the scene verbatim is always an option. It’s easier to take risks when there is a back-up plan that’s already been worked out, vetted, and believed to fundamentally work.
So write the tightest, strongest story you can, even if you’re a screenwriter. It doesn’t mean nothing can change later, it means you’re off to a good start.
(6) Finally, the article’s author waxed on a bit about images, but forgot about sound. Sound is really important. But that’s a filmmaking point not a storytelling one, per se. So I’ll look at that in some future series.
The rest of this series will be about the original 22 points themselves, one at a time.
And do note: all opinions expressed are my own and not the official Pixar line. There is no official Pixar line on how filmmakers should approach creativity and storytelling.