In one of his books, William Goldman talks about teaching creative writing at Columbia, and mentions that he typically starts the term with a reading of “The Little Engine that Could.” He says that the students typically are puzzled, and find this a bit infra dignitatem, but then he explains that he thinks the story gets to the heart of storytelling. You don’t really care about description. There is no sparkling dialogue. All there is, is the question of whether the engine is going to make it over the hill.
These days, one of the best places to look for stories — for engines trying to make it over the hill — is Pixar. Yes, they have taken computer animation to levels that were once unimaginable. Yes, their command of textures is astonishing, as fur looks like fur and wood like wood, and all that. But really, that’s neckbeard stuff. What has turned Pixar into what even film snobs have to agree is a maker of significant films is their understanding of story. The first few minutes of Up have more to say about love and loss than the entire Nicholas Sparks film catalogue.
Well, Emma Coats is a “story artist” at Pixar, and at Aerogramme Writers’ Studio, she shares what she calls Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling. If you write, or even if you care about stories and how they work, the rules are worth your time. A sample:
- You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
- 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.
- 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.
- Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
- Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
- What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
- Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
Check it out.
A tip of the Mondo Mortarboard to the ONT at Ace.