Pixar Insider Reveals The 22 Rules Of Storytelling

22 Rules Of Story Telling.  By Emma Coats, PixarIt’s truly great to meet someone who’s rampantly passionate about their craft.

Emma Coats, a storyboard artist at Pixar, has just tweeted her 22 Rules Of Storytelling that she’d learned and noted down while working closely with writers on 3D Pixar movies.

Emma Coats Tweet - PixarThis collection of rules is her own personal view, not Pixar’s official line.  But they’re highly insightful, having been learned at the ‘coal face’, which makes them even more interesting to me.   They’re great information for screen writers, but they’ll be equally interesting to my genre-fiction friends.

So with Emma’s permission I’ll list all 22 here, with one proviso:  I’ll dub this a work in progress, because I suspect that she has at least 22 more up her sleeve.

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.

Which of the 22 is the most true for you?  Do any further ‘rules’ come to mind?  Please do leave a comment below.

Jonathan Gunson
Article by Jonathan Gunson
Author / CEO Bestseller Labs


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  • June 20, 2012 at 8:53am

    Congratulations Jonathan on a great new website – it was worth waiting for! Emma Coats’ post is fantastic, not just for fiction but for non-fiction, too, (I write mostly short stories and travelogue). Screenwriting has a lot to offer writers of any genre because we all have to engage the reader to succeed, whatever we are writing, and to think in characters, actions and scenes draws the reader right into the story. I try to use this in showing, sharing, place and culture through character and activity. I especially like the way she encourages us to take risks and be vivacious in writing. A great start, I need time to browse your other posts and look forward to your future ones. Cheers, Trish.

    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      June 20, 2012 at 9:04am

      Trish. True re screen writers.

      I can also think of several more story truisms – mostly to do with character arcs – #23? ‘Character = Destiny’ i.e. How will a character react under huge pressure? Strength of character will create a better result. Weak character will slink away with the issue unsolved.

      Interested to see more ideas. #24 – #36 ??

  • June 20, 2012 at 10:31am

    And here’s my two bits worth – #24 When you’ve finished the first draft, throw away the first chapter and start the rewrite from chapter two!

    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      June 20, 2012 at 12:24pm


      ‘Your #24, ‘Chuck the first chapter’ feels right on the money to me.

      Sometimes those openings can turn into darlings we need to leave behind. Another contribution along the same lines that I like (that many authors don’t) is the ‘attack of the editor’. They bring so much – in the very way you describe.

      Removing our overdone ‘darlings’.

    • Jennifer Blevins says:
      August 16, 2012 at 10:11pm

      Great written article look forward to reading and learning more from you !
      Keep up the great work :)

    • October 17, 2012 at 3:50am

      Yes!! I did exactly that on my first novel and it is the best way to grab people’s attention from the first paragraph. Fabulous advice!

  • Suzanne (@S_Lucero) says:
    June 20, 2012 at 11:03am

    Jonathan, this is a wonderful website. I can already tell I’ll be using it as a resource for improving my writing ten-fold. Thanks for letting me know.

    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      June 20, 2012 at 12:28pm

      Hi Suzanne. Re useful info:- I’ll be putting up interviews with famous authors soon. They have intriguing insights to share. Plus I’ll be posting info how writers can get published and increase readership.

  • June 20, 2012 at 2:54pm


    First of all, congratulations on the website! Great tips from the Pixar team. Having just completed my first book, it was great to look back over my own process and see which rules held true and the new ones I’ll apply next time.

    My personal favorites are Nos. 3, 7, and 13.

    Bravo! Keep up the good work! You’ve set the bar high!


    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      June 20, 2012 at 10:03pm

      Hi Clay

      Re Favorite story rules, ‘Character’ is central – includes one that you picked – #13. “Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.”

      On another note, I’ll also add that your own book ‘Walking Tall’ is a work of total fascination:
      Walking Tall by Clay Rivers

  • […] Bestseller Labs: Pixar Insider Reveals The 22 Rules Of Storytelling […]

  • […] 22 Rules of Storytelling Posted on June 26, 2012 by G.P. Merwede I stumbled upon a list of 22 rules of storytelling as told by Emma Coats, a Pixar storyboard artist, and I thought it pertinent to share them here; […]

  • Josh says:
    June 27, 2012 at 6:58am

    Looking good JG!

  • Cyd Madsen says:
    August 16, 2012 at 5:25pm

    I started out as a screenwriter and, long ago, married into the Disney extended family. Most of this is second nature to me, but it’s all being born anew in prose.

    #1 reminds me of a line from Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: They also serve who sit and wait.

    #2 is something I’ve come to understand as I hack away at prose writing. I call it “writing from the other side of the page.” Sure, you write to please yourself, but are you on the other side of the page as a reader? Can you do both at the same time? It’s an instinct, mostly likely learned from extensive reading.

    #3 was a shocker for me. After a couple of published novels and optioned screenplays (one with a green light), I finally saw the theme I wrote over and over again, and it was a theme I never knew existed in my life. I asked Robert Stone if he’d ever discovered something unexpected about himself through his writing, and he responded as if I’d smacked him in the gut. When he recovered, he simply said, “Yes. Any other questions?”

    #5 is what I call the architecture of a story. Without it, you’ve got nothing to hang the rest on. Everything collapses.

    #17 is spot on, even if it’s good work in the midst of a bad scene. I had to learn if I wrote something beautiful, it was OK to throw it away. Did it once, I can do it again. Screwed it up? Good. One more screw up out of the way and on to the next (there is always a next).

    #23 Lay on the floor for six weeks and listen to films. That’s how I learned my craft. A severe neck injury put me in that position and the television wasn’t big enough for me to see from the floor, so I listened, and I had no idea what was happening. Storytelling tells us nothing, it shows through feelings. Scenes are entered late and exited early to propel audience curiosity and clear the junk out of the way. Doors never open or close. Characters don’t answer questions or say what they’re doing.

    When I could finally see the films, I turned off the sound and “wrote” from inside the character’s minds I saw on the screen, learning the visual language of film and translating it to paper. As writers we have to learn this skill because our audience is trained in the language of film and want the writer to zoom in on an expression that wordlessly tells their thoughts and feelings. Make them feel and understand by getting under the expression. Ditch explaining expressions, descriptions, character traits, and plot. Show, don’t tell has become even richer with make them feel, question, dig, and discover as you write from the other side of the page.

  • Jonathan Gunson says:
    August 17, 2012 at 5:37am

    Re: “Writing from the other side of the page.” Insightful contribution Cyd. In fact your whole commentary is rich with the know-how of real practical experience.

  • October 17, 2012 at 3:52am

    What a gold-mine of a post! Thank you Jonathan. This gets an immediate entry into my “Fav’s” on Evernote :)

    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      October 17, 2012 at 4:14am

      Rebekah. A gold mine yes. There’s a new post coming this week from another story expert.

  • […] Bestseller Labs: Pixar Insider Reveals The 22 Rules Of Storytelling […]

  • December 25, 2012 at 5:01pm

    Wow, these are great points. I tend to write lots of blog posts that start with stories, and I guess the one that I come closest to is #7, since I always know what I want to convey to others before I start writing the article.

    However, I think #12 is probably the most important one. Most of the time I’m watching movies or reading stories my mind says “I’d have just done this…”, yet I realize that would pretty much make the story end quickly because it would be too direct. Good stories need a reason to survive I figure.

  • Michael says:
    June 23, 2013 at 9:50pm

    I think I’ll print those 22 rules out and tack them on the wall next to my computer. Great advice.

  • Yvonne Milroy says:
    June 24, 2013 at 2:48am

    Yay for numbers 9, 12 and 17!

    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      June 24, 2013 at 4:44am

      Strongly agree re #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.”

  • Maureen Turner says:
    June 24, 2013 at 8:15am

    What a great list. Thanks for making it public. What was also interesting was the favourite points of other writers. Mine were 10 and 15 which no-one else chose. Unsure whether to be concerned about this…am I odd? Then again I suppose it’s this difference of opinion that makes writers such a diverse bunch. Keep posting these snippets of information…they are invaluable.

    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      June 24, 2013 at 10:15pm

      More to come. Next week’s post is another list about how authors should market their books. (And how NOT to)

  • Cláir Ní Aonghusa says:
    June 24, 2013 at 8:18am

    Thanks for posting this. It’s terrific. The ‘Ditch the 1st Chapter’ response is fascinating – it worked for ‘Lord of the Flies’, or so I read. No 7 is NOT for me – I never know what the ending will be – and I’m not sure about 15 (unless the character is based on ‘you’). Most of the tips are great, but 12, 14 and 22 are especially great. I did a drama course a few years ago and, after that, I began to make out character sheets – a character’s likes, dislikes, opinions, politics, beliefs, hobbies, idea of a good night out, what bores them, reader or non-reader (if a reader, what kind of books), height, looks, way of dressing, mannerisms, catch-phrases, connections to others etc etc. It brings me up sharpish at times. ‘Why would he say that?” Is that out-of-character? And it can lead to an unexpected but credible response to a situation.

    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      June 24, 2013 at 10:13pm

      Clever stuff. Focusing on character the way you do will create captivating depth. ‘Character is destiny’ holds true.

  • AC Townsend says:
    June 24, 2013 at 3:57pm

    Great post!

    #1: Characters definitely grow throughout their struggles. Don’t be surprised if your character’s initial goal changes because of the “trying” he or she invests in the conflict.

    #7: I almost always have an ending established before I even begin writing the story. Not sure why that is…

    #14: Writing a story isn’t something I have to force. My characters move into “the apartment building in my mind” and start talking. I do my best to keep up at the keyboard as they live out their story in my imagination. I establish “way-points,” a series of events between the beginning and the ending, to ensure that they do travel from Point A to Point B to Point C without digressing from the story. But what they do on they way there is up to them. Once the premise for a story has formed in my mind, it takes the lead, and I follow. I have been criticized upon trying to explain that I write this way, but there it is.

    #16: In real life, people don’t always succeed. And sometimes they discover greater successes (and tell better stories) through their failures.

    #17: If you’ve written something that is beautiful or incredible or enlightening, and it just doesn’t work, set it aside in a folder or tack it to your bulletin board and go on. No doubt that paragraph or scene does belong in your book – maybe just not in *this* book. You may have just written a pivotal moment for another character in another chapter that you will be working on three or four books from now.

    #18: Retire your inner Perfectionist. She will convince you that you can’t live without her, but she will stifle your creativity and stall your progress, and nothing you do will ever be good enough for her. Leave her in the back yard with a bird-watching book and a glass of iced tea, and lock the door so she can’t get back inside. You’ll hear her pounding at the window, but ignore her screams. She’ll sulk quietly after a while. And you will be *free* to write without that inner critic constantly butting in.

    My own rules: #23 – Life doesn’t always perform the way we expect it to or think that it should, and the plans we’ve made don’t always cooperate with our intentions. Life for our characters shouldn’t be predictable, either.

    #24 – Life doesn’t always tie up every loose end and resolve every conflict. It’s okay if a character is left wondering about an issue at the end of your novel, or if s/he is still grieving because Lassie hasn’t come home. And guess what – your ending has provided a beginning for the next novel in your series.

    At the risk of sounding like that proverbial broken record, thanks again for another wonderful post. Not only am I learning about marketing/promoting/writing but I am enjoying the process immensely.

    ~ Angela

    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      June 24, 2013 at 9:48pm

      A guest post in its own right! Your contribution and insights valuable, and this is numero uno for me:
      #1: Characters definitely grow throughout their struggles.

      • ACTownsend says:
        June 25, 2013 at 7:53pm

        Thank you!