Recently, I heard rumors of a great treasure: a long list of storytelling rules from none other than Pixar Animation Studios. It’s generally agreed that Pixar is pretty good at making movies, and this would be a gold mine for a critic and editor like me. So, was it true? Sort of.
There is, indeed, a list of 22 rules purported to be from Pixar, but its origin is somewhat murky. What most people agree on is that in either 2011 or 2012, former Pixar story artist Emma Coats* tweeted out a list of 22 rules and collected them up into a Tumblr post. Where the rules came from is unclear. The original tweets appear to be gone, and the Tumblr link now leads to an error page. I can’t tell if that’s even Coats’s Tumblr account or if it belongs to someone else entirely. I’ve also found a page claiming that there’s a secret 23rd rule, but it’s impossible to verify.
The best information I can find is from an oddly formatted Washington Post article,* which has quotes from Coats herself, though it’s often difficult to tell what text is from Coats and which is from the article’s author. Based on those quotes, this isn’t any kind of official Pixar material. Instead, some of the rules came from advice that Coats was given while working at Pixar, and others she created herself. So, it seems the question we should be asking is: How useful are Emma Coats’s rules of storytelling?*
The First Rule
You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
It took me a while to figure out what this meant, but after discussing it with Chris, I think this is advice about likability and character karma.* If that’s correct, then it’s great advice! One of the best ways to make audiences fall in love with a hero is for that hero to persevere in the face of long odds. That might mean trying, failing, and trying again. That shows determination, making it feel like the hero deserves to win.
This is one reason over-candied heroes have serious likability problems. If the protagonist can sweep through all opposition with ease, then they’re uninteresting at best. At worst, they can come across as bullying those weaker than themself.
However, that doesn’t mean the hero shouldn’t succeed. If the hero tries and tries and tries and never achieves anything, the story will be unsatisfying. So, while this advice may push most writers in the right direction, it could be taken too far.
Conclusion: Mostly useful.
The Second Rule
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.
Wow, is this ever good advice, especially for new writers. It’s really easy to assume the audience will love an aspect of your story as much as you do, but that’s often not the case. This can happen at every level of your story.
For characters, you spend much longer with them than the audience does, which gives you a lot more time to form attachment. Likewise, it’s likely that you identify with your important characters in ways most of the audience won’t. In plotting, you can easily fall in love with a complex mystery that’s nothing but frustration and confusion for everyone else. Since you wrote the mystery, it’ll always seem more obvious to you than it will to the audience.
Perhaps nowhere is this effect more evident than in worldbuilding. When an author banks hours of research on a story, it’s easy to assume that everything they learned has to be included. And when an author writes about their passion subject, they can forget that not everyone is as obsessed as they are with, say, airships. As a completely random example. Stop judging me!
To make your characters, plot, and setting work, you have to imagine them from the audience’s perspective. That way, you can make sure the heroes are compelling, the mystery is comprehensible, and the airships are interesting to people who don’t already know what goldbeater’s skin is.
Conclusion: Very useful.
The Third Rule
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.
This is process advice, and you know how we feel about process advice: It’s too personal to be very helpful. While there are fairly universal rules of storytelling that most writers can benefit from, those are about what needs to be in the story. How an author gets the words on paper is an entirely different matter. Some people do best writing a little every day; others have more luck reserving one day a week for intensive wordsmithing. One author thinks of the characters first and then creates a plot around them; another author starts with a plot and then makes characters to fit it. This isn’t about right or wrong; it’s just about finding what method works best for you.
Making things even weirder, this rule appears to be advocating for a very specific type of discovery writing. Rather than simply forgoing an outline, Coats wants us to jot down a lot of words before we know what the story is about and then take whatever we manage to draft and revise it. I have concerns.
Discovery writing’s big hurdle is that it entails a lot more revision than using an outline, and a lot of authors really don’t like revising. This method turns the revision dial up to eleven. If you don’t even know what your story is about while you’re drafting it, there’s a good chance that whatever you’ve written will be completely useless. I think Coats is assuming that you’ll discover something for the story to be about as you draft, but it’s just as likely you won’t, and all that energy has now been wasted.
If any writers find this method works for them, then I wish them nothing but success. But writing rules need to be broadly applicable, and this is the opposite.
Conclusion: Useless process advice.
The Fourth Rule
Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
This is an extremely simple outline format, which clashes more than a little with the previous rule of going full bore on discovery writing. But never mind that, let’s see what happens when I plug in a story concept I’ve been working on:
Once upon a time there was a retired pilot living on a farm with her family. Every day she let rebel agents use her farm as a base because she believed the government was unjust. One day, the government destroyed her farm and the island it was on. Because of that, the pilot and her family had to escape in a stolen airship. Because of that, they have to help the rebels with a dangerous mission to make money. Until finally, the mission is complete and the unjust government is defeated.
Sure, that seems like it could make a decent story. The problem is that this format is so zoomed out that I’m actually no closer to writing this story down than I was before. The first three sentences, about half the exercise, is composed entirely of setup. I then have to cram most of the story into the last three sentences at such an abstract level that it’s effectively useless. I still have no idea how to answer questions like what this mission is or how it defeats the unjust government, let alone having any idea about characters or their arcs. And if I didn’t already know what the ending was,* I’m not sure how this would help me figure it out.
This format is also weirdly restrictive, assuming that only two important things can happen before the climax. I’m guessing this is a sneaky way to advocate for the three-act structure, but I can’t be sure. Regardless, there’s no reason to structure your fiction that way unless you want to. Lots of important stuff can happen before the climax, so long as it all supports the throughline and continues the story.
If you’re having a really difficult time coming up with a story premise, this exercise might be helpful. But for most writers, imagining a premise is the easy part. Figuring out what to do with it is hard.
Conclusion: Useless for most writers.
The Fifth Rule
Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
Yay, we’re back to good advice! Mostly. The unfortunate truth is many writers, especially new writers, have a strong urge to pack their stories with way more stuff than needed. This is understandable, because the stuff in question is very cool! Side characters, weird magic effects, subplots! There’s no end to the list of stuff that can tempt its way into your manuscript.
This tendency leads to stories that feel too long, too complicated, too slow, etc. To craft a story that works, writers need to figure out what their stories are actually about and then cut out all the extraneous matter that doesn’t support it. As we’re fond of saying, your story can be about anything, but it can’t be about everything.
For authors at this stage, simplifying their story is a good idea. In particular, combining characters is an incredibly useful technique. Often, you’ll find that you can keep everything important that two or more side characters contribute to the story, but with fewer names for readers to remember.
However, it is also possible for a story to be too simple. This is far less common, because the default instinct for writers is more, more, always more. But if you take too much away, you can end up with a story that feels empty. The plot never once surprises you, the villain lacks motivation, and the characters go through their arcs by rote. Some of the subpar MCU films are like this, especially the first Thor movie. Jane and Thor fall in love because they’re both Hollywood attractive, I guess.
So, it’s certainly possible to simplify a story too much, but that’s a far less common occurrence than a story that’s burdened down by too much stuff.
Conclusion: Useful, most of the time.
The Sixth Rule
What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
Some of the wording here is a bit odd, but the basic advice is sound: Your protagonist has to be put in situations beyond what they’re comfortable dealing with; otherwise, there’s no tension. Sometimes, that means making them a fish out of water, like sending a grizzled veteran to a fancy court ball. None of their combat skills are useful there, and they have to hide a lack of etiquette and manners training, or the judgmental nobles will never be convinced to send reinforcements to the front. That would certainly qualify as the “polar opposite” of what the hero is used to.
However, your story need not be so extreme as that. If you take the same grizzled veteran hero and present them with an enemy force that’s far more powerful than it’s supposed to be, you’ve still created plenty of tension. Now, your protagonist has to win the battle against long odds, or perhaps just escape alive. Heck, you could start with the hero at a ball to solicit the nobility for reinforcements and return to the front only to find a much stronger enemy than expected. It’s all down to what specific events you want in the story.
What’s important is that your hero shouldn’t go through the plot dealing with expected problems in expected ways. That’s too easy, and it will send tension plummeting through the floor. At that point, your audience will be bored no matter how much cool tech and mysterious magic the story has.
Conclusion: Quite useful.
The Seventh Rule
Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
Come on, Emma, we were doing so well! On the one hand, it’s true that endings are hard. On the other hand, conceiving your ending first doesn’t make the task any easier. Endings are difficult because they’re the place where everything else in your story has to click together. Your main conflict has to resolve in a satisfying manner, the characters have to feel well developed, and the setting has to make sense.
None of that is addressed by deciding the end ahead of time. Sure, you can jot down “the hero exposes the mayor’s corruption and stops the affordable housing from being demolished,” but you’ll still have to do a lot of hard work figuring out what that corruption is, how the hero exposes it, and why that stops the demolition of affordable housing.
To be clear, if you like crafting the end first, then all the power to you. It might very well help you to understand what the middle needs to properly set up the ending you’ve already decided on. But by the same token, the middle could get bogged down trying to set up an ending that really doesn’t work for it. Or you might not have any idea what the ending should be, since you haven’t written the middle yet.
Either way, you’ll need a middle that properly sets the stage for your ending. Which direction you attack the problem from isn’t particularly important.
Conclusion: More useless process advice.
The Eighth Rule
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.
This rule is yet another entry in a long line of “your story won’t ever be perfect” advice pieces, and while they sound nice, they aren’t all that useful for most writers. It is technically true that no story will ever be perfect, and that you’ll eventually have to publish it with some flaws remaining, assuming the story makes it that far.
However, that end goal is so far from where many writers are that it may as well be on Mars. For the writers who seek out lists of rules like this, usually new and struggling to get published, the opposite is far more likely. They’re probably still dealing with the kind of problems so severe that they can only be overcome by a huge marketing budget or connections in the publishing industry. Fixing those problems is hard, so it’s incredibly tempting to write them off as minor imperfections to stop fiddling with.
I also take issue with the “finish your story” bit. It’s perfectly valid to trunk a story that’s just not working. Even the professionals do that sometimes. If you ever feel bad about putting a story away, take a look at the afterword for John Scalzi’s Kaiju Preservation Society, where he talks about a book he had to stop writing because there was no way to make it work. Of course, it’s also valid to push through the blocks and finish a story no matter what. The only person who can decide whether to do that or not is you.
In fairness, I can see how this mantra would be helpful for someone who creates stories for a living at a major animation studio. They’re probably much further along in their career than most writers, and they need to produce stories on a certain schedule or their paycheck is in danger. But for the rest of us, it’s not particularly relevant.
Conclusion: Too narrow to be useful.
The Ninth Rule
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.
This is more process advice, but in a shocking twist, I actually think it’s fine. How can that be? What of all my protestations that the process of typing words is specific to each writer and doesn’t benefit from blanket statements? That’s all still true, but this rule refers to a specific exception: getting stuck.
If a writer is stuck, they’ve already used every trick they know, and none of them have worked. At that point, it makes sense to seek out different methods for breaking through the block. Your own strategies have already failed; time to see if something else is more useful. Will this particular method work? I have no idea, but it’s as good a thing to try as any other.
It’s also important to consider what this goal is trying to achieve. Most process advice is overly demanding, urging authors to rearrange their writing schedule or change the way they plot the story. This advice only applies to a specific situation, when the writer is stuck, and only suggests a single exercise. Even if it doesn’t work, the cost of trying is minimal.
Conclusion: Useful to try.
The Tenth Rule
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.
Yes, it’s my old and dear friend: a call to read critically. If I ever write a list of storytelling rules and this isn’t at the top, it’s a sign I’m being held hostage by fans of all the books I’ve critiqued. If you’re a storyteller of any kind, it is absolutely essential to analyze the stories you watch, read, and listen to, whether you like the story or not.
Consider: If you read an amazing book like All Systems Red, it’s easy to imagine every aspect of the book is great. But with analysis, you can learn that what makes the book so compelling is the protagonist’s powerful combination of sympathy, selflessness, and novelty. Hopefully, you’ll also spot that the story has too many characters who do little beyond adding more names to remember, so you won’t be tempted to copy that in your own work.
This works the other way too. Star Trek V is famous for not being very good, and with an uncritical eye, it’s easy to assume the problem is Star Trek trying to tackle religion. In fact, Star Trek has handled this topic quite well in episodes like Who Mourns for Adonais. Star Trek V’s issue is that it’s trying to be both a lighthearted comedy and a serious discussion on the nature of gods, plus the religious elements aren’t brought up until very late in the film. By analyzing the film, we can see what really went wrong and avoid the same mistakes.
Conclusion: Useful to the point of being a requirement.
The Eleventh Rule
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.
This is another common adage for writers, and I understand why it’s so appealing, since it’s technically true. If you want someone else to read your story, you do have to write it down first. However, once you get into specifics, this advice doesn’t hold up very well.
In most cases, “written down” means fully drafted. You probably wouldn’t say “I’ve written my story down” without a manuscript in hand. But it’s simply not true that your story needs to be at that stage before you can start fixing it. If you outline, then revisions can easily start in that stage, or even before. Maybe you spend some time workshopping just a few key details on note cards to make sure they’re functioning properly. Heck, I’ve worked with writers who revise a story in their head for weeks before even opening their word processor.
Naturally, there are also authors who do best by jumping straight to the draft and revising from there, which is the old planner vs pantser debate. For the record, that debate has no answer. Writers should use whichever method works for them. But this rule and its many cousins are definitely pushing writers toward the pantser side.
Or maybe that’s not what this means at all, and Coats is just offering some encouragement to writers who are afraid that their ideas won’t survive contact with the page. But just like I said about Neil Gaiman’s rules, simple encouragement doesn’t help much in lists like these. Writers are looking for actionable advice, and this isn’t it.
Conclusion: Too narrow to be useful.
Despite the disappointment of that final rule, Coats currently scores six out of eleven rules being at least partly useful, making her the first storyteller to surpass Vonnegut’s rating of 50%. Coats’s focus on practical advice over philosophical musings does her credit, even if that advice is occasionally too simplistic. I’d crown her the new champion right now, except there are actually 22 of these rules in total, and that was just too much for one article. So stay tuned for next time, when we see if she can maintain or even improve her record!
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