Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling apply to new products too


Pixar’s original 22 rules of storytelling are great – someday, but not in 2017¹, I will get back to writing my novel and re-review these. What occurred to me while reading these was how so many of these apply to getting a v1 product out the door. Getting a first version out and into the hands of the customer is the hardest, most challenging, and most rewarding piece for me².

How do some of these apply?

  • #2 – replace ‘audience’ with ‘customer’. Yes, you want to love your story/product but in the end the customer is the one buying the ticket.
  • #5 – simplify, focus. Many of the failed products I’ve worked on suffered and sometimes fatally suffered from trying to be too many things at one time. Most knives aren’t Swiss Army knives after all.
  • #7 – know what the end if i.e. what does success look like. At Amazon all products start with a fictional press release. It’s kind of hokey (does anyone read press releases anymore?) but it sets the right tone of where the product is going to be in the end. It’s a north star to steer by.
  • #11 – write it down. Ideas are cheap, code is hard. Getting code that is customer-ready is very hard. But if you don’t code it, it doesn’t happen.
  • #12 – the first thing you code is rarely if ever the thing you ship. It usually takes at least three iterations to get to the code that works. That’s okay as long as everyone knows that the first clunky “storyboard” or “golden path” version isn’t the same thing as what you will ship with.
  • #22 – comes back to #2, #5, and #7. Stay on target. Distractions are all over the place.

Great list, worth reviewing from time to time.

These rules were originally tweeted by Emma Coates, Pixar’s Story Artist. Number 9 on the list – When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next – is a great one and can apply to writers in all genres.

  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 very 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.

¹ Part of my process for 2017 is the famous 5/25 list attributed to Warren Buffett. Writing a novel is on my list of 25 but it’s not on my list of 5 so I won’t think about it right now; maybe someday it will bubble to the top.

² Version 1 aka v1 is the hardest because you have no empirical data. You can do usability testing to help, you can “dogfood”, you can look at similar campaigns but in the end there is a lot of guess-work, hope, and sweat. No matter how great your product is when you launch there will still be face-palm moments, features that don’t work, confused customers, and times you wonder what you were collectively thinking when you built that. But v2, v3 (or for continuous deployment Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) will get better by paying attention to feedback. Successive versions and iterations are fun but very different than that initial gamble.

#inspiration, #software, #writing