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.

The wildest, weirdest contraband the TSA confiscated in 2016 – wow people can be dumb

Ever been in a TSA line and grimaced as the person ahead of you asks for the third time “what do you mean I can’t take this water bottle with me?” or after being asked if they have any metal on goes through the scanner, beeps, then angrily discovers that yes, those metal bracelets/watch/belt buckle/etc is in fact metal and does count in the “any metals” question.

This list pretty much confirms the old George Carlin line¹. TSA rules can be confusing, but c’mon, a knife flail? I can sort of imagine how the knife/belt-buckle thing made it to the airport; guy just forgot he was wearing that belt that day. But throwing knives?!?


¹ “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.” — George Carlin

No More than a Litre of Wine a Day, recommends a 1950s French Sobriety Poster

via No More than a Litre of Wine a Day, recommends a 1950s French Sobriety Poster

Absolutely lovely post about wine and wine consumption in France. The pictures and artwork alone are worth the price of reading the article. And the article is fascinating:

  1. Wine was not the common French drink until World War I. A cheap *plonk* was supplied in the trenches.
  2. Wine as we know it today is not what wine has always been like. In the Medieval period wine was cheap, thin – fermented grape juice with none of the polish of the 20th century (although how they know this about Medieval wine is not clear)

If your New Year’s resolution was to drink less… perhaps this article will help clear things up. In vino veritas as they say.

Compassion and hope without the overhead

Lovely piece in the New York Times today about a former evangelical pastor who is basically doing the same ministering i.e. spreading the message of love and values but without the overhead of supernaturalism. h/t to @chrimc for the article.

A few sections stood out for me:

Atheists and agnostics have long tried to rebottle religion: to get the community and the good works without the supernatural stuff. It has worked about as well as nonalcoholic beer.

Why is that? None of the atheists or humanists or people who describe themselves as “spiritual” attend anything like church. Many as they get older reflect that they wish they had the community of church but without the need for god or supernaturalism. I imagine several of the modern versions of paganism e.g. Wicca are at heart an attempt to build the community and sense of “we” but without traditional mainstream god concepts. Comic con, Cosplay, and things like that also appear to be community-building with an ethos of openness and inclusion; the new churches for a new millennium (or new Millennials since they don’t attend church).

Campolo told me that when students come to talk about a job they’ve been offered, he asks questions like: “What’s the culture like at that place? The guy who interviewed you — would you want to end up like him, with the kind of marriage he has and the kind of friendships he has?” Campolo went on: “And they say, ‘Huh, I never thought about that.’ And you want to say: ‘Where are your parents? Or your pastor? What is your Uncle Joe doing? Why is nobody asking value-oriented questions about your life?’ ”

Wonderful suggestion and something I will do when/if I am asked about career, college, etc. Much better than my normal line of “I don’t know, take a gap year or three and go ski in the Alps”.



One goal for January is to get outside three times per week. That’s not much but I need to start the habit. Outside can be walking, hiking, skiing, running, etc. But just getting out of a building and moving a bit.

It wasn’t much yesterday, just a walk through the neighborhood. Found this lovely tree though and Google thoughtfully applied this filter.

10 Years Ago – My Own Private Windmill

10 years ago I came across Skystream – the basic idea was they would provide a personal windmill for your property. I wrote about how great this would be.

Turns out, well… like so many technologies this one didn’t quite make it. While the site is still running (more than I can say about many of my past projects) the copyright shows 2013. The news page stops in 2011.

It’s still a fun idea but it looks like personal solar has surpassed wind at least for now.

Big green egg

Great Thanksgiving/Christmas/birthday present. For last night’s feast I had this thing roaring hot. It looked like a jet engine. 

I probably won’t let it get that hot again, it was hard to get close enough to flip the steaks.

Happy Boxing Day

Christmas was a blast this year. We had family in town, two nights of sing-alongs, way too much food, and generally a wonderful time. Now on to skiing for the next few days weather permitting.

Interesting that there is no definitive explanation of “boxing”. Wikipedia calls out that it might reference giving staff a “Christmas box” but then fails to mention other ideas around the etymology.

We really should formally adopt this as a U.S. holiday – we need more holidays.