Storytelling Like Pixar

What’s your favourite Pixar movie? Because I’m sure almost everyone will have one. As a big fan of Disney’s traditional animation style, I was truly offended when Pixar burst onto the scene and changed the face of animation with Toy Story, but now I am a convert. More than the animation (which is fantastic), what I love most about Pixar films are their stories. The screenwriters are genius. As both a screenwriter and a novelist, I’ve always dreamed of being able to produce a story that can tug at heartstrings the way my favourite Pixar films have done, and so I’ve done some work studying the Pixar storytelling DNA!

You can find the Pixar framework quite easily, and it’s broken down into the following six points:

  1. Once upon a time…
  2. Every day…
  3. One day…
  4. Because of that…
  5. Because of that…
  6. Until finally…

To illustrate, I’ll apply it to my all-time favourite Pixar movie, Inside Out, which is also a masterpiece for screenwriting. Everyone should read the screenplay and be amazed at how beautiful it is!

  1. Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Riley with five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger) that look after the different memories inside her mind.
  2. Every day, her memories are stored as coloured orbs upon five floating islands, that collectively form her personality.
  3. One day, Riley’s family moves to San Francisco because of her father’s new job, and things do not go well for her. A Sad core memory is created.
  4. Because of that, Joy tries to dispose of it (the Sad memory) but ends up getting all of Riley’s core memories sucked out of Headquarters, along with herself and Sadness, resulting in the disintegration of Riley’s personality islands.
  5. Because of that, Joy and Sadness embark on a quest to get back to Headquarters before the personality islands crumble for good.
  6. Until finally, Joy and Sadness return to Headquarters and reinstate Riley’s core memories, allowing Riley to come to terms with her new life in San Francisco.

For novel writing, there are tons of different plotting frameworks lying around. I typically like using the Save the Cat framework for doing up my plot outlines, but I find that the six Pixar steps are a good starting point for brainstorming story ideas, before I dive into the details. It gives a nice skeleton upon which you can hang your other details! Here’s the Pixar framework applied to my own book (The Fall of the Dragon), a YA historical fantasy:

  1. Once upon a time, a girl named Ying lives with her family on the tiny island of Huarin, part of the nine Antaran isles.
  2. Every day, she dabbles in little engineering experiments under the tutelage of her father, the clan chief, who was previously from the famed Engineers Guild.
  3. One day, Ying witnesses her father’s murder and is left with a journal containing his greatest engineering secrets and a black jade pendant snatched from the body of the assassin.
  4. Because of that, Ying leaves for the capital of Fei, hoping to find clues that will lead her to her father’s murderer and allow her to avenge his death.
  5. Because of that, she meets Aogiya Ye-yang, the eighth prince, who gives her a ticket to the apprenticeship trial of the Engineers Guild, which holds her father’s hidden past – and possibly answers about his murder.
  6. Until finally, she completes the three trials and finds out that [redacted so that you don’t get any spoilers!]

Since I’m on the topic of Pixar, you might also have heard of Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling, as summarised by this super cute graphic I found online:

I love all of them, but my personal favourites would have to be #8, 17 and 19.

#8. Finish your story. Let go even if it’s not perfect. I think many of us have difficulty letting go of our stories, and as a result the book is never *finish finished*. Before I jumped into the query trenches, I kept fretting about my book not being polished enough, and because of that I was always super hesitant about hitting the send button on those queries. It took me a long time before I finally came to terms with letting go and just sending my book out into the world in its existing state, instead of continuing to sit on it and fearing that it still wasn’t good enough.

#17. No work is ever wasted. Such an important reminder, especially when you’re deleting swathes of writing because you’ve discovered a plot hole that negates half of what you’ve already written. I hate deleting work. It makes me sad. So what I do is to throw all the deleted scenes into a separate bloopers document, because who knows when they’ll come in handy in future? Also, I find that the details in those deleted scenes can be useful because they become part of my worldbuilding. Even if they don’t make it to the final draft, they’ve made their rounds inside my head and influenced the story in some way.

#19. Use coincidences to get characters into trouble, not get them out of it. This highlights one of my pet peeves in storytelling, particularly in films where there can be a lot of them – deus ex machinas. A deus ex machina is a plot device where an unsolvable situation in a story is miraculously solved by some convenient coincidence, like Captain Marvel appearing out of nowhere in Avengers: Endgame. I know we can get desperate to just end the damn story, but I often have to remind myself that this is not the way to do it!

Which are your favourite rules of Pixar storytelling? 🙂

Amber is a PitchWars ’20 alum and a Wattpad Creator. One of her Wattpad novels, The Cutting Edge, has recently been adapted for television and is streaming on meWATCH. She is represented by Anne Perry at The Ki Agency.

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4 thoughts on “Storytelling Like Pixar

  1. Wow Amber, I’ve never heard of this structuring before but it’s wonderful. I adore the example using it for your story. I’m going to try it out!

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  2. I love Disney animation but this is a breakdown to their style and how it’s interwoven to writing that I never knew about. Very clever post 👏🏼

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  3. This is a very interesting post because I never knew of the Pixar structure! I love the 22 rules to Pixar storytelling. I completely agree with rule 3, that you won’t see what the story is about until you reach the ending! Fab post, Amber!

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