How To Unlock The Magic Of Pixar’s 22 Storytelling Rules As A Digital Writer

Dickie Bush & Nicolas Cole

Ultimate Guide Table of Contents

Ahoy and happy Monday!

Welcome to another week of Start Writing Online—where every week we dive into 1 of the 10 biggest problems all writers face:

  • Distractions
  • Over-editing
  • Perfectionism
  • Procrastination
  • Self-confidence
  • Generating ideas
  • Impostor syndrome
  • Writing consistently
  • Finding time to write
  • Loose feedback loops

(And, of course, if you want to crush all 10 of these AND master the fundamentals of Digital Writing in just 30 days, we'd love to have you in the next cohort of Ship 30 for 30!)

This week, we want to help you develop confidence in your storytelling skills.

Storytelling is the essence of effective communication.

In 2011, storyboard artist Emma Coats shared Pixar’s "22 Rules For Storytelling." As one of the most imaginative companies in the last 30 years, Pixar's rules are a must-read for writers, entrepreneurs, and anyone who wants to tell captivating stories. Because whatever your job is, you're in the business of storytelling.

And communication is the essence of winning people to your way of thinking.

Let's dive in!

Communication is the essence of winning people to your way of thinking.

Rule #1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

Your audience loves the story, the path, the ups and downs.

Everyone wants flawless cooking skills. However, it's the 20 attempts at Baked Alaska, the burnt Soufflé, and the determination to create a crispy Beef Wellington that make your writing relatable and captivating.

For stories, brands, and products—focus on the how and why (and less on the what).

Rule #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.

As legendary copywriter, Craig Clemens says in his first rule of writing: You, the writer, are completely irrelevant.

No one cares if you love World of Warcraft. And all the inside jokes that only you and a few friends understand. All the reader cares about is the shortcut to winning the game!

Focus on delivering to the audience.

Rule #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.

Your original idea rarely ends up the same as your final idea—so don’t overthink it.

Write, take a break, and come back the next day with fresh eyes. Then remix, remove, and make it better. Like a sculptor, keep shaping until you've created something extraordinary.

Take something, get it going, then refine it.

Rule #4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

Once upon a time there was a beginning writer who loved Pixar movies.

Every day, they watched Cars, Toy Story, Soul, etc. Then one day, they stumbled on Pixar’s storytelling framework. Because of that, they set out to become a better storyteller—practicing every day for 30 days. Until finally, they could hold their audience spellbound.

Whether you're a writer, an entrepreneur, or a brand, you can use this "story spine" to effortlessly create a narrative.

Rule #5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

The goal for every writer, marketer, or entrepreneur should be to add constraints and do more with less.

  • Say it in a 250 word Atomic Essay.
  • Say it in a 280 character tweet.
  • Say it in a 6 word story.

This goes far beyond storytelling.

Rule #6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

Think of this like the inversion technique.

What is everyone in your niche saying?

How can you say the same things, but in different ways?

Rule #7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle.

Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

All stories follow a story arc, “I was lost and now I’m found.” All you need to know is one end of the arc to find the other end. Because once you know the start, you can reverse it to find the end.

Stories, sales pages, brand pitches - always start with the end in mind and work backward from there.

Rule #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.

Or as “Leo da Vinci” says:

Don't let perfectionism keep you from publishing.

Rule #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.

  • Pull out a piece of paper and set a timer for 5 minutes.
  • At the top of the page write, “What’s happening? Where am I stuck?”
  • Write your answer a in a short sentence. "The toys are confronted by a fiery obstacle.”
  • Make a list of everything you don't want to write about to get the juices flowing.
  • Example: “The toys burn!” ”The toys turn fireproof.” “The toys are dreaming.” etc.

This is the ultimate hack to overcome writer's block.

Rule #10: Pull apart the stories you like.

90% of being a good writer or storyteller is being a good noticer.

What you appreciate in a story is a reflection of yourself. For example, if Lightning McQueen's transformation from a self-centered racer to a humble friend tugs at your heart, start by pulling the story apart. What are the main ideas? Personal growth, friendship, overcoming ego, etc. Notice when things resonate with you and start asking why.

You’ve got to recognize what connects with you before you can use it.

Rule #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.

Your head is the worst place to store ideas.

My quota is two crappy pages per day. I keep it really low so I’m not so intimidated that I never get started. - Tim Ferriss

Focus on getting the raw material.

Rule #12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind.

And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way.

Surprise yourself.

To find your best ideas, you need to unclog all the junk first.

Rule #13: Give your characters opinions.

Being passive or malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

Your opinions should make your audience take a stand. Force a decision. Avoid "it seems," or "maybes," or "potentiallys" at all costs.

  • Opinionated Buzz Lightyear: "I am not a toy! I'm an elite Space Ranger!”
  • Passive Buzz Lightyear: “I think I’m a toy, but there’s a chance, I could be a Space Ranger.”

Take a stand and don't hedge.

Rule #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.

Nothing to add on this one.

Rule #15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel?

Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

  • What are the physical sensations? For example, a racing heart or clenched fists could indicate anger, while a sinking feeling in the stomach might suggest sadness.
  • Tie the physical sensation to the corresponding emotion. Start with basic emotions like happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, or disgust.
  • Put the feeling into words. For example, instead of saying "I am angry," you would say "I’m freaking fired up because I couldn't finish the test on time. They never give you enough time!"

The best writers and storytellers strike the balance of authenticity (like telling personal stories) while still providing value to the audience.

Rule #16: What are the stakes? Give us a reason to root for the character.

What happens if they don’t succeed?

"Stakes" are part of the foundation on which every good story is built. The obstacle is the way. You can’t avoid it.

Stack the odds against your character.

Rule #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.

You won't always put our your best stuff.

And trying to do so is impossible (and leads to burnout).

So focus on showing up—consistency creates competence.

Rule #18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing.

Story is testing, not refining.

Too often people get caught up in trying to plan every step from A to Z.

And this "planning" is really procrastination in disguise.

Rule #19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

There is no shortcut.

Your audience, your reader, and your customer deserve to know the absolute truth about what it takes to get what they want.

Rule #20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike.

How would you rearrange them into what you DO like?

For example, look at this remake of Ocean’s 11.

You can use this for every creative medium.

When something doesn't resonate with you (an article, a tweet, an ad, a story, a movie) ask why.

Then, make it better.

Rule #21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

This goes both ways—you need to put yourself in your character's shoes AND your audience's shoes.

Make your listener feel understood (through authenticity).

Rule #22: What’s the essence of your story? What’s the most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build from there.

And the best for last—ask yourself: what are you really trying to say (in as few words as possible).

Strip away everything that distracts from that goal.

That's it for today's Digital Writing Compass!

Chat next week!

–Dickie Bush & Nicolas Cole

Enjoyed this edition? Click here to share it on Twitter!

You might also like...