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Writing Excuses 7.48: Pixar Rules for Writing a Compelling Story

Writing Excuses 7.48: Pixar Rules for Writing a Compelling Story

From http://www.writingexcuses.com/2012/11/25/writing-excuses-7-48-pixar-rules-for-writing-a-compelling-story/

Key Points:
1. You admire a character for trying more than for their success.
"Try-fail cycle has to have fail." Trying again after you fail is heroic. And raises the stakes.
2. You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. That can be very different.
When you are crying on stage, the puppet is probably dead.  Avoid guest appearances.
3. Once upon a time, there was a ____ every day. ____. One day, ____. Because of that, ____. Because of that _____, until finally ____.
Event story, from the MICE quotient. Something upset the status quo, and the end is when the status quo is restored or a new one established.
4. Simplify, focus, combine characters, hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff, but it sets you free.
Kill your darlings! Stay focused, don't toss in the kitchen sink. Decide what the heart of your story is. Don't overdo the events, either. Or characters.
5. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them, challenge them. How do they deal?
Good way to build a story! Force everyone into someone else's role.
6. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard. Get yours working up front.
Come up with your ending, let it excite you, but don't be afraid to fine-tune it or replace it when you get there.
7. 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.
"Shoot for 100%. Learn to be happy with 80." Your next one will be better.
8. When you're stuck, make a list of what wouldn't happen next. Lots of times, material to get you unstuck will show up.
Multi-tentacled space goats!
9. 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.
Another good way to build stories. Focus on what's fun for you.
10. 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.
Write.

[Mary] Season Seven, Episode 48.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, 22 Pixar Rules for Writing a Compelling Story.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.

[Brandon] This is been making the rounds of writing blogs. Everyone talked about it being Pixar rules. It's actually one of the story artists over at Pixar. Her name is Emma Coats. She has been doing just a series of tweets. They're very quick. She doesn't explain herself. She just does these. Maybe she's got longer explanation somewhere, but we just have a list of the tweets. They're… Most of them are really good. So we're going to go down them, talk about them, we're going to peanut gallery them a little bit. Sorry, Emma, if we make fun of you…
[Dan] [laugh]
[Brandon] But these are actually very good rules, and Pixar's got a good reputation for storytelling. So let's go down them and see what we think.
[http://storyshots.tumblr.com/post/25032057278/22-storybasics-ive-picked-up-in-my-time-at-pixar]

[Brandon] Her first rule that she tweeted was, "You admire a character for trying more than for their success."
[Howard] Yes.
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] Yes, you do.
[Howard] Try-fail cycle has to have fail.
[Brandon] So why is this?
[Dan] Well, looking at it from a different angle, this is… The reason that this works is because you see a character try far more often than you see them succeed. Because when they succeed, the story's over.
[Howard] The character who succeeds all the time is the… One of the definitions of the Mary Sue. We don't like that character.
[Brandon] We do, sometimes. It's not as widely interesting to us. Superman basically succeeds all the time. Particularly, the old Superman from the old serials and things.
[Dan] Well, and the old James Bond.
[Brandon] Yes, the old James Bond. Or for a more modern, like Voltron or Captain Planet or… Whenever you summon the big superhero, they don't fail most… They succeed most of the time. But the newer stories will make the conflict then how do we summon him or things like that. The character who doesn't fail is not that interesting.
[Howard] That rule, that's… For me, that's just saying you gotta have a try-fail cycle and our protagonist has to be driving it and it has to be exposed. We have to see it, we have to see the failures.
[Brandon] I think it's also that we have to see the struggle. It's not just failing. It's the struggling that we like.
[Dan] It's not just trying, it's trying again after you've failed.
[Mary] Yes. Because that trying again after you've failed is a heroic property.
[Dan] Exactly.
[Mary] It also raises the stakes when you have failed once.
[Brandon] Oh, that's a good point.
[Mary] And the…
[Dan] We did a whole podcast on that.
[Brandon] And we forgot that one.
[Dan] Without ever saying that.
[Brandon] Yes. Pretend we talked about that for 15 minutes.

[Brandon] All right. Rule two. There's 22 of these, so we want to keep going. You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. That can be very different.
[Mary] Yes. That is very true. I… There's a thing in puppetry, well, in theater in general, that a lot of times, when you are in the moment and crying on stage, as a puppeteer, that is the moment when the puppet is most likely to be dead, because you are putting none of your energy through the figure. I think that sometimes as a writer, something that is fun for you is not something that is going to translate through as fun for the audience. But if you remember that you first and foremost are a reader, and you think about the things that you would like to read…
[Brandon] Yeah. Although, there's a bit of a reverse to this I've talked about in the Wheel of Time books, when I was able to start working on these, there were so many things that I got to say, "Oh, I could do this, I could do that." I had to keep in mind Story. Like, wait, doing that would turn this into a series of guest appearances by figures from Wheel of Time's past. It's a series of cameos. It becomes Rowan and Martin's Laugh In instead of…
[Dan] Yeah. I had that problem with the first draft of Hollow City, which was basically an author having fun screwing around with reality. My writing group hated it. Brandon remembers.
[Brandon] We didn't hate it. I spoke several times of how much I loved the potential of that story.
[Mary] [laugh]
[Dan] Well, the potential of the story. That's different. The final draft got it right. But that first mix was let me have more fun than my audience [inaudible]
[Howard] I tried a Sherlock Holmesian sort of outline for the bonus story of Emperor Pius Dei. That's the one where I threw out 80% of my work and only kept the fun moments, cut away during the boring parts, and had Petey blowing stuff up.
[Mary] We're never going to get through all 22 of these at this rate.
[Brandon] No, we're not.
[Howard] Nope. That's okay.
[Brandon] That's all right.
[Dan] Okay. We're done.

[Brandon] Once upon a time, there was BLANK every day. BLANK. One day, BLANK. Because of that, BLANK. Because of that BLANK until finally BLANK.
[Mary] That is an event story, according to the MICE quotient.
[Brandon] Yes. It is. Every day something happened. One day that thing did not happen. Because of that, someone has to go on an adventure or succeed.
[Dan] That's the plot of Toy Story. Very succinctly.
[Mary] Yes. The short form of the MICE quotient is that it begins when something upsets the status quo, and it ends when the status quo is either restored or there is a new status quo.
[Brandon] New status quo. Yep. Excellent.
[Mary] Great. Next!
[Brandon] It's just… It's one way to tell a story. Okay. We have to do more than just say, "Yeah," to these.
[Howard] No. Some of them I think we can just say, "Yeah. Good job. Way to go, Pixar."
[Brandon] Yeah, we can say yeah.

[Brandon] Simplify, focus, combine characters, hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff, but it sets you free.
[Howard] Oh, that's the kill your darlings.
[Mary] Yep.
[Brandon] Yes. The simplify focus is another important thing. A lot of writers I know, particularly new writers, have a kind of kitchen sink philosophy. In fact, there's a writer in my writing group right now, who is actually a very good writer, but her very first book that she started workshopping was all the cool ideas I've ever had put into a book. Now that's actually I've found more rare than the opposite problem, which is take one idea and try and stretch it out too thin. But occasionally, you do have the… You might be one of these, listener, that is like, "This cool idea, and this cool idea, and this cool idea, and this cool idea…" Simplifying and deciding what your story is. MICE quotient is one way to look at this. At its heart, what is driving your story, and simplifying on that.
[Dan] Well, I think more often than putting too many ideas into a story, as an early writer problem, is putting too many events. You are complicating things, especially in short fiction, but also in novels. You don't need to have seven try-fail cycles when three will be fine.
[Brandon] Right. You also combine characters. This is an important thing to do.
[Dan] I had to do that in Partials. I had way too many side characters, and chopped them down and mashed several of their personalities together and it worked much better.
[Brandon] In Wheel of Time, three young men leave this… Their village, out for adventure, against their kind of wishes. It was originally four young men.
[Mary] Oh, really?
[Brandon] The fourth young man got cut one third of the way through the story by Harriet, Robert Jordan's wife and editor, saying, "This kid's not doing anything. He's just the same as this other one. Get rid of him and the story will be stronger."

[Brandon] So. All right. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them, challenge them. How do they deal?
[Dan] This is why Superman is an interesting character, despite being incredibly powerful.
[Brandon] Can be an interesting character.
[Dan] Can be. Well, when he's done well, he's an excellent character. I think he has an unfair reputation because we tend to think of the worst stories.
[Brandon] Yeah. We pick out the serials and point to them as bad examples, because they have the best bad examples of someone who doesn't change. But there are some very touching and powerful Superman stories. The Lois and Clark TV show was great.
[Howard] In the recent Pixar movie Brave, all the trailers show how awesome Merida is with bow and arrow. Being awesome with bow and arrow is not what gets her from…
[Mary] Part of what this does… Part of the reason that this works so well, is that when you show the character being really competent at something, that helps build confidence that they will be able to figure out things later. Then sets up the try-fail cycles for them, because when they're trying and failing, it's not necessarily their own fault that they're trying and failing.
[Brandon] I would like to point out also, this is a good method of building a story, is the what is your… Pick a character. Put them in the wrong shoes. Put them in the wrong position. Put the wrong role… I talk about this a lot. One easy way to take a generic story and make it cool and fresh and original is force everyone to have different roles.
[Mary] One example…
[Howard] Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not an engineer.
[Brandon] Yes.
[Mary] One example of this, which is my guilty secret… Guilty pleasure, is Dancing with the Stars.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] Because you're taking people who are at the top of their game, and you're putting them into a position of having to learn it something that they are not good at. Watching them come apart, and then having to rebuild, is fascinating. As story research.
[Brandon] That's right. Exactly.
[Howard] Yes.

[Brandon] Book of the week this week? I actually have been reading a lot of classics lately, and my wife just discovered Foundation. I got her to read that. If you have… There are some of you out there who have not read Isaac Asimov's Foundation. I know there are some of you who have not read it. It is awesome. It is incredibly awesome. It is one of the great classics of science fiction. In fact, it won the award for best science fiction series of all time. The Hugo award. Beating out Tolkien. It is just an amazing book. It was originally a series of short stories published in science fiction magazines. All connected. It might be mind blowing to me because as a teen reading this, I had never read a novel in short stories before. Even to this day, I have never read one as good as Foundation. So. Isaac Asimov's Foundation. Really. It's a classic in the field, and it holds up very well.
[Howard] audiblepodcast.com/excuse You can start a 30 day trial membership, and pick up Foundation for free, and pick up another book for 30% off.
[Brandon] See, we actually looked up what our… They changed it without telling us…
[Howard] Sure. Mock me. Mock me in my absence of research.
[Dan] I'll bet they told us and we just weren't paying attention.
[Brandon] That's probably true. That's really probably what happened.

[Mary] [inaudible, garbled]
[Howard] So what's Pixar rule number three? What are we on right now?
[Dan] We're on like six, I think.
[Brandon] I don't know. They're not numbered here. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard. Get yours working up front.
[Dan] I do that every time. Everything I write.
[Brandon] You didn't used to, though.
[Dan] I didn't used to and my endings were awful.
[Brandon] Yes.
[Howard] I come up with my endings first. Then I write my way out to my ending, and then I realize that that's not actually the ending I want and I need to fine-tune it or replace it. But if I don't have an ending in mind, I'm lost.
[Mary] I vary depending on the project. Most of the time, I have at least a ballpark that I'm heading for.
[Brandon] It's very difficult for me to write without an ending. I get excited… Here's the thing that happens. You get excited when you've got that ending. You're like, "Wow, I can write toward this and it's going to be awesome." In both the stories we brainstormed here on Writing Excuses recently, when we got those endings… We started with Dan's. In Mary's, like, this is what it could be, suddenly the story like all came alive and vibrant in my head. I just love having that ending. It makes me want to write.
[Dan] Now, we should point out that not everybody writes like this.
[Brandon] No.
[Dan] If this is not how your brain works, don't break yourself in half…
[Brandon] That's true.
[Dan] Trying to write the wrong way.
[Brandon] Every… These rules are going to fail. Every rule fails for some writers.
[Mary] There are also times when you will break one of these rules because the cost of following it is higher than the cost of breaking it.

[Brandon] 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.
[Mary] My mentor, when I was a puppeteer, said, "Shoot for 100%. Learn to be happy with 80."
[Brandon] Interesting. I have never heard that said before. Okay.
[Dan] One of the things that I tell aspiring writers all the time when they'll ask for what's one advice… One piece of advice. Allow yourself to write a bad book. Don't force your first book to be perfect. Write it and move on. Your next one will be better.
[Brandon] Okay. That's very good advice. Even now, I write less than perfect books and stories, and I set them aside. It doesn't happen very often with novels because of it's going that poorly early on, I know it's going that pearly… Poorly early on. But last year I discovery wrote a novel… I guess it was two years ago now. I discovery wrote a novel for fun, and it didn't work. I have not released that book, and I won't release that book, because…
[Mary] I had that happen too with a novel, and I cut it down to a novella which is… I love this sentence… Now nominated for a Hugo.
[Brandon] Yi.
[Mary] Although by the time this airs…
[Brandon] We will know.
[Mary, Dan] We will know.
[Brandon] You will know, but we don't. It's like you guys can see the future.
[Mary] Yes, we have time travel.
[Howard] A lot like that. There is a reasonably common thing with web cartoonists that after about four years, they'll look back at their early stuff and they'll say, "You know what? I think I want to redraw some of these early strips." Any time these folks have the opportunity to talk to some of us long termers, long timers, we scream at them, "No! That way lies insanity." You have to let it go. You have to let it be bad. Even though everybody can see it. You just have to keep drawing, keep writing what comes next.
[Mary] Yeah. That's what my mentor was talking about, was the learn to be happy with the 80%, because 80% is still a success.
[Howard] Yeah.

[Brandon] Okay. When you're stuck, make a list of what wouldn't happen next. Lots of times, material to get you unstuck will show up.
[Mary] Oh, that's a really good idea.
[Dan] I've never done that, but I'd be interested to try it.
[Mary] Yeah!
[Brandon] Okay. Wow. We have learned something. Thank you very much, Emma.
[Howard] Well, what's fun about writing down what wouldn't come next is that that list of things that wouldn't come next go into your story seed file for things that you're going to write after you're done.
[Mary] It's also things that your characters can toss out as ideas for things… When they are trying to solve the problem, so that when they actually solve it, that in and of itself, that attempt to solve the problem is a try-fail cycle, the attempt to come up with a plan.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] The multi-tentacled space goat is not going to come and save us.
[Dan] Again.
[Howard] That idea doesn't work.
[Brandon] Again?
[Laughter]
[Dan] We can't rely on him every time.
[Brandon] Oh, wow. Okay. We have a writing prompt. The multi-tentacled space goat cannot come and save us again. Remember that, folks.

[Brandon] Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is part of you. You've got to recognize it before you can use it.
[Dan] Yeah. Okay.
[Brandon] I do this a lot for actually building stories. I've said before that Mistborn partially came about by me saying, "I love heist stories. Why are heist stories fun for me?" I was actually able to pull apart the stuff I like about a heist story. Mistborn, as we've said before, is not as much a heist story is some other things like Lies of Locke Lamora and whatnot. But I pulled out the stuff I love, and I realized what I loved was the team dynamic. The team dynamic excites me, it's fun, it's great. The other part that excites me is the powerful twist ending that often happens in a good heist story. I put the two of those together into an epic fantasy novel. A lot of the heist stuff got left by the wayside. But the team dynamic and the cool powerful ending… Those are what I loved, and I was able to take those and apply those to a lot of different stories. Yeah.
[Mary] Yeah.
[Brandon] Okay. We're just loving these lit rules. So maybe we should have Emma on our podcast. I wonder if she would come on?
[Mary] I like that plan.
[Brandon] We'll have to call her. Anyone know Pixar… Actually, I know people at Pixar. Okay.
[Mary] That's also a nice thing to be able to say. I know people at Pixar. Ha ha ha.

[Brandon] Okay. 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.
[Howard] Oh, good heavens.
[Mary] Oh, yes.
[Howard] You're writers. Write.
[Dan] Yeah. I can't think unless I'm writing it down.
[Brandon] I've said before, this happens particularly with characters for me. I don't know that character until I write it down. Until I start [garbled]
[Howard] One of the problems that I've had, and I've mentioned this before, is that sometimes there is an idea for the story that I can't write the other stuff for the story until I've taken this idea and committed it to paper. Because my brain knows it's important, and until I've written it down, nothing else is allowed to flow because my subconscious is telling me, "Uh-uh, we're not letting go of this until you've locked it in somewhere."
[Mary] Yeah. Well, it's also until you write it down, it's so mutable that sometimes it's impossible to hold the story together. It's like you're trying to… I've got this visual in my head and I'm like, "Well, that's not going to work in a podcast." But it's like…
[Dan] [laughter] Everyone read Mary's mind right now.
[Mary] It's like trying to put something into a suitcase where the thing is not quite the right size, and you shove it in one corner and it pops out another, and it stays like that until you start committing it to paper because that fixes it.
[Dan] Yeah.
[Mary] And by fixes, I mean…
[Dan] Yes. Makes fixed.
[Howard] Fixed. Like Jell-O gelling.

[Brandon] We are out of time. We did 11 of the 22, which I think is pretty admirable, considering how much we like to talk. I do want to give credit where credit is due. That's Emma Coats. Her twitter is @lawnrocket. I think she may actually be leaving Pixar from things I've read. But anyway, she has some great rules. Hopefully they're helpful to you. You can go look up the other 11. I don't know if we'll do another podcast on them. But we might. Who knows? Anything can happen at Writing Excuses. I want you guys to go write a story about a space… A multi-tentacled space goat that can't save people again. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.

[Brandon] Hi, all. This is Brandon. Hope you enjoyed today's episode. I just wanted to give you a special reminder. Audible has my novella, Legion, up for free in audiobook. So since they're a sponsor of the podcast, I thought I'd give an extra shout out to it. They actually have, if you go to www.audible.com/sanderson, they have Legion up there. You… There's no trial, there's no strings attached, you just get it for free. So I hope you guys go give it a listen if you haven't already. You can go to audible.com/sanderson to download it and give it a try.
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