5 Writing Rules I’ve Learned from Pixar

file0001212587536My family adores Pixar movies. Every year, we look forward to their latest release, impatiently marking time until we can immerse ourselves in whatever new world they’ve created. We’re such fans of the studio that we even have their Digital Shorts collections.

As a mom of youngsters, I’ve spent countless hours in theaters watching duds [I’m not naming names, but I just saw a new movie from another animation studio, and it was a real turkey. BTW, whoever brought the disaster called Gnomeo and Juliet onto the big screen–I want those two hours of my life back. And my money, preferably with interest.]

However, I almost always enjoy Pixar flicks. The minds that dreamed up Monsters, Inc. and Cars inspire me. Because I have the privilege of teaching writing to aspiring authors, I’ve begun to study Pixar’s methods in order to share them with my students. What have I learned?

1) Story is king.

The Pixar folks spend years perfecting the story of their movies before they ever move on to the animating process. Wow.

In my own writing journey, I’ve learned not to “tell” (relate things that happened so readers can understand how that situation changed me) and instead  “show” (include dialogue, characters, and movement). No matter what genre you write in, good storytelling is essential. Today’s art consumers are savvy, busy, and distracted. I know, because I am one. We want to be swept away by a immersive tale, not be told what we should learn from a situation.

2) Be tenacious.

Wall-E and Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton admits that in the early years, Pixar employees created mostly by instinct and made a lot of mistakes. However, they wouldn’t give up or give in to the pressure to do what had been done before.

They also work like fiends to get the characters and settings right. I found a few stats which blew my mind. There were:

  • 3,473,271 individually animated hairs on the Lots-o-Huggin Bear from Toy Story 3
  • 2,320,413 individually animated hairs on Sully in Monsters, Inc. (It took 11 to 12 hours to animate a single frame featuring Sully!)
  • 1,150,000 individual hairs rendered on Ratatouille’s hero, Remy.

Wow again.

3) Invoke wonder.

Pixar has mastered this. The writers and animators help us feel again what we often felt as children–awe, gratitude, and joy.file0001384956880

Here’s an exercise: Think about the first time you tasted ice cream, if you can remember it. Or the first time you saw something that took your breath away. Now write about it.

Wonder is ineffable, but if we can draw on it and re-create it in a scene, we’ve captured our audience’s attention immediately. They will follow us almost anywhere we lead them.

4) Take risks. A rat learning to be a chef? Preposterous. A film about a robot from the future with no dialogue for 45 minutes? Absurd. Kids’ movies beginning with the death of characters? Totally insane.

But they work. They work because the guys and gals behind those stories make us forget we’re watching animated films. They work because–due to great storytelling–we care about the characters, and we relate to them in some way. Which brings me to my last point.

5) Do your homework.

Too many films are built on flimsy premises. While the finished products might be technically sound, their foundation is cracked, and the outside shiny-ness simply can’t make up for creaky scaffolding, bored talent, and cheap materials. Often, the stories are weak and the jokes seem more important than plot.

Audiences can tell when authors know what they’re doing and when they don’t. We don’t have to write only about what we’ve learned from our experiences, but we have to make time for research, education, and paying our dues. Even after all his success, Stanton told an audience in 2012 that he had recently taken an acting seminar to learn more about what drives characters.

I respect that. I bet you do, too.

Antisocial Media

God bless the Internet.

It’s the great equalizer of our time. It has been a tour de force for introverts the world over who feel more confident and less prone to risk behind a laptop than a podium. Marketing no longer is the exclusive playground of handsome and highly articulate extroverts, people that really know how to connect with other people.  A website can have an infinite amount of charm – or at least charm enough not to require a spokesmodel.

How has this been possible? One reason is a fundamental shift in marketing itself and how society sees it. Marketing strategy has evolved from outbound to inbound. An outbound marketing strategy involves actively finding people and making them aware of your product and offerings.  An inbound marketing strategy is about being easy to find. It requires a high level of visibility. If you are invisible to Google, it’s not going to work.

This being said, I recently met with a visibility coach to discuss the next steps for how to continue building a writing platform. It seemed like many bases had been covered, and now I was stuck on how to proceed. After all, the infrastructure seemed to be coming along:

  • Website
  • Blog
  • Writing contest award site
  • Book reviews
  • Smashwords and Amazon purchase links
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Pinterest board
  • YouTube radio interview
  • Google Adwords, Google+

I reviewed all of these facets of the marketing platform with the visibility coach. She was glad that some visibility had already been created, but there was still a lot to do. She said that the aforementioned social media sites are tools. Such tools are only part of a marketing strategy’s infrastructure and did not constitute its entirety.

Some of the things I had been putting off on my to-do list started coming back to mind:

  • Determine how many prospective customers would be interested in your product
  • Define that group – Who are they? How old are they? What is their demographic data?
  • Create a buzz among that target profile
  • Identify their buying behavior
  • Develop a message that speaks to that group
  • Become highly visible to that customer group
  • Learn their communication style and preferred methods of contact

The coach said, “I think we need to get you some REAL fans and not just virtual ones.” She kind of laughed a little bit, and I hadn’t realized until then that it was kind of funny. All my supporters are either friends or ones I’ve garnered online.  “Virtual fans are all well and good, but you need to meet and connect with some REAL people, some actual people now. We’re going to move forward with a press release and creating some events.”

The coach could probably tell that I was a little uneasy about the whole ‘events’ thing.  It’s awkward enough pumping up a site with one’s name and picture on it in cyberspace. How could I look people in the eye and do it for real? I would know if they didn’t really want to meet me.  What if someone told me to get lost? What if they said they had already read my book and they thought I was destroying literature or something? Besides, I had never met any of the authors I had always admired. Was that really necessary? Talking about my work with strangers… ugh. It seemed like the worst kind of vanity.

But the visibility coach pointed out something enlightening. When positioning the book and other works to the audience, there is no reason to focus on the author. The focus is on the characters in the book. She said to become the cheerleader of my main characters and pump them up constantly – and to take myself out of the equation. That resonated with my introverted nature, and I breathed a little easier.

Marketing is about telling a story. Who better to market, then, than us storytellers?

The ancient concept of the group storyteller conjures up images of tribes fixated on a speaker, basking in the orange glow of a campfire.  That kind of storytelling is interactive. Actors are storytellers, but of a different sort. They tell stories with their physical beings-not with words.

Writing, as a form of storytelling, can’t be purely antisocial because life and the human experience aren’t antisocial. That’s the whole point. People are trying to connect and feel something.  The Internet has made it very easy to forget that – but people go to the movies and read books for a reason. They are looking to connect. And as uncomfortable as it may be at times, connections just do not belong in the realm of the antisocial.

In what ways have you RECENTLY connected with your non-virtual reader fans? How might you reach out to them, specifically, this week?