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.