The High Art of Storytelling

So Brave comes out this week… finally! Sarabeth and I don’t go to the movies often, but it’s our annual tradition to go to each Pixar release. This is going to be a good weekend.

Now, as an avid Pixar fan, I do have a confession to make. For the most part, whenever I see a Pixar movie for the first time, I’m sort of… let down. But over time, with each viewing of a certain Pixar movie, I appreciate it more and more for what it is. I think it’s because their stories resonate and they age like fine wine. Ratatouille, for instance, didn’t keep me plastered to my seat with a big goofy grin the whole time. But it stuck with me days after viewing it. There were themes and deep issues that the movie provoked me to revisit. But I now consider it one of the finest films ever made. Wall-E bored me the first time I saw it. But after seeing it a few more times, and really digging into what the movie is trying to communicate (it’s not about going green), I now consider it one of the finest films as well.

It’s misleading when Disney markets Pixar films as being “the best comedy of the year,” because Pixar films aren’t just out to get a few laughs like competing animated movies. Heck, they’re not even trying to preach any sort of message. They’re just setting out to do what any good movie ought to do – tell an original and compelling story that is so effective that it will become a part of the viewer.

Story is to movies as location is to buildings. Story, story, story. Everything else is secondary. When the newborn Pixar Studios set out to make the world’s first computer-generated animated movie, the compliment they feared the most was, “The animation was astounding!” No. Hang the animation, as wonderful as it is. The guys at Pixar new they had truly succeeded with Toy Story because audiences around the globe absolutely loved the story.

This has been a good year for Sarabeth and me. I had been searching for an agent to represent my book, The Man in the Box, since 2009. I signed a contract with BlackWyrm Publishers a month ago: Three years and hundreds of rejections later. It was my passion to tell stories and my supportive wife that refused to let me give up. And every Pixar movie has played a role in teaching me how to tell a story.

Now, I know this isn’t anything like creating a cutting-edge feature film, nor will The Man in the Box make it to the New York Times bestseller list (though with your help, it could). But the point I’m trying to make here is this: We can do nothing great on our own. Did you know that Steve Jobs had the Pixar building built in such a way that if anyone wants to get from any point of the studio to another, you have to cross the lobby like everyone else? The reason for this seemingly obsessive idea was so that camaraderie would be encouraged and artists who wouldn’t normally talk to writers would bump into each other and exchange ideas. Unfortunately authors don’t have this advantage, and for the most part, we work alone. I have done everything I can to make my book, The Man in the Box as exciting, unpredictable and engaging as possible. But I know it’s still not perfect. So even as I write this there is an editor pouring over it somewhere. She has got her work cut out for her.

But we will be working together to make it the absolute best story we can possibly deliver to you. In the coming months I will be posting snippets of The Man in the Box for you to enjoy (or criticize). But I will need encouragement. I will need as many of my readers to join The Man in the Box Facebook page. There is little information about the story right now, but I will slowly and surely be revealing more and more. If you join, you will be alerted about contests to win free copies, favoritism for your blog, etc.

Oh, and any writers out there, I have included this list especially for you. I just came across it a few weeks ago, but I am convinced it is the purest piece of gold any writer could possibly attain in his possession. I don’t know if it’s official or not, but it is Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling. Do your readers a favor and follow these rules religiously. And go out and see Brave! We’ll discuss it next week.

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

#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 v. different.

#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.

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

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

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

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#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.

#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.

#10: 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.

#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.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#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.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#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.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

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

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

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

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

[Image Credit]


About Andrew Toy
I'm in the beginning stages of starting my own publishing company that's unlike anything you've ever heard of in the industry. The direction of AdoptingJames is taking a 90-degree turn and will be more writing/publishing-focused. Stay tuned for huge updates and exciting news!

10 Responses to The High Art of Storytelling

  1. i am looking forward to reading your book ;~)

  2. Lisa McAfee says:

    Congratulations on your book!

  3. Karen Wan says:

    Great storytelling tips! Thanks for sharing them, and best of luck with your book!

  4. westendbaby says:

    Love this post and these tips. I am a writer (of sorts) and am busy fermenting an idea for a book at the notes stage right now that came to me in a Eureka moment a while ago. Can’t wait to read some of your snippets. Exciting times. As for the tips – the one about the ending rings so true for me. I had been thinking through an idea for a story for ages and couldn’t see where it would go until recently and NOW I feel like I can write it with my beginning and my end in focus.

  5. southernjohnson says:

    I always enjoy your posts! Great tips and best of luck on your book!

  6. Loner says:

    Very interesting post, I just learned a few things. My day was not lived in vain. 🙂

  7. a quiet person says:

    Thanks for the tips, so useful – Pixar is awesome! They put so much love and detail into the story above all else.

  8. philokid says:

    It’s funny how right you are when you say this; so many times, you have to think things through to really get past a literal level and see their true meanings.

  9. Pingback: Last Minute Prep Talk to Writers « adoptingjames

  10. Pingback: Before you tame the NaNoWriMo dragon. | Misadventures of a Would-Be Writer

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