The Lost 23rd Rule of Storytelling – Pixar’s 22 Rules

Tl;dr - Former Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats famously tweeted out the 22 rules of storytelling according to Pixar, but we found the 23rd rule.
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The 22 Rules of Storytelling

Former Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats famously tweeted out the rules of storytelling according to Pixar.

This list came out as a series of tweets, each describing one rule and providing some serious wisdom for writers.

Here are Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling, according to Emma:

  • #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.

The Missing 23rd Rule

For years, this list has been published, quoted, and republished. Teachers reference it when lecturing to future screenwriters, and young storytellers have this list pinned to their wall as a reminder.

But, after looking back at Emma’s tweets, I uncovered a hidden gem…

In the corner, under a pile of dusty articles and retweets, I pulled out a missing 23rd rule.

The tweet reads:

#23: Be aware of the conventions & assumptions that go with your genre. Acknowledge them, then subvert them; don't ignore them.:

Why This Rule Is So Important

In this rule, Emma points out that often genre conventions are ignored, in hopes that they’ll go away. But the conventions are there for a reason, so understanding them gives you the power to subvert expectations of the audience – thus creating a powerful moment in your story.

There’s a common phrase that says, “you must know the rules in order to break them”.

This is so important for new creatives. It’s tempting to simply run the opposite way as everyone else. This can grant you some fleeting acknowledgment, but simply being contrarian to go against what everyone else is doing doesn’t make your story interesting.

Instead, understand, deeply, the root of the tropes. Dive into the origin of these things that have become second nature, and then you will be able to masterfully manipulate your audiences emotions and send them on a new ride.

See the original tweet below. What are your thoughts? Leave us a comment.

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Alex Darke
Alex Darke
Alex is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker located in Los Angeles, who has spent the past 7 years working with the legendary broadcaster Larry King and shooting thousands of episodes of television as a camera operator and director of photography. He owns the motion picture production company Gilded Cinema and co-hosts the No-Budget Filmmaking Podcast.
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