pixar’s rules of storytelling

Each writer has a different approach to rules. For some, they’re made to be broken, others they are mere guidelines, and even others, they are cliches to be avoided like the plague (guess which one I’m not). 

Anyway, advice in general is like excerpts from the bible: people cherrypick what works for them and ignore the rest.

But when you get stuck, you never know what it is that might help get you unstuck. So it’s good to have something to go to. Who knows? Therein may lie your answer.

These Pixar rules, which have been floating around the interwebs for a while, are an excellent go-to. Thus, I thought I’d share it because it made they’ve made their way to my bulletin board of oh-my-god-help-me-now (pictured).


Here we go:

  • #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.

Source: Emma Coates, via The Pixar Touch.

“Every day takes figuring out all over again how to f***ing live.”

The above quote comes from the marvellous Deadwood, out of the mouth of the marvellous Calamity Jane.

And I’m really feeling it right now.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted much of anything. Life is like that. Peaks and valleys. Hills and troughs. I feel like this is a lesson I’ve figured out before. Subsequently forgotten. And then had to learn all over again.

I was remembering how elated I was a year ago, nine months ago, six months ago. I was in a huge writing groove. I was feeling especially prolific. I thought I’d finally figured it out.

I’ve been writing. A lot.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve neglected this blog… and a variety of other social (media) endeavours. I thought I’d finally learned the way around the block. I’d finally mastered the steps and now I was ready to dance (a cliched, but apt metaphor).

I worked. I worked and worked. I worked really hard.

But it didn’t work. And I didn’t realize it until I thought it was done and I took a look at the first page and went nope. I just knew it wasn’t right.

And then I felt like bashing my head against a wall because I knew something was wrong with it, but I had absolutely no idea what. I’d done everything right, I told myself. I learned my lessons. I figured out what I had to do and I did it. And I worked really fucking hard at it.

But it still wasn’t right.

This made no sense to me. How was I still failing at this novel that I have been turning over and over for five years now? I’d written other things that came out perfect the moment I vomited them onto the page.

Why was this one not working?!

Maybe it was fundamentally flawed somehow. Maybe it was the great impossible thing. Maybe I should just abandon it completely.

I thought of this as well, and it just as easily could have been the title of this post instead: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose.” (ST: TNG)

But I couldn’t drop this project. Other projects I’ve abandoned, yes, but this one is like a child. I would be like Dumbledore dropping baby Harry off at the Dursleys… but only after realizing he’s a squib and deciding that it’s probably best to sever all ties completely.

Anyway. This all caught me at a rough time.

Januarys are usually brutal, to be sure, but it’s been especially so as of late. I’ve been down a rabbit hole.

A rabbit hole is how I come to think of my mental isolation, the feeling of being more or less trapped in my own mind, like an invisible barrier keeps me alone with my own thoughts and other human beings are difficult to connect with.

A rabbit hole… a euphemistic trick perhaps, allowing me to frame in a palatable way what is probably some form of depression, anxiety, seasonal affectiveness disorder, some combination of the above, or something else altogether.

A rabbit hole can also happen when I am very deeply entrenched in writing something. The two very often coincide, but they are markedly different. The former is characterized by negativity and the latter by positivity.

The two coincide, but writing does not make me depressed. Rather, writing is often an outlet helping me cope. Writing is how I climb out of the rabbit hole. It is how I work through things.

I’ve found that something pushes me down a rabbit hole, but, like Alice, everything I encounter down there is some surreal version of things that have subconsciously been plaguing me for ages. Weeks, months, years, my whole life even.

Writing turns these surreal things over and lets me examine them. Sometimes it doesn’t help, but sometimes I can exorcise old ghosts. So, in a way, even though these rabbit holes are dark and difficult, I need them. They are a valuable part of who I am. They let me focus. They push me to work my way out.

But this recent rabbit hole – and I say this having just clawed my way out – was a doozy. Something pushed me down a rabbit hole in October (nothing too severe, but work stress and uncertainty, which always brings up a lot of anxiety), and there I lingered through the Christmas season, forcing myself through. It was okay; I was writing a lot. I could still see the thin circle of sky above.

And then, thinking I had just clawed my way out, I read that first page of a finished draft and thought nope.

And then Grandma died.

That almost sounds like a punchline. And perhaps I need it to be.

My grandmother had been dying of Alzheimer’s for over ten years. Alzheimer’s is strange because it does funny things to the grieving process. It takes someone aways from you long before they are physically gone. You can hear their voice and look in their eyes, but they don’t look back and see you.

I don’t want to go into details about my grandma yet, at least not now. I already spoke about her at the funeral, and that was the closest I could come with words for a while. I’m not good at putting frustrations and grief into literal words. I need to put it into a story. That’s what stories are for, after all. Grief and everything grief can represent.

Stress about work and money is one thing. Fear for the future is rational.

But grief is something entirely different. Grief is fear for the past. And that is irrational. It’s already over, isn’t it? We can’t change it.

But we can change it. And we do. We change it everything a memory slips or shifts. Every time a photograph passes into new hands. Every time a story gets another layer of embellishment.

We don’t just grieve for those dead, we grieve for the past we shared with them. We grieve for the time we can’t revisit. What does it feel like to know that your childhood is gone forever? How immense is that weight?

Grief is different every time. There’s no pattern we can fall back on. We figure it out all over again every time we go through it.

That was what I clawed my way out of this rabbit hole learning: if I want to grieve, if I want to write, I have to figure it out all over again every time. There’s no one learning process to this. There’s no end date or final exam. It all shifts beneath us. What works one day won’t work the next.

Every day takes figuring out all over again how to fucking live.


the winter months

Sometimes I feel like an asshole for complaining about the winter when I live in Vancouver. I see photos posted by friends who live elsewhere in Canada and they deal with Real Winter.

Real Winter, to me, is snow and toques and leaving for work half-an-hour early to navigate the ice. Real Winter only really lasts a day or two – a week, tops – in Vancouver. The rest of the season is characterized by grey skies, rain, and just… darkness. rain Thus, Vancouver privilege and all, the winter months are always a bit of a lull. This is so common for me, in fact, that I expect the annual mental health lull and try to steer into the curve. I force myself to make something productive come of my desire to spend all winter in my pajamas. I read. I write. I make dates with people I haven’t seen in a while. I catch up on all the Oscar movies.

This year, however, was just too much. On top of the grey sky blues, my sister got married, work consisted of on-going computer problems my boomer colleagues left me to solve, and I was struggling with crazy writer’s block. My life is easily segmented into four parts and all four of them were shitty.

One could think of these four parts as realms:

The Social Realm, including family, friends, all other personal relationships, and my domestic life. This realm is an easy one to take for granted. For an introvert like me, relationships take work. I don’t cross paths with too many people during the course of my daily life. I have to make time for people. And this is hard, because whenever I get free time, there’s usually so much more I would rather be doing. Like nothing.

The Work Realm. I really wish this weren’t a thing, but alas, that’s the world we live in. I wish work was something I could incorporate into one of the other realms, but I can’t. At least not now. Work is this thing that just sits there in the middle of my life sucking time. I try my best to incorporate what I can into my work life, including writing, or making lunch dates, or trying to get exercise. However, this all is required to take place during my lunch break, and by the time lunch rolls around, it’s Sophie’s Choice and I’m so paralyzed by indecision that I just end up scrolling Tumblr for an hour.

The Mental Realm, or “My Inner Life/Sense of Self.” This pretty much means that constant battle in my head between happy and sad or Good Mood vs Bad Mood, and generally feels beyond my conscious control. So much of this is at the mercy of the other realms. But sometimes the other realms suffer solely because this realm is suffering. And then they influence each other back and forth in a horrifying dialectic most commonly referred to as a “downward spiral.”

The Creative Realm. I almost labelled this the Writing Realm, but writing isn’t my only outlet, even if it is my most important. I don’t know if everyone has this realm, but I like to think that most people have some kind of creative outlet. Perhaps it’s just my own artistic myopia, but I can’t imagine living a life without creating something somehow, be it whittling sticks, making model trains, or designing avatars for World of Warcraft.

The impulse takes me to arrange these realms like a hierarchy of needs, but that wouldn’t do it justice. For instance, The Work Realm is the least important to me emotionally, but it’s the one that must be taken care of first. If it isn’t, I lose my job. It’s that simple. The Mental Realm is probably the most important, emotionally speaking, but it’s the one that’s the hardest to maintain. There are just so many variables. The Social Realm is thus the first to suffer, at least in a visible way. It’s just so easy to not make plans. It’s so easy to take people for granted. It’s so easy to give into that drive to keep to myself. I need alone time. But sometimes an overdue conversation with an old friend does wonders.

And, as it both feels extraneous yet is totally necessary, the Creative Realm requires discipline. But, for some reason, it’s so much easier to apply discipline to this than any of the other realms. And it’s so much easier to fall apart when I get stuck. If I hit a writing wall, I can try another outlet, like drawing or zine-making, but it just isn’t the same. I need to write. It feels like the hook on which everything else hangs. If one of the other realms suffers, I can usually power through by focusing on another. But if I go too long without writing, it eats away at me. (It’s like I based too much of my identity on this or something… weird.)

That’s why I try to set goals. I try to write 1000 words a day (and let weekends slide a little because I’m not fucking crazy).

In the fall, I was hitting a wall with the project I was working on, so I forced myself to try other things. A new project with no pressure might be good, I told myself. But, as the other realms collapsed over the winter, I hit a wall too high. I was lucky if I got 500 words a week done. On anything. I couldn’t even muster a blog post.

It was really starting to wear at me in a way that I know must seem ridiculous. But when I can’t write, it feels like some intrinsic part of myself is locked off and I can’t access it. It’s like that irritating, itchy feeling when you can’t remember the name of something but it’s on the tip of your tongue. Just imagine having that feeling all the time and you don’t even know what it is you’re trying to remember the name of.

I needed a solution. I had to force myself to write something. Anything.

I needed to let go of the idea that it had to be good. Husband even gave his words of support: “You do you, boo.”

So I thought about what it was that might have been holding me back. I had managed to write several decent openings for different pieces, but quickly lost momentum. I was struggling with world building. I was struggling with character building. This is not something easily overcome by sitting down and brainstorming it all out, like I do with a plotting problem. I need to feel a setting. I need to intrinsically know a character. (And the themes are always an after-thought. Like Dumbo’s ability to fly, there were there all along but only realized at the end.)

So… anyway…. here it is: I wrote fan fiction.

Ugh. I did. I have no problem with fan fiction at all, I just never thought writing it was for me. I wrote a piece once at the request of Dr. Roommate that crossed-over her favourite character of mine with Sandor Clegane, and, while I wrote my own character fine, I found it awkward writing someone else’s character. As I said earlier, I need to intrinsically know a character, and I didn’t think I could do that with a character that wasn’t mine. It was like wearing someone else’s shoes.

But I could. I did. And although it felt weird at times, the exercise of writing fan fiction worked wonders.

I didn’t have to build a world or characters; that was all done for me. I could just drop them in a plot or conversation without needing to provide context. It was like taking a warp pipe around the writer’s block. While my writer’s block is not perfectly removed, the frustration of not being able to write at all is gone. It’s like a fog lifting.

And now it’s a sunny day and all.

Maybe I’ll go out for a walk.

the indolent muse

k133624_lIt always seems the way.

After months – nay, years! – of complaining that I just don’t have enough time to write, that I have to struggle to make time, that I have to make hard choices like not going to that social gathering and not keeping the house clean and not, you know, having children, I find myself with plenty of time but no creative urges.

Perhaps the free time does something my brain. When I’m busy, I daydream like crazy. Ideas crop up everywhere! And all I can do is lament the fact that I am too busy to act upon them. When so much is going on around me, I have to force myself to focus. Those proverbial several plates spinning at once force me all in: firing on all cylinders, using 100% of my brain, however you want to describe it. That’s when I’m at my best. But I can’t keep it up for long; it’s a sprinting state of mind, not a marathon.

I’m sure a psychology major out there could confirm that this is a thing. That happens. To normal people. I am normal.


And then when I’m bored, I struggle. I get lazy. Nothing challenges me and thus I don’t challenge myself. I’m Ashleigh stripped of anything of value: a car parked for too long in the bad part of town.

Now that I’ve identified this problem, I can take steps towards overcoming it.

Unless… I just let myself enjoy this a little longer. Like a vacation. Let me just finish up a few shows on Netflix. Read a few more books. Maybe finally finish crocheting that blanket that’s been at scarf-size for a while now.

Maybe actually update this blog a little more?

Yes. Yes, that might be nice.