Storytelling in depth: Why Woody and Buzz matter

Woody and Buzz Lightyear

Woody and Buzz Lightyear, the heroes of Pixar’s “Toy Story” franchise

Part of a series on the intricacies of storytelling, and how to harness it for your brand …

I’m a big Pixar fan. To date, I’ve seen 10 of the 14 movies created by the animation studio (sorry, “Cars 2”), with multiple viewings for a handful.

“The Incredibles” isn’t just the best Pixar film, but the best animated film of the modern era. Amazing storytelling and characters drive the plot, as they do in most Pixar hits: “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” “Up,” “WALL-E.”

In 2011, Emma Coats (@lawnrocket) tweeted a series of story basics she learned as a Pixar story artist.

The 22 guidelines serve as starting points for discussion on building compelling stories …

  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 very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about till 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 and 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 do 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.

Study these guidelines carefully. How can they apply to your digital storytelling?

The first one about trying can inform customer service. Not everyone will be happy with your product. You, as the caring representative, address the issue politely and with empathy. A few will still be unsatisfied. But your audience will root for you because you tried.

(In the “Toy Story” franchise, Woody and Buzz tried to keep their fellow toys safe and together. Woody, in particular, didn’t always succeed, but we admired his loyalty and decency.)

Look at No. 14 about the burning belief. Why blog or tweet about something at your company if you don’t have a passion for it? Indifference by the storyteller leads to indifference by the viewer.

(Who cares about a bunch of toys? And yet, we’re drawn in because we long for the joy of carefree play and imagination running wild.)

While you may not be writing a screenplay, you are writing a series of infinite chapters for your company’s story. It may have multiple storytellers and numerous heroes and villains.

Let your storytelling have voice and direction. Let it be animated with real conflict. And let it reflect the pillars that make Pixar films memorable.

Slides: a lovely rendering of the 22 guidelines from Pixar in one deck

Stephan Vladimir Bugaj, a technical director at Pixar,
wrote “Pixar’s 22 Rules of Story Analyzed” [PDF].

See more posts in our “Storytelling in-depth” series.

We have more ideas for your digital outreach
on our blog.

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About Wade Kwon

Wade Kwon is conference director for Y'all Connect. See his full bio.