Pixar Rule 18: No Writerly Fussing Allowed

Guess what’s back? The Pixar storytelling series!

My sister’s wedding is over, I’m back from my anniversary trip to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas, and Nikki Urang’s trip to my house for a writer’s weekend was a smashing success.

This also means I’m no longer living the life of a spoiled globe trotter and must get back to my daily activities (which actually, I missed). Blogging is one of those things! Returning to Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling, I’m going to cover rule 18.

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

I think something got lost in translation with the 2nd sentence there, and I honestly have no idea what Ms. Coats meant by it. However, I have quite a bit of experience dealing with the first sentence.

With one of my first novels, I spent way too much time fussing. I’d finished the draft, sent it out to people who said they wrote or read a lot, made revisions, and then spent forever fussing with the language. Sentence-level modifications that clarified actions, boosted voice, removed passive verbs, etc. A lot of it helped, but a lot of it was just messing around. I spent far too much time, and burned myself out, on tiny issues. When I was done, I’d spent so much time revising I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I needed to stop pruning the branches and step back so I could see the shape of the whole forest, but by that time, I was burned out.

My novel needed streamlining and focus. It needed to not rely so heavily on tropes. It needed to be set apart from what was already on the market. I had no idea, though, because I’d spent so much time fussing with it that I just didn’t have the energy to seriously consider these things. Note: I THOUGHT I’d considered them. I’d had it beta-read and made big changes and cut big chunks. But since I was exhausted, and since I could check those things off my list, I did. Fussing with language was easier than stepping back, taking the story itself 100% seriously, and double-checking the big things. Here’s the cost: my book still needs those things. It’s chilling out in the corner right now.

So, from personal experience, here’s what I think Ms. Coats is getting at, and here’s what I should have done:

Don’t mess with language until you’re done with big scene and action changes. You’ll burn yourself out. Sure, take along your laptop on car rides and use CTRL-F to find “that” and passive voice, but don’t fuss. There’s no point to messing with language in a scene if you’re going to cut it or change it later. Seriously- no fussing.

Find people who you are 100% confident know what they’re doing. A writer once told me as a revision note that my POV wasn’t clear- things needed to be more clearly from my character’s perspective. This person suggested I insert “he saw”, “he wondered”, etc, to show that it was my main character perceiving all this. Consequently, I littered my MS with filter words that six months later, I had to take out. This is a small, nit-pick revision, but it’s a great example of why not all critiques are equal. I didn’t get critiques tough enough to show me that my novel was too much like most other fantasies out there, and the advice often prompted me to harm my book rather than improve it. So get critiques from writers who have the experience and credentials to genuinely help you; you need tough critiques. (How? Check out the tabs above- crits are everywhere in this industry.) It’s hard to take, but shelving your MS is even harder.

Once you have several sets of revision notes from trusted writers/industry professionals, don’t revise. That’s right. Don’t revise immediately. I tossed out a lot of helpful advice because I was too close to my story and couldn’t see how that change could work. I thought my novel had to start with the girl in high school, and I couldn’t see a way around it. So, I tossed out the advice. Don’t do that if it’s from someone you trust. Daydream about it a little first. If you WERE going to take that advice on cutting out this character, how could you do it? If you HAD to change your opening, how could you do it? Take a few days to do this, not a few minutes. Just a few weeks ago, the answer to how to start that novel hit me. It doesn’t have to start with the main character in high school, and my planned revision is much more interesting.

Know yourself. A lot of writers tend to channel their perfectionism toward fussing with language instead of really doing their best with the story itself. Use that perfectionism to be honest with yourself and your book. There’s a point where your book needs you to pick over every line, and there’s a point where it’s just fussing. Don’t burn yourself out with the latter if your time, energy, and honesty are still needed by your plot and characters.

Target Shooting As A Writer: Pixar Rule 7!

We’re one full week down in the Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling blogging challenge! Today rule 7 is up:

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

Beginnings are important. They set the stage, draw in the reader, and present the problem. Often they have catchy first lines, hilarious boy-meets-girl moments, frightening she-might-die conflicts, and dozens of compelling questions we want answered. Middles have raising stakes, surprising twists, and character motivations revealed in ways that make us desperately wish they get what they’re after. But endings. Endings. They are the payoff.

We read for the journey, right? The complete experience. Following along after Augustus and Hazel. Watching Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy overcome their pride. Trying to figure out what happened to Jason Bourne before it’s too late. It’s less about where they end up and more about how they get there.

But that’s how we read. If writers wrote that way, we’d have a directionless path winding forever onward, and eventually, readers would bail. When we write- wait for it- we have to take aim.

As a farm girl, I’ve done my share of target shooting. Sometimes I’d use my brother’s .22, but most often it was an air rifle that fired BBs or this wicked little BB pistol I had. Not a real gun, I know, but that was kind of the point. I knew I wasn’t likely to accidentally kill anyone. Plus, BBs are cheap. So, sixteen-year-old me would tie a soda can to the fence and shoot away until I cut the can in half. When I took aim and pulled the trigger, I had a target in mind.

From the very beginning of the story, writers need to aim at their target. Sometimes the target changes, and that’s fine, as long as the writer adjusts for it. Aiming at the target gives the story a journey, makes it progress, and pulls the reader onward. They are going somewhere, not wandering.

When I started writing DINAH, I didn’t know the beginning. I still need to work out a chunk of the middle. But I’ve known the ending since I started plotting: a seventeen-year old girl standing in the town square, with a gun to the head of the man who took away her land and killed her family. (What happens next is top secret.) As I plot and write scenes, I’m aiming to get my characters there. Everything leads up to that moment and the aftermath, the echoes of the shot she does or doesn’t take.

Figure out your ending. Pick your target and aim for it. Chances are you won’t hit much of anything if you fire wildly into space. It’s rare to hit your target if you don’t take aim.

How do you figure out the end to your story? If your target changes, what do you do to adjust for that? Tell me what you think. 🙂

Don’t forget to check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me!

Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,

Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,

Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and lit agency intern,

and Regina Castillo, a dedicated reader, writer, and blogger.

Destroying Your Character’s Comfort Zone: Pixar #6

I hope you all had a great Easter! After a one-day break for the holiday, we’re back to discussing Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling. Today rule 6 is up:

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

Pushing your characters out of their comfort zones is a key concept in developing compelling conflict. If your characters are good at everything they’re doing and don’t have to push themselves, we don’t wait around to see if they’ll get the job done. We know they will. When the conflict challenges the main character, we see character development happening all over the place. So, yes, of course we want to throw something at them that challenges their abilities.

But here’s the twist, and really, the most important part: don’t just give them something HARDER, challenge them with something completely opposite of what they’re comfortable with. The pro assassin who has his toughest case yet might be interesting, but it’s not as gripping as it could be. What does Katniss not have time for? Impractical things. Where does she have to go? The Capitol– the height of impracticality. She doesn’t have time for entertainment and doesn’t understand people who do, but yet she has to not only participate in but BE entertainment. Even when her life and Peeta’s are at stake, she still has to be good entertainment, or they won’t get help when they need it. Seeing Katniss struggle (remember post 1 on character struggle?) with things that directly conflict with her ethics, in an area she can barely understand, having to develop skills she has never used before, is a gold mine situation for character development. How she reacts tells the audience a great deal about her motivation, intelligence, resourcefulness, insecurities, and compassion. It takes every bit of who she is to survive.

And that’s key to this whole rule. Gripping conflict should push your characters to the limits, especially in their weak areas, because when it does, we find out who they really are. When you do that, characters have to change. They become deeper, more complex, more relatable, more memorable, and even more compelling.

Don’t forget to check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me!

Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,

Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,

Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and lit agency intern,

and Regina Castillo, a dedicated reader, writer, and blogger.

As always, thanks for reading!

Pixar 22: Rule 1- Character Struggle

If you read my post from yesterday, you know that today is the first day of my blogging challenge. I’m blogging my way through Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling as compiled by Emma Coates, Pixar storyboard artist. If you want to see the background on why I’m doing this and hear my thoughts on that article from The New Yorker that challenges those rules with some decisive language, my post from yesterday discusses that.

The rules themselves arebasic, time-tested methods and tips for writing fiction. Even though they are fairly basic, they are not always easy and definitely not always part of a writer’s process– even though they should be! Many of the issues I see in the slush pile that makes me pass on a project could be solved if the writers used these 22 rules. Often, when I love something in a submission, it’s because the writer did one or more of these 22 things well. They really are hallmarks of good stories.

Here’s rule 1, and my thoughts on it:

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

I love that this is rule 1, because I love, love, love it. Character struggle is at the core of so many riveting, impacting stories. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s struggles are endless and we’re never quite sure if she’s going to win. She struggles to feed and protect her family. She struggles to hide her practical personality and her hatred of the materialism around her in order to become an engaging tribute people will support– which is part of her struggle to survive. She struggles in a dozen other ways, too- surviving her burns and dehydration. Figuring out how she feels about Peeta.  Readers become involved in her struggles and care about what happens long before they find out if she fails or succeeds. In fact, we admire her for getting back up and trying again. Hard things happen to everyone, but it takes someone special to get back up and keep trying.

In the early seasons of The Vampire Diaries, noble vampire Stefan just lacks something. He’s not nearly as interesting as his brother Damon, and even though they know he’s the morally better character, many viewers (dare I say the majority?) root for Damon. Why? Damon struggles with his nature, while Stefan has already beaten it. Stefan really doesn’t have much of anything to struggle over in those first seasons. Later on, his character becomes more complex, but it takes a while. Damon is the one who is torn between his evil vampire nature and wanting to be a better man than he is. In season 2, we see one of the most impacting moments of his struggle in the middle of the road, as he’s trying to decide whether or not to kill the young woman who stopped to help him. This moment is, in my opinion, one of the best scenes of the show. Stefan lacks a significant struggle. He’s got it figured out, and since he’s so noble and always does the right thing, we prefer his far more interesting brother.

Character struggle taps into two very important things: 1) forward motion in the plot, and 2) human nature. Plots need things to happen. We all know that. Some specific goal needs to be present. The character has to WANT something- finding her self-identity, escaping the kidnapper, winning the election, putting his marriage back together. So all the things that happen, the events, need to build toward that goal- even if she doesn’t get what she wants in the end. But it has to be difficult to get there. If characters got what they wanted without hardly trying, stories would be much shorter and much less interesting. If Katniss so impressed the Capitol by volunteering to be a tribute that they granted her and her family an exemption from the games, the book would hardly be worth reading. The difficulties along the way, the struggles thrown at the characters to keep them working hard for what they want, maps out an obstacle course that tests them to the max. Struggle provides something for the characters to do, something to fight against, and an instigator of character change. Struggle moves the plot forward.

Struggle is also a fantastic way of connecting with the audience. It’s one of the things that makes readers care about the character. Interestingly enough, it’s also a significant character development tool, because it does (or should) change the characters.  Struggle, it seems, is intricately connected to human nature. We identify with someone who struggles because we know what fighting for or against something is like– even if it’s just yourself. Perhaps especially if it’s fighting against yourself. We can relate to it. It’s not the winning or losing that we’re after when we follow a character around for 300 pages. If the winning was easy, we’d barely care if the character succeeded. The emotion of the situation is all tied up in the character’s struggle.

So yes, we admire characters more for trying than for succeeding. Writers, use this idea when you write to boost conflict, deepen the struggle, and change the characters. Readers, look for the character’s struggle when you read, because identifying that is a fantastic means of accessing theme and really understanding the characters.

Also, all of you should check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me! The first posts go up today.

Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,

Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,

Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and also an intern to a literary agent,

and Regina Castillo, a dedicated reader, writer, and blogger.

We’d love it if you’d comment on our posts and share anything you enjoyed as we do this blogging challenge to keep us accountable and motivated! As always, thanks for reading!

Blogging Challenge: Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

I’m starting a blogging challenge! I’ll be blogging every day for the next 22 days about Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling. I’ll blog on one rule each day- short posts with my thoughts and reactions to the principle. Basically, the how and why of the idea.

So, here’s why I’m doing this challenge:

Back in 2012, Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats tweeted 22 140-character pieces of writing wisdom under the hashtag #storybasics. If I’m understanding the story correctly, these aren’t official pieces of advice from Pixar itself nor are they necessarily techniques or ideas Ms. Coats developed herself. I’ve seen some of the ideas elsewhere, and some are time-tested story techniques. Here’s her post compiling the advice.

The advice Ms. Coats tweeted circulated widely under the name “Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling.” March 13 of this year, an article from The New Yorker, “The Problem with Processed Storytelling“, discusses the idea of those 22 rules. The article protests that “the story-processing that the Pixar list outlines turns movies into a delivery system for a uniform set of emotional juicings, and the result, whether for C.G.I. or for live-action films, is a sort of cyborg cinema, a prefabricated simulacrum of experience and emotion that feels like the nexus of pornography and propaganda.”

I disagree. Storytelling works according to certain principles, which can be bent or turned inside out as creativity demands, but it still operates according to basic ideas. Why? Because of how humans process and perceive things. Following those principles doesn’t create a cookie-cutter, emotionally-manipulative product. Poor execution of those ideas might, but that’s just poor writing. Good writing uses principles like Pixar’s 22 rules to tap into how people think and react, thereby connecting with the audience. Writing is both an art and a science, and it does function according to certain basic principles.

My purpose here isn’t to discuss the article from The New Yorker, however. The article just provided my motivation for the blogging challenge. So, I’ll be blogging about 1 rule a day, starting tomorrow morning!

Writers, if you want to join the blogging challenge, let me know on Twitter or in the comments here! I have a few friends who are going to do this with me, and I’ll be linking to their blogs in the bottom of each of my posts. Basically, you’d post once a day (or more if you didn’t see this in time and need to catch up a day or two), working down through the list of rules I linked to above. Link to the other bloggers (who will be introduced in my post for day 1) at the bottom of your daily post. That’s it!

Readers, keep an eye out for my post on Rule #1 tomorrow morning! Also, check out the 22 rules from Ms. Coates and read the New Yorker article, if you like. It’s interesting stuff and they do have some worthy points. In case you’re interested to see more of my thoughts on that article, here are my thoughts I posted on Twitter this morning.