10 Box Office Hit Storytelling Rules

What can the moviemaker, Pixar, teach you to make your next story a box office hit?

Pixar Animation Studios has created some of the most magical, memorable, and mesmerizing movies of all time. For example, Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and Up! all have worldwide gross revenues in excess of $725 million each.

What, you ask is Pixar’s secret?

To paraphrase Pixar’s corporate mission, the plan is to develop computer-animated films with heartwarming characters that will appeal to audiences of all ages. With unforgettable characters like Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Lightning McQueen, Wall-E and Nemo, Pixar movies have certainly succeeded.

Pixar story artist, Emma Coats, created a series of story basics and guidelines she’s learned from her colleagues on how to create appealing stories.

Here are her 10 Pixar Box Office Hit Storytelling Rules:

1. Pixar Storytelling Template

All Pixar movies use the following framework:

Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___, until finally ___.

Once upon a time there was a widowed fish named Marlin who was extremely protective of his only son, Nemo. Every day, Marlin warned Nemo of the ocean’s dangers and implored him not to swim far away. One day in an act of defiance, Nemo ignored his father’s warnings and swam into the open water. Because of that, he was captured by a diver and ended up as a pet in the fish tank of a dentist in Sydney. Because of that, Marlin set off on a journey to recover Nemo, enlisting the help of other sea creatures along the way, until finally Marlin and Nemo found each other, reunited, and learned that love depends on trust.

How can you use this template to make your storytelling a box office hit?

2. Put it on Paper. 

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.

Screenwriter Michael Hauge, a bonus guest presenter at the 2014 Lady and the Champs Speakers’ Conference, puts it this way:

•  “Seat of the Pants to the Seat of the Chair.” Sit down every day and write.
•  “Don’t get it right, get it written.”
•   Commit to get your “dirty first draft done.”

3. Give Your Characters Opinions.

Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

For example, in Finding Nemo, the character, Dory, says, “What is it with men and asking for directions?” ¬– a line that gets a huge laugh.

4. Get the Obvious Out of the Way!

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

I recently received an email from author and professional speaker Tom Dodd. “I shared the story of the feedback you provided with everyone. Specifically, you said, ‘Oh, here we go again, another death, dying, or injured speech.’ I loved your straightforward approach and your wisdom.”

For those of you who want to create box office hit stories, the obvious is boring. Surprise us!

5. Feeling Stuck? Make a List of What WOULDN’T Happen Next.

Lots of times, the material to get you unstuck will show up.

6. Pull Apart the Stories You Like.

What you like in them is a part of you; you have to recognize it before you can use it.

One of my favorite movies is The Natural, starring Robert Redford. The story follows Roy Hobbs, a baseball prodigy whose career is sidetracked when he is shot by a woman whose motivation remains mysterious. Most of the story concerns itself with his attempts to return to baseball later in life. For me, it is a story about second chances. It is a story about keeping your integrity in a corrupt world. It is a story about overcoming the odds.

What’s your favorite story? Pull it apart. What are the elements that make it your favorite?

7. Find the Heart of the Story.

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.

8. Come Up with Your Ending Before You Figure Out Your Middle.

Seriously. Endings are hard; get yours working up front.

9. 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.

10. No Work is Ever Wasted.

If it’s not working, let go; it’ll come back around to be useful later.

These are the Ten Pixar Box Office Hit Storytelling Rules. Use them to make your next story a blockbuster.

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