Tag Archive: movies

5 Overlooked Pixar Storytelling Tips

Pixar Tips For WritersI bet most writers have heard of Pixar Studios. They are the huge animation powerhouse that is now owned by Disney. They’re best known for a string of huge blockbusters films, all earmarked for family viewing. Even if you don’t make a point of watching Pixar films (and by the way you should), you may have stumbled across a helpful and widely shared infographic about the 22 storytelling basics attributed to Emma Coats, a former member of the Pixar creative team.

After watching hours of Pixar movies with my kids, I’ve realized there are some less well-known Pixar tricks. Some of the things I noticed relate to the Pixar 22, while others aren’t mentioned at all. However, I can say with certainty they show up time and time again in Pixar’s films.

Heather and I both love watching movies and they’ve taught us a lot about story craft. Heather wrote about her experiences in a post called Watching for Writers. I’m following her lead today with 5 overlooked storytelling tips I learned from watching Pixar films.

1. Have a Theme:

Pixar admits to loving a good theme; it’s number #3 on their storytelling list. What they didn’t mention is the themes they like best are always about the value of self-sacrifice. It shows up when Flick ventures into the unknown to save his ant hill in A Bug’s Life. We see it with Eve, who is willing to put everything aside as she strives to finish her mission directive in Wall-E. And it’s in Brave when Merida finally accepts her role in preserving the safely of her clan, even if that means marrying someone she barely knows. Whatever the storyline, putting personal needs aside for the sake of someone else is a critical stage in almost every Pixar film. In some, such as Brave and Cars, this realization shows up in the climax as part of the character’s change. While in other stories, like in Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, the safety of others is always something the characters are willing to fight for.

2. Give Characters Opinions:

Number #13 on the Pixar list is: give your characters opinions. However, what isn’t mentioned is reversing those opinions is also critical to the formula. At least one character will always revise their core opinions of another character during the course of the film. It shows up in Finding Nemo as Marlin learns to let go and trust others (including the wacky Dory). And it’s in Cars as Doc realizes that beneath McQueen’s bragging is a kind heart. Revising popular opinions is one of the core plot points of Monsters, Inc. The whole society is based on one belief: that frightening children will produce scream power and save their world from a power shortage. Yet they must revise that core viewpoint in order to survive. Characters with strong opinions are fine, but knowing when and how to revise those viewpoints is makes characters great.

Eve3. Value Teamwork:

Pixar says in their number #19 storytelling tip that coincidences are perfectly acceptable for getting characters into trouble, but they are not acceptable for getting characters out of trouble. In almost every film, it is teamwork that gets Pixar’s characters out of trouble. The value of teamwork is a concept that shows up with both good and bad repercussions in The Incredibles. It’s even Mr. Incredible’s moto, “I work alone!” that ultimately drives his number one fan Buddy to a lifelong quest to kill all superheroes. Lightening McQueen shows the same disregard for his pit crew in Cars. Later both characters realize their mistake and make amends. Mr. Incredible accepts the support of his whole family, and McQueen builds a new pit crew and decides to stick with his original sponsorship team. Playing into this aspect of teamwork, Pixar always reminds us of the value of family. When Remy marshals the other rats into helping him cook (Ratatouille), or when the ant colony stand up to Hopper and his gang (A Bug’s Life), it is solidarity that gives the hero their strength. The reoccurring role of community and family factors into almost every Pixar climax.

Backup Antagonists-14. Include Extra Antagonistic Forces:

Pixar favors clear-cut villains. There is often nothing redeemable about their bad guys, and several of them (most notably Hopper in A Bug’s Life and Mor’du in Brave) meet with a rather gruesome end. Pixar villains are young and old, male and female, and even robotic with the 2001: A Space Odyssey homage to Hal of the villain Auto in Wall-E. Pixar also favors what I like to call the back-up antagonist. This is a character who is not the main antagonist and is often not inherently an evil character, but adds significant tension to the protagonist’s life anyway. It’s often the back-up antagonist that sparks the protagonist to make a critical change in Pixar films. Later these back-up antagonists will often evolve into a supportive role. We see this with Anton Ego the bitter food critic who later champions Remy’s right to cook in Ratatouille, and with Mirage changing sides and handing over useful information at the end of The Incredibles. There is also Doc who switches from McQueen’s jailer to his mentor in the second half of Cars.

Toystory 25. Secondary Characters:

Pixar likes strong male friendships and almost all of their films have a sidekick character, included in their huge casts of secondary characters. These characters are frequently quirky and easily distinguishable from the other characters because Pixar gives each character (from service robots,  to slinky dogs, to caterpillars) a collection of critical attributes to make them interesting. Unfortunately, that means some of these secondary characters are stereotypes or even caricatures, and in terms of female or minority characters there are sadly too few. Still each minor character creates an impression on the viewer and we remember them. From the adventurous and trusting Dot in A Bug’s Life, to the neurotic dinosaur in Toy Story, to the no-nonsense clothing designer Edna of The Incredibles. These are fleshed out supporting characters and we know who they are and what they want.

What do you think? Is Pixar doing a great job as a storyteller? Do these fives aspects of the Pixar model help or hinder the storytelling experience for you?

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10 Things I (Don’t) Hate About You

10_Things_I_Hate_About_You_filmKat, the protagonist (portrayed by Julia Stiles) in the film 10 Things I Hate About You, is not a likable character.

Nor does she strive to be likable. It’s more the reverse with her; she’s intentionally rude, domineering, and opinionated.

Since the film is based on The Taming of the Shrew, making her a bit of a tyrant is the main point of the story. And Kat comes through like a champ; she attacks life with her unbridled opposition. She never lets conventions, other people’s opinions or even rules stand in the way of what she wants. She speaks her mind, argues with her friends, questions her teachers and disagrees with her family.

As a consequence of her no-holds-barred personality, she’s feared, avoided, disliked, and antagonized by everyone who knows her. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Kat must classify herself to her guidance counselor.

 

MISS PERKY
The point is Kat — people perceive you
as somewhat …

Kat smiles at her, daring her to say it.

KAT
Tempestuous?

MISS PERKY
No … I believe “heinous bitch” is the
term used most often.

 

Many of the writers I know are working their fingers to the bone trying to create characters that are the opposite of a Kat. They want to craft the quintessential book friend, someone so universally likable that every agent, editor and reader will want that character to walk off the page and join them for a cup of coffee.

When I’m confronted with a protagonist like Kat, I’m conflicted. Shouldn’t I want to root for her? She is the heroine of the story and I do enjoy a character with a few rough edges. But shouldn’t I also dislike her (at least a little bit) for being so confrontational?

Why do millions of us enjoy watching cynical, intimidating Kat in action? What makes this character work, when so many more likable characters don’t?

 

  1. Comic Relief: Kat delivers her insults in droll, clever and sarcastic bursts. The humorous, intellectual nature of her one-liners defuses some of the power of her cutting barbs and we’re always laughing with her, not at her.
  2. She Has a Supportive Backstory: Kat has deep, emotionally-charged reasons for most of her behaviors, reasons she chooses not to disclose until she’s ready. Characters in pain should show it, it’s scary if they don’t. Everything Kat does makes sense in the context of her character’s history.
  3. Her Goals Are Evident: Every character needs to want something and Kat wants to attend a prestigious university. However, her controlling father wants to thwart her plans. She’s willing to wage an all-out war with her father to achieve her objective.
  4. Our Own Expectations: We know how this story turns out, and that happy-ever-after ending makes us feel good. We Happy Ending Shotmentally gloss over any negative emotions and rejoice that true love eventually conquers all. Expectation is a powerful tool, it’s also easier to accept annoying behavior if it’s predictable and fits the storyline perfectly.
  5. We Can Relate: We can all remember feeling like Kat, a smug, scared, pissed off teen. It often takes some kernel of empathy to help us connect with a prickly character. And it helps if we can understand the character’s choices and believe we would act the same way in a similar situation.
  6. Superior Intellect: Let face it, we value the truly brainy and we’ll often look away when they act like toddlers. This simple fact is the foundation of many unlikable characters. If you must create a character that embodies a number of negative traits, make sure they can calculate data with the speed of a super computer and it’s all good. Kat is brilliant, hard working, politically aware and a great student.
  7. It’s All About Balance: This film is a game of dysfunctional character bingo; we lose Kat’s actions in a sea of imperfect characters. This story is interwoven with too many conflicting motives, lies, and schemes and no one is playing fair or being honest.
  8. The Train Wreck Effect: Sometimes you just can’t look away from an impending disaster, seeing characters get the crushing defeat they so richly deserve can be the main reason we stick around till the end. In this case Kat’s ego gets tattered, but she survives. However her antagonist, Joey, will go down hard.
  9. We Learn to Flip Our Perceptions: Kat is a character with a large number of negative traits, but those same traits become positive in a fresh context. It’s stubbornness when Kat battles someone, and determination and resilience when she joins their cause.
  10. They Included A Softener: Kat isn’t bad, she’s smart and sassy. She truly loves her family and when it comes down to protecting her own secrets or helping her sister, she chooses her family. She also learns forgiveness and to focus on others for their good qualities, instead of dwelling on their negative ones.

Granted, what makes a character likable for me, might make them unlikable to another person and creating potentially unlikable characters isn’t the safe choice. But it’s taken me a while to realize I’m not very interested in safe. I want twisted, confused, conflicted characters and I think Kat’s a great example of how to do it effectively. I don’t want to have coffee with Kat or become her BFF, but she’s a challenging character. I could have hated Kat, but I didn’t, and that’s because for the most part, she was written just right.

 

For more WriteOnSisters posts by Robin click here. Or more posts about character development click here.

Take the Quiz: Which character are you from 10 Things I Hate About You?

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