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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?

About the author

Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, an educator and historical consultant. She writes dark young adult fiction, with diverse characters. She's currently querying a novel, and working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813) or on Twitter @robinrwrites. However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

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  1. noelleg44

    These are so accurate, Robin. We just saw Finding Dory, and your comments fit that movie to a T. Value Teamwork is front and center, as will as the incredible story-telling. It is also Value Family, and the secondary character of Hank, the Octopus, almost steals the movie from Dory. Ellen Degeneris is brilliant, of course, as Dory.

    1. Robin Rivera

      I was wondering how Dory would stack up. I haven’t had the chance to see it yet, and it wasn’t even out when I started researching and writing this post. I’ll be looking forward to meeting Hank and adding him to my Pixar character family.

  2. Alex Hurst

    A full cast of characters is definitely important! Back-up antagonists are always tricky to keep in the sidelines, though…. And then there’s the self-sabatoge most of their main characters deal with. Woody, Marlin, the MC of Good Dinosaur (can’t remember his name right now). They all kick themselves back to the start line (or even behind it) with their bull-headed insistence that things have to be done “their” way.

    1. Robin Rivera

      I considered the self-sabotage another aspect of the give characters strong opinions that are later revised factor. But you’re right it shows up a lot in Pixar characters.

      Some of my favorite Pixar characters fall into the back-up antagonist group, and I like how prominent they are in the story. However, I’m a huge fan of secondary characters and I don’t find them distracting.

  3. Sharon Bonin-Pratt

    I love sitting back and watching great animation, especially if with my grandkids. Thank you for doing all the work here. Disney/Pixar gets a lot of bad rap but I like most of their films. There’s enough complexity to attract my attention and enough activity to keep the kids engaged. After, there’s plenty to talk about and the kids often alert me to more than I’d spotted on my own. My grands got the big idea behind Wall-E so well that we all improved our recycling efforts.

    1. Robin Rivera

      Thanks, Sharon. There are layers to Pixar films. Not every joke hits home with the kids, but those jokes are never in bad taste. It really is one of the last great family films maker.

  4. E. E. Rawls

    I feel that Pixar has done, and is continuing to do, a great job with storytelling. Yes, there are a few things that become predictable, but I’ve always found myself enjoying Pixar’s movies regardless.
    I would say that for me, these five aspects of Pixar’s model help the storytelling experience in general. My only complaint would be that I can predict what is going to happen next, most of the time. But even so, they have a way with stories and characters that always manages to pull me in and capture my heart.
    Great post, Robin!

    1. Robin Rivera

      One of Pixar’s other rules is “know your audience” and that’s kids. And kids like a certain level of predictability, at least mine sure do. That’s why they can watch the same basic story over and over again in different formats and not get sick of it. Adults like to mix it up more.

      1. E. E. Rawls

        I hadn’t thought of that. It makes much more sense then; I should have realized. Knowing your target audience is key when it comes to stories. Sometimes I forget that Pixar is making the movies for kids to enjoy too, not just us adults. 🙂

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