Story Rules

Pixar Storyboard Artist Emma Coats has 22 Rules of Storytelling (as told by David Price, via Joshua Cohen). Here is my spin on nine of those rules:

1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
16. Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

That is, we like stories where someone is thrown into a difficult situation. We don’t care much about what caused that situation. We care more about admiring the way they handle the situation than if their approach works.

3. You won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
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.

That is, we care lots about how the way a story ends affirms our core beliefs on who should be admired for doing what in a crisis.

13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

That is, our stories need lots of believable detail, so our subconscious minds of viewers can more easily see the story events as evidence supporting those core beliefs about what to admire.

All of which supports the idea that one of the main functions of stories in our lives is to help us create and signal our moral beliefs about how people should act – especially in crisis. After all, we have far more moral beliefs about how people should act in a crisis than how they should act in ordinary times.

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  • Kith Pendragon

    I once read the forward of a book (which I could remember which) where the author described the story as having a beginning, a muddle, and an ending.  The author then proceeded to suggest that when you are writing, you should get the beginning and ending out of the way and then muddle your way between them.

  • guest

    That is a pretty awful job of summarizing what she said.  She didn’t say we admire characters for how they try, just that we admire them for trying.  “Lack of passivity” isn’t an ethical trait.  Signalling that we don’t like people who are passive in the face of challenges is not the same thing as signalling our moral beliefs about how people should act, unless your moral beliefs only amount to “do stuff.”  Just so, “a belief burning in you that that your story feeds off of” need not be ethical (“I strongly believe the world needs more stories that speak to women’s experiences” isn’t really an ethical statement about how to live life in time of crisis, for example), and even if it is an ethical belief it doesn’t have to translate into your character demonstrating those ethical traits (even if you think it is moral norms that drive someone to strongly believe that the world needs more stories that speak to women’s experiences, no one would act on that belief by writing a story about a woman in crisis writing stories about women’s experiences).  

    There is also a pretty obvious explanation for why characters doing nothing in the face of crisis is bad story telling, namely that nothing happening is boring.  Just so, “be motivated by a strong belief” might be important less because of what it makes your characters signal and more because it keeps you interested.  If the point of stories is to fight boredom, both would be important.  I don’t think every point on that list can be exists solely so a story will be interesting, surprising, and not boring, some of them are clearly about making a story that resonates more deeply.  But a whole lot of stuff on that list can be explained by the need to not bore.
    As a last thought, perhaps it is possible that the person whose job it is to tell stories has actually worked hard at coming up with a concise list of helpful hints for people who tell stories, and the guy whose job it is to read everything in terms of social signalling can not do a better, more concise job of restating that same list.  

  • Carinthium

    One hole in your theory is that it doesn’t account for ‘dark’ plotlines- storylines which take a cynical view of human nature are much rarer than ones with an idealistic view, but they do exist.

    Another argument is that rules that apply to children’s stories tend to be far more idealistic (and thus arguably about signalling) than ones for adults.

    • http://profiles.google.com/williambswift William Swift

       The adult stories are just signalling different things.

    • Michael Wengler

      I’m puzzled.  I am fascinated by “dark” story lines.  A tremendous amount of my fascination is seeing how the victims of the dark actions work to deal with this, remediation, vengeance, turnabout etc.  I am also fascinated by how the “dark” person crafts their darkness, and in many stories that address it, stories about how the dark person got to be dark.  These seem totally in line with the story guildelines above.  

  • Eric Falkenstein

    I think having a good ending isn’t about having biases so much as this is truly essential for a good story.  It’s trivial to start a good story, very hard to have one end in a satisfying way.   I wish more fiction writers applied this rule.

    • Robin Hanson

      The question is: what exactly to we want from a story ending that makes a good one so hard to produce?

      • Eric Falkenstein

        A good story is like a good math proof: succinct, inevitable, and unexpected.  

      • http://www.facebook.com/yudkowsky Eliezer Yudkowsky

        If you know in advance what the climax is, you can build up tension to the climax, and make sure that the climax discharges it.  Otherwise, you have plot threads that don’t go anywhere, and then the climax arrives out of left field.

        All of this sounds like very standard writing advice to me, and most of it has to do with the mechanics of tension and conflict in very straightforward and obvious ways; the alternate interpretations seem more far-fetched.  The advice to focus on the character “trying” is because this is where the conflict occurs and where most of the pages are written.  Other writing advice says “Every scene must end in disaster” and this is not because people don’t care about whether characters succeed, it’s because readers *do* care and so by having every scene end in disaster you can thereby maintain a state of uncertainty and tension in the reader, which is mandatory.  And so on.

      • Robin Hanson

        Just needing tension and conflict doesn’t explain wanting characters who are admired, needing a “reason to root for the character”, seeking a “belief burning within you that your story feeds off of” nor why characters need strong opinions.

  • John

     “After all, we have far more moral beliefs about how people should act in a crisis than how they should act in ordinary times.”

    I dispute that. If you actually look at the development of religiously induced morality – be it pagan, Christian or Muslim, you would see that only the stories illustrating it involve extraordinary situations but the decisions taken are applcable in everyday life. There are rarely extremely unusual dilemmas that are inconceivable or pretty improbable as far as ordinary life is concerned.

    What I think skews your thinking on the issues is that you confuse the fact that people like to illustrate their moral beliefs with shiny, extraordinary stories with the fact that people have stronger moral beliefs about extraordinary situations rather than everyday ones. The first fact is definitely true. The second is obviously false.

    Another factor that biases your opinion here is that thought experiments in ethics are generally overcomplicated and often extremely unrealistic. However, this is due to the fact that extraordinary situations are very useful in order to clarify minor points and resolve “thick” problems, not because people’s beliefs are focused on them.

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  • Michael Wengler

    I don’t see how Robin concludes stories are about morals from what he has written. I realize he says ONE of the main functions is moral, but I don’t see how anything he says above his concluding paragraph supports moral vs a more general conclusion.

    I would have concluded: All of which supports the idea that one of the main functions of stories in our lives is to help us create effective plans of action – especially in crisis. After all, we have far more theoretical need for plans of actions in crisis than effective strategies in ordinary times, which we can develop from actual experience.  

    I think of “moral” as much more limited than effective.  Is there a moral component to having foreknowledge that people will lie to you to get what they want?  That people will fake emotions to fool you?  That you can get what you want by lying and faking emotions?  These are all things I notice in stories, ESPECIALLY children’s stories on the Disney Channel where it seemed like the majority of Hannah Montana and Suite Life of Zack and Cody stories involved kids lying to their parents in order to hide something they’d done or to do what the wanted without parents stopping them.

    • V V

       All of which supports the idea that one of the main functions of stories
      in our lives is to help us create effective plans of action –
      especially in crisis.

      I agree that some stories have that function, but many others are probably just superstimuli for people’s reward systems.

      Consider “Twilight”, for instance. Does it have any moral teaching? Does it help you to create effective plans of actions? Or is it just “porn” for women?

      • Michael Wengler

        How did you conclude that neither men nor women learn anything from porn? The fact that we enjoy porn for reasons other than learning is no more evidence that it is not educational than is the fact that we enjoy sex for reasons other than reproduction evidence that sex is not reproductive.  

        I have tried all sorts of things I learned about in porn.  I would suspect that the penetration (pun possibly intended) of something even as simple as oral sex into current culture is something our culture has learned largely through porn.  

        I have highly evolved my own opinion about what I find attractive through porn.  Would I have learned more by having real sexual experiences with 100s of women, a tiny fraction of the women I have had imaginary experiences with?  Sure.  But guess what, for a small number of men that does happen in real life, for most of us it does not.  

        Is playing house just porn for 4 year old girls?  Do they learn nothing from it?  

        Is science fiction just porn for nerdboys?  Do we learn nothing from it?  

        The fact that some form of story triggers the crap out of our pleasure center means that story doesn’t help us learn is not proven.  Indeed, if Darwin has anything to say about it, you would expect that the stories which are most useful to us are the ones that are the most attractive.  

      • V V

         

        I have tried all sorts of things I learned about in porn.

        Porn is generally considered rather unrealistic, but if you still managed to learn from it, well, good for you.

        Anyway, what can you learn from Twilight?

        Is playing house just porn for 4 year old girls?  Do they learn nothing from it? 

        They do learn from it.

        Is science fiction just porn for nerdboys?  Do we learn nothing from it? 

        Works like Star Trek are most certainly just nerd porn. Works like Atlas Shrugged, in addition to being nerd porn, teach you wrong things. A few sci-fi stories might have valuable content (I can think of Lem’s Solaris discussion of epistemology and scientific research dynamics).

        Indeed, if Darwin has anything to say about it, you would expect that
        the stories which are most useful to us are the ones that are the most
        attractive. 

        Actually no. Thinking that any feature of an organism must be directly adaptive is a popular misconception about biological evolution.

      • daedalus2u

         How can you tell if what you are “learning” from porn is true or false? 

        The real danger in unrealistic stories, is that we “learn” things that are false and then have a false and distorted idea of what reality is like. 

        The problem is that what we learn is automatic.  Learning doesn’t occur at the level of consciousness, it occurs at a deeper level that we have no control over.  If you are exposed to unrealistic situations, our brains start to interpret those unrealistic situations as “normal”and start to react to real situations as if the unrealistic situations were normal. 

      • Michael Wengler

        @VV:disqus  Star trek is “most certainly just nerd porn”???  I hope people don’t calibrate your reliability based on that statement!  
        The original Star Trek had a black gorgeous woman on the bridge of a star ship.  This greatly impacted how I saw women, how I saw beauty, and how I saw blacks.  In 1970s Long Island, for middle class whites such as myself, blacks were not as smart as us, not leaders.  Women were not generally professional of any sort. Beautiful women were sex kittens, And what of contemplating a society without money?And what of contemplating other intelligent races who might differ from us, but whos differences might be provide some advantages as well as advantages?  And what of a vision of a politically united humanity without optional poverty and disease?

        Sure, Star Trek helped me get my nerd freak on.  So did Physics class.  

      • Michael Wengler

        @ec7554020635931bec47ed0aac177b01:disqus I think virtually all stories have piles of unreality in them.  In some sense, the most dangerous, in the sense you cite, unreality of a “non-fiction” story is that the things it gets wrong come in with a lot of strength having been wrapped in such a respectable package.  
        Of course I can’t be 100% sure than any particular item I have “learned” from porn is “true.”  I put learned and true in quotes because a lot of what I “learn” from porn is what I like or might like.  I know much more about what it would be like to have sex with a transgendered or a DD or a group or a variety of races and nationalities, or various positions and orifices than I would without porn.  The information is far from 100% reliable but it is way beyond the 100% lack of “information” I had before.  
        So no, it is not 100% reliable, but NO story gives you 100% reliable information.  Even stories purporting to give you 100% reliability, and THOSE are the ones I am more concerned about misleading people.  Do you know I didn’t even realize the New York Times was biased before I traveled to Israel myself at the age of 21?  Even with its biases, I knew a whole lot more having read the NYT than I would have without reading it.
        ALL human information is imperfect, tentative.  Porn is not even the extreme end of that, IMHO, lacking unicorns and time-travel as it generally does.

      • V V

         @google-fa2409635636c550711adbcf33bd5864:disqus

        The original Star Trek had a black gorgeous woman on the bridge of a
        star ship.  This greatly impacted how I saw women, how I saw beauty, and
        how I saw blacks.

        Are you saying that you would have been a misogynist and a racist if it wasn’t for Star Trek? Amazing…

        In 1970s Long Island, for middle class whites such as myself, blacks were not as smart as us, not leaders. Women were not generally professional of any sort. Beautiful women were sex kittens

        Uhura was essentially a glorified telephone operator and the show resident Miss Fanservice. In the first episodes the writers actually went to lengths to avoid leaving her as the highest ranking officer on the bridge because they didn’t want to have a black woman taking the helm.

        I’d say she is a model of black woman emancipation as much as Spock is a model of rationality.

        And what of contemplating a society without money?

        Yeah, from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Where did I hear that?

        And what of contemplating other intelligent races who might differ from
        us, but whos differences might be provide some advantages as well as
        advantages?

        Which are, of course, stereotypical metaphors of real-life nations.
        In Star Trek, race, culture, nationality and government are pretty much the same thing.

      • daedalus2u

        VV, playing “house” at 4 years old
        is not “porn”. Porn involves passively watching someone else
        engage in activities instead of doing them yourself. Engaging in
        those activities yourself is the opposite of porn.

        Watching sports is more like porn than
        playing house is.

      • V V

        @ec7554020635931bec47ed0aac177b01:disqus

        VV, playing “house” at 4 years old
        is not “porn”.

        That wasn’t my claim.

  • Faze

    Curious that this post should have been triggered by the storytelling principles of a Pixar storyboard artist. I would choose the Pixar film “UP” as a textbook example of poor storytelling. It’s like they began with some cool tableaux like the house being lifted by balloons, and a natural history museum in an old zeppelin, and then tried to think of incidents that could have brought these tableaux to pass — linking them tortuously and not very successfully. The high-pressure poignancy of the famous marriage montage – as successful as it is as a stand-alone – still fails to provide a credible motive for the old man to undergo all the trials of travel to South America. I mean, he had a long happy life with a wonderful woman, yet he’s still so dissatisfied that he need to go to outrageous extremes to fulfill some childhood dream that even his wife didn’t seem to hold particularly strongly? Compare UP to three tightly plotted “Toy Story” films where the powerful, character driven plots were deepened interesting problems of identity and authenticity. How did UP and the Toy Story movies come out of the same studio?

  • http://eradica.wordpress.com/ Firepower

    For the diminished 21st century, Emma seems to have ‘simplified’  Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth into matinee blueprints.

  • http://eradica.wordpress.com/ Firepower

    I am puzzled why the bulk of you apply your “deep” concepts of  “story rules” –  to Today’s Common Audience.

    You act like this is The Enlightenment and they should suddenly start liking Aeschylus and Shakespeare.

    Chick, dude, aliens, fight – explosion.
    The End.

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  • Handworn

    “That is, we like stories where someone is thrown into a difficult situation. We don’t care much about what caused that situation. We care more about admiring the way they handle the situation than if their approach works.”

    This reminds me of something William Goldman said: “Art needs to be both surprising, and inevitable.”

  • Lord

    Make the hero take the most intelligent action at any point.  His knowledge may be incorrect, but he should always be acting as if it were.  

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