Story Rules a la Pixar

I have not read the history of Pixar Studios, but I did read this version of Pixar Story rules, a compilation of tweets by Pixar Story artist Emma Coats.

I love #4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

Three Minute Fiction

I decided to try my hand at a super short story using the tips I gleaned from Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering.  The first sentence was the story prompt, from NPR, and the story needed to be 600 words or less.

She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.

Cara sometimes made decisions by thinking of a specific question, and then turning to a random fragment of text in a book. Some people called this “bible dipping,” and used the New Testament, but Cara preferred Virginia Woolf’s “A Writer’s Diary.”

Arrange whatever pieces come your way.”

Cara stood waiting for the light to change, fingering the harpoon charm she wore around her neck, tiny but sharp. The sun was bright and she did not have her sunglasses, they’d snapped in two when she’d leaned against her purse that morning in Bailey’s office, listening to her plan.

“It’s easy as pie,” Bailey said when she was done explaining how she would pay Cara to take the blame for the accounting improprieties that had taken place in the firm under Bailey’s watch.

Cara stared down at the papers, a simple confession of wrongdoing on her part. Bailey was touching up her scarlet lipstick without looking in a mirror.

“Will I go to jail?”

Now Bailey was searching for something inside her desk drawer. “Unlikely, but if so, one year max.” Bailey fished a pack of peppermint gum from the recesses of her drawer and popped a piece into her mouth.

“You want?” she offered the pack to Cara.

“No, thanks.” Cara found gum repulsive, the idea of a rubbery mass languishing in your mouth to chew like a ruminant turned her stomach.

“Look, I know it’s a lot. But I’m offering a lot in return. Take the morning to think it over. Go out, take a walk. I’m having lunch at one thirty across the street. Come tell me your answer then.”

“Okay.” Sensing that the meeting was over, Cara stood, somewhat hesitantly waiting to be dismissed. Bailey did not oblige her, instead turning her attention to her computer screen.

Cara didn’t notice the dog walker with the dozen tiny charges crossing onto her side of the street, and she found herself knocked down and tangled up in twelve little leashes.

“Oh no, my bad!” He said, laughing as he tried to unwind the mess and help Cara get up. “That’s what I get for tweeting while walking.”

“No, it was my fault,” Cara said. “ My head is in the clouds.” She looked down at the assortment of Miniature Pinschers, Chihuahuas, Dachshunds, and other little breeds she couldn’t name. And then Cara thought of Pilar, her own little Havanese. What would become of her if Cara had to go to jail? Would she have to give her away? Cara had no family nearby to take care of Pilar.

“Do you have a card?” She asked the dog walker.

“You’re not going to press charges, are you?” He was still smiling, joking with Cara. She noticed he had a small scar at the bottom of his chin, like her long ago boyfriend had gotten when he took her dare and jumped off the top of a slide in the neighborhood playground at midnight when they were both home on break.

“No! I just might need a dog walker.” He had no card, but emailed her his information on the spot.  “He didn’t look like a Vince,” She thought when she checked her email, waiting for Bailey at the restaurant.

Vince would send Cara pictures of Pilar during her twelve years in jail. Bailey had either underestimated or misrepresented the risks. Vince had Pilar’s urn waiting for Cara upon her release, and Bailey, having since moved to Colombia, was not forthcoming with Cara’s ten million.

Writing Voice

This has been my fallback as a writer: I’ve got a good ear and I rely on it, maybe too much. That’s why I was drawn to Larry Brooks’ book Story Engineering: I want to figure out what to do with that voice, so I am not just writing words and sentences.

In this section Brooks points out that writing can be seen as an analogy for life: the more proactive you are, the more it gives back to you.

Story Structure

The meat of the book Story Engineering by Larry Brooks is the section on story structure.  Weighing in at 94 pages, it covers the four parts of a story (setup, response, attack, resolution) in depth.

The Setup
The setup is where you introduce your hero and establish stakes. It ends with the first plot point, which should launch your story.

The Response
The hero reacts to the first plot point here, but it should be more of a plan to act than really moving into grand heroics.

The Attack
The hero tries to fix things, acting decisively. This part ends with the second plot point, which turns the heat up on the hero.

The Resolution
The hero needs to drive the resolution.

The Six Most Important Words in Storytelling
1. Compelling
2. Hero
3. Conflict
4. Context
5. Architecture
6. Resolution

For homework, check out The Single Most Powerful Writing Tool You’ll Ever See That Fits on One Page.


In Story Engineering, Larry Brooks lists some possible themes:

  • love and hate
  • the folly of youth
  • heaven and hell
  • the minefield of marriage
  • wealth and poverty

What do you answer when asked what your story is about? Do you give a plot-based answer? Is your answer like something on the list above? Or is it a blend of both?