Anyone who has frequented this blog for any length of time probably knows I am a Pixar freak.
It’s why I was so excited to be able to interview Mary Coleman, head of Pixar’s story department… and even more excited to meet Mary in-person at this year’s Austin Film Festival.
It’s why I created an entire 1-week online class called Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling which I will be teaching again starting January 20, 2014.
So about 18 months ago when Emma Coats — “freelance director of films, boarder of story” — posted 22 #storybasics I’ve picked up in my time at Pixar, I ran this series analyzing each pointer:
But this particular story doesn’t end here witness an email I received last week from Stephan Vladimir Bugaj:
I’m a filmmaker who has been at Pixar for 12 years, including codeveloping stories with one of our directors for the last 3 years, and then cowriting a feature screenplay for one of those stories full-time for the last year. I’m also an avid GITS reader.
I love sharing what I’ve learned at Pixar with other filmmakers, and to that end I have a free eBook available which goes in-depth into the now famous “Pixar’s 22 Rules of Story”.
I think it would be of interest to other GITS readers.
It’s totally free for anyone who wants to read it, no strings attached.
Please feel free to share the link, or embed the PDF download directly, in a GITS article online.
To which I responded, “Hell, yeah!” Here an excerpt from Stephan’s ebook:
What are the stakes? Give us reason to root
for the character. What happens if they
don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
This particular rule is so essential it probably should be
rule #1, because it is the most character-centric statement
of the idea: “what is the story about?”
What the character will lose if she is unable to overcome
all obstacles, internal and external, is the main tension
line of the entire story. It’s this impending possibility
of loss that will make an audience sympathetic to a
character, even one who is a bit of a bastard. The stakes
are the core of the story, the palpable outcome of failing
to resolve the central question.
Stacking the odds against the protagonist makes the
audience not only feel more empathy towards her, but it
also makes a victory feel earned (or, in the case of a
tragedy, a failure feel justified).
A common question producers and other professionals ask
about stories is “why this particular character in this
particular situation at this particular time?” What they’re
really asking is “what are the stakes?”
The protagonist’s flaw, her wrong choices, the actions of
any external opponents, and all the external circumstances
should be obstacles that block or divert the protagonist
from resolving the central question in their favor.
Internal obstacles — character flaws and the bad decisions
they lead to — are also crucial.
Yet the protagonist, however flawed, still needs to be
deeply invested in her own success so that the audience
cares not only about that victory itself, but also about
her being able to change in the ways necessary to win.
So the more the protagonist has to lose, the more the
audience will get invested in her fate. And the greater the
obstacles to success, the more likely she is to lose.
Each step the character takes away from success, and
towards the doom scenario, raises the stakes and makes the
audience more excited about getting to the resolution. So
does broadening the risk, a common, melodramatic example of
which is the protagonist discovering that not only will she
die if she fails, but “life as we know it will cease”.
Active, intelligent opponents are usually the most
compelling obstacles, and they work best when they have
opposing stakes. Opponents need to be equally as invested
in their own success as the protagonist is, and therefore
determined to bring about the protagonist’s failure in
order to achieve their own goals.
Most importantly, the opponents need to have the advantage.
If the advantage is too great, the protagonist needs to
acquire allies in order to make a successful outcome (if
there is one) believable, but it’s far worse for the
dramatic tension if the opponents are too weak to pose a
credible threat to the protagonist.
This is a particular problem with “hack n’ slash” action
films where sheer numbers of dumb, aimless, weak opponents
tries (usually quite unsuccessfully) to make-up for an
intelligent, driven, strong central opponent.
Quantity alone doesn’t make the odds greater, opposing
strength does. If a single soldier in a Sherman Tank goes
up against a thousand Roman legionnaires, the audience
won’t be terribly concerned about that tanker’s fate
despite the number of opponents.
But if a single Roman legionnaire goes up against a squad
of Sherman Tanks, the odds are very much stacked against
the Roman and an audience will be intrigued to find out if
he’ll somehow prevail (or, given most audience members’
exposure to story trends in our culture, how he’ll
It’s also important that how the character overcomes these
seemingly insurmountable odds be motivated by that
character’s personality, take advantage of her strengths,
and be plausible — not necessarily realistic, but
believable and consistent with the story world you’ve
Making the character’s victory (or defeat) too sudden,
spurious, or simple will undermine all the tension you’ve
worked to create up to that point, wiping it all away in
one bad choice. The victory moment must be a struggle, and
a narrow victory is generally more sympathetic than an
overwhelming one (of course there are exceptions).
Keeping that tension going until the very moment of the
protagonist’s victory will enable the audience to stay on
board with the character until her plight is ultimately
resolved. The moment things start going overwhelmingly in
favor of the protagonist there’s only a moment left before
the audience will just sigh and say “okay, I get it, she’s
going to prevail”.
And if the protagonist will be defeated in the end, the
audience will feel the tragedy more acutely if there was a
moment of true hope she might prevail rather than just
mowing her down with overwhelming opposing forces.
Ultimately the stakes are the heart of both story and
character, and without clearly stating what they are the
audience will become lost and disaffected.
Even worse, if you don’t know what the stakes are you will
end up creating a story that is muddled and just kills time
until its conclusion.
This is why a lot of writing advice says to start at the
end: all the conflict in the story flows backwards from the
resolution of the stakes question. Knowing the conclusion
of the story and how the protagonist and opponent are each
changed in the end will enable you to make sure that every
moment in the story is a building block towards resolving
the stakes, not “just business”.
I can’t begin to express how completely resonant these observations are with just about everything I teach, even down to the single most important question I believe you can ask about your story:
Why does this story have to happen to this character at this time?
Stakes must be tied to the psychological dimension of the story and almost always specifically to the Protagonist’s journey.
Which is to say…
Download the shit out of Stephan’s ebook here!