Skip to content

Brand storytelling: Pixar’s 22 rules for a good story

A look at the most important rules of storytelling, as set out by the masters of practice: Pixar Animation Studios.

Pixar is the organization that has been able to tell us excellent stories through films for several decades.

Toy Story, Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Inside Out, Monsters Inc, Cars.

Film after film, their ability to make us experience a range of emotions in 2 short hours is extraordinary.

The rules are from an article on No Film School that introduced the 22 rules of storytelling at Pixar Animation Studios, initially published on Twitter by Emma Coats in 2011. As you will see by reading this article, this is definitely the kind of content that never ages, evergreen content.

These 22 rules have since become an excellent reference on the approaches we should all have in our storytelling development process. Whether intended for children or your brand’s audience, these rules are at the heart of what makes the power of storytelling a key tool in our arsenal as content creators.

It is what helps our brands and our stories make emotional connections with our audiences.

The ultimate list of all 22 rules of storytelling from Pixar

Having a storytelling formula on hand would be one of the best tools any storyteller could have. And this is where Pixar shines once again with their list of 22 rules of what makes a great story that can be applied to all types of storytelling:

Rule #1: You admire a character more for trying than for their successes
Rule #2: You’ve got to keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience. Not what’s fun to do as a writer. The two can be very different.
Rule #3: Trying for theme is important. However you won’t see what the story is about until you’re at the end of the story. Got it? Now rewrite.
Rule #4: Once upon a time there was______. Every day _______. One day________. Because of that,______. Until finally______.
Rule #5: Simplify. Focus. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
Rule #6: What’s your character good at/most comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
Rule #7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously, endings are hard. Get yours working up front.
Rule #8: Finish your story. Let go if it isn’t perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
Rule #9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what would and wouldn’t happen next. Material to get you Unstuck will show up.
Rule #10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
Rule #11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
Rule #12: Discount the first idea that comes to mind. And the 2nd, and the 3rd and 4th and 5th. Get the obvious ones out of the way. Surprise yourself.
Rule #13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likeable as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
Rule #14: Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that this story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
Rule #15: If you were your character in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
Rule #16: What are the stakes? Give us a reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against them.
Rule #17: No work is ever wasted. If it doesn’t work, let go and move on. It’ll come back around and be useful later.
Rule #18: You have to know yourself: the difference between being yourself and fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
Rule #19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great, coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
Rule #20: Exercise: Take the building blocks out of a movie you dislike. How’d you arrange them into what you do like?
Rule #21: You gotta identify with your characters/situations. You can’t just write “cool.” What would make you act that way?
Rule #22: What’s the essence of your story? The most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

The 5 major pillars of an excellent story

If 22 rules are too much, Vanessa Reyes has a solution.

In the No Film School article, Vanessa Reyes takes 5 of Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling and expands on them.

These are 5 rules that also happen to be very well explained in a video of just under ten minutes from Business Insider (embedded below) that analyzes them in order to understand what makes them the major pillars of an excellent story.

These 5 pillars of an excellent story are:

  • Rule #4: Once upon a time there was______. Every day _______. One day________. Because of that,______. Until finally______.
  • Rule #13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likeable as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  • Rule #19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great, coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  • Rule #6: What’s your character good at/most comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  • Rule #3: Trying for theme is important. However you won’t see what the story is about until you’re at the end of the story. Got it? Now rewrite.

Now how would that translate to content marketing and branded content? Let’s deep dive into this in the next section.

Storytelling and content marketing

In content marketing, we don’t have toys that come to life the way Toy Story had, or monsters living in closets, but we have characters, stories, themes to address and we need an original idea for our content. All these elements make it possible to apply many of these storytelling rules to our marketing strategy and build a compelling story that will delight your audiences through brand storytelling.

Storytelling is an art form that has been around since the beginning of time and is still used today by people all over the world. The most basic definition of a story can be stated as “a sequence of events that are connected by some kind of narrative.” It’s important to note that not all stories are fiction; non-fiction, such as news articles and blog posts, also fall under the storytelling umbrella in that they tell a narrative and bring readers, viewers or listeners through a series of milestones in order to inform, educate or entertain.

Content marketers can benefit from these rules. These rules serve as reminders as to what makes content stick, what not only catches the attention of your audience, but also makes sure they pay attention throughout.

This is where value really resides. When you are able to keep the attention of your audience because your content strikes a chord, when it feels relevant to them while also making sure the time they spend with you is worthwhile.

How to apply Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling in branded content?

Rule #1: You admire a character more for trying than for their successes

In branded content, the hero of your story is very often your client, your customer, the person that is helped by the solution (product or service) your organization brings to the world.

What your audience wants to hear is how this person tried to resolve their problem, what was keeping them awake at night. Your audience wants to identify with the story they are hearing about.

Make sure you are including this in your brand story.

Your brand is not the hero and your story cannot be all about your product or service.

Rule #2: You’ve got to keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience. Not what’s fun to do as a writer. The two can be very different.

Empathy.

As a content creator or marketing executive, put yourself in your audience’s shoes and create content that is about what interests them and what will catch and keep their attention.

You are not your audience and it is sometimes easy to forget this.

And depending on the various audience segments your brand might have, this might lead to telling multiple different stories in order to keep the interest needle up and the fun in the house.

Rule #3: Trying for theme is important. However you won’t see what the story is about until you’re at the end of the story. Got it? Now rewrite.

If you end up shooting the V1 of your branded content script, you might be in for a deception.

Make sure to always plan some rewriting and adjusting.

As co-founder of Pixar Ed Catmull, author of Creativity Inc., puts it:

“Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others. Show early and show often. It’ll be pretty when we get there, but it won’t be pretty along the way.”

Rule #4: Once upon a time there was______. Every day _______. One day________. Because of that,______. Until finally______.

Don’t make you brand’s stories too complicated. Keep it simple.

Storytelling has a structure that the human brain is used to.

You do not need to reinvent the wheel, or you will lose your audience and you will give your competitors a chance to win them if you overcomplicate storytelling.

Rule #5: Simplify. Focus. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

The human brain still has great capacity to concentrate and stay attentive.

The problem these days is content chaos: there is so much stuff available out there that your brain keeps thinking that there might be something better to read, watch or listen to.

Get to the point. Keep the attention level up.

Rule #6: What’s your character good at/most comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

No story is a good story without an enemy.

What is your client’s or stakeholder’s enemy in your brand story? What is keeping them in the rough, looking for a guide and a plan?

Make sure that is in your story.

Put your characters in danger. Your audience will love it.

Rule #7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously, endings are hard. Get yours working up front.

In branded content, this one is easy: your brand has the solution.

There’s nothing complicated here.

But again, don’t put so much emphasis on everything else that people who watch your brand storytelling cannot even tell which brand, product or service is behind it.

You need to make sure your audience will attribute this to you. Keep attribution top-of-mind.

Rule #8: Finish your story. Let go if it isn’t perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

There’s always something that will hold you off. Things will not be perfect and your brand’s story will not be as finished as you want.

Maybe someone on your client’s side will not be available on the day you are doing interviews. Maybe the product will not be available the way you wanted.

Sometimes you have to wait, but sometimes you have to jump.

Otherwise your competitor will get their brand’s story out before you. And it will hurt.

Rule #9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what would and wouldn’t happen next. Material to get you Unstuck will show up.

What could happen to your client? Has it happened in the past? What do you think has NEVER happened? Tell that story.

It might well surprise the person watching your video or listening to your podcast.

Tell the horror stories that never were thanks to your solution.

Rule #10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

Get inspired. Brand storytelling is not sending a rocket to the moon.

Watch what other brands are doing. And not only in your industry.

You might be surprised by what inspires you and your content creators.

Rule #11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

At Toast, we have a process for creating impactful brand stories that is split in 3 distinct phases:

1. Storygathering

2. Storyshaping

3. Storytelling

This rule is all about making sure you are always gathering stories, that you have a process behind collecting great things that happen in your organization and with your brand.

Even when you are not planning content production, make sure that storygathering engine keeps running. Always be on the lookout for new stories.

Rule #12: Discount the first idea that comes to mind. And the 2nd, and the 3rd and 4th and 5th. Get the obvious ones out of the way. Surprise yourself.

Content chaos is real.

There is too much content out there, too much noise, and we need to stand out as a brand with our content.

Do not hesitate to throw ideas away if they’ve been done too much. If they don’t stand out.

Rule #13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likeable as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

The heroes of your brand storytelling are people, humans that have emotions, needs, core values and expectations themselves. Make it shine in your content.

Make them alive!

Rule #14: Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that this story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

Ok, your brand is a great brand. You have great products and services. We all know that.

But why is this story so important?

Why would someone actually share it?

Who will help you share this story?

These three questions will help you shape your brand films into something that will make a dent in your audience’s minds.

Rule #15: If you were your character in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

Your audience wants to identify with the characters in your brand storytelling.

Your stories need to make an impact, so you want to see something impressive happen.

But make sure that through the impressiveness, your audience will recognize themselves and they will believe it.

Rule #16: What are the stakes? Give us a reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against them.

This rule is similar to what we’ve mentioned above. Make sure that at some point, there is danger. That the characters in your brand films might not make it, they might not find a solution.

There doesn’t need to be tears and fear, but you want to get to know them just enough so that you want, maybe unconsciously, them to find a solution. To find your brand.

Rule #17: No work is ever wasted. If it doesn’t work, let go and move on. It’ll come back around and be useful later.

If you are storygathering correctly, you have options. If one story doesn’t feel just right. Put it back in the pile and find another one.

Storygathering is part of our process to create brand stories and one great thing about it is that when applied properly, you will be generating tons of brand storytelling ideas. Some will be good, but many will be great.

Rule #18: You have to know yourself: the difference between being yourself and fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

If you can, if the type and format of content you are creating allows you to do so, put something out there. Test it.

Make a social post about it and see how it performs compared to other ones. It’s a home run? Make it a bigger story by writing an article about it.

The article generates great traffic? Improve it. Upgrade it. Make a video out of it.

Get to know what works for your brand. Get to know your audience.

This is actually part of our content improvement process at Toast. The 3 Rs. Reuse, Refresh, Recycle.

Rule #19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great, coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

If the people in your brand’s stories end up getting out of trouble (thanks to your brand!), make sure your audience understands how they got there.

Your brand provides a plan, a solution, to your clients and ideal customers. These are your customer stories.

But, your brand doesn’t do magic. Sorry to tell you so bluntly.

If you tell authentic stories, if it is possible for your audience to live what your character is telling them, they will identify with it and believe it.

Rule #20: Exercise: Take the building blocks out of a movie you dislike. How’d you arrange them into what you do like?

When a story or a piece of content does not feel right, give yourself a chance to challenge the structure, challenge the basic elements of your story.

Is the problem that your brand is solving big enough? Is the way the story is told interesting? How could it be structured so that it grabs attention more quickly? Is there something we can take out?

Rule #21: You gotta identify with your characters/situations. You can’t just write “cool.” What would make you act that way?

Once again: empathy.

Put YOURself in your audience’s shoes and make sure they will react the way you would want them to.

In their reality, is the emotional response you want them to feel possible?

We sometimes think our organization, our product, our service, is much better than the market thinks it is. Sometimes we need a reality check so that we can adapt our messages and our stories to something that will really impress our audience.

Rule #22: What’s the essence of your story? The most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

With this rule, we are not aiming for brevity. The human brain still can concentrate and watch a good story.

What we expect with this rule, in regards to content marketing, is that people expect effectiveness. They want a story told in the time it takes to tell that story.

As with another rule above, no detour. Just tell it like it is. Believable. Don’t waste your audience’s time.

In conclusion

Pixar really knows how to tell a good story. If the 22 rules above are not a testament to this, I don’t know what would be.

These rules are guides. They are checkpoints so that you make sure that your stories:

  1. Bring value
  2. Respect your audience’s time
  3. Are captivating

So how will you put a little Pixar storytelling in your next content productions? How will you integrate these into your brand’s storytelling process?