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This page shares my best articles to read on topics like creativity, decision making, strategy, and more. The central questions I explore are, “How can we learn the best of what others have mastered? And how can we become the best possible version of ourselves?”

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Daniel Scrivner

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling was originally shared by Emma Coats who works as a Pixar Story Artist. I'm re-sharing it with the world here along with an technique for building stronger stories by completing 7 sentence prompts. Storytelling is an important skill and everyone should aspire to be great at it. Quickly jump to these sections:

22 Rules of Storytelling

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  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.
  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.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  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.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Build Stronger Stories with 7 Sentences

Since posting the story, a number of people have contacted us regarding rule number 4 on the list, also known as The Story Spine:

Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

Reports were that this tip did not originate with Pixar but instead with writer, director, and story structure teacher Brian McDonald. Intrigued, I contacted Brian to find out more. He replied:

I should clear up that the story spine (Once upon a time…) is not mine.  I think many people first learned it from me because of my books, classes and lectures I have given over the past dozen years or so.  It did not originate with Pixar either.  I looked for the origin of these steps when I was writing my book, but never found it and I say so in the book.  It has been used in impov as an exercise where is where I first learned it.  I know a guy looking for the origin, but he’s not having any luck either.

Brian added that in the original story spine tweet a step was actually left out. The final step should be And ever since that day… As Brian says, the list keeps getting copied with this missing step and it’s an important step.

Brian, an award-winning filmmaker in his own right, has taught his story structure seminar at Pixar, Disney Feature Animation and Lucasfilm’s ILM. Brian's book Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate can help you stop staring at that blank page and start writing.

Brian McDonald, the book’s author, began studying stories by audio-taping The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Newhart and other classic sitcoms that he watched at home after school. McDonald transcribed and analyzed the dialogue to learn precisely what made these thirty-minute stories tick. At 21, he moved to Los Angeles to find work as a writer and director but ended up on the special effects crews of such forgettable horror films as Return of the Living Dead II and Night of the Creeps.

McDonald, 45, currently teaches screenwriting at the 911 Media Arts Center in Seattle, occasionally returning to California to lead workshops at Pixar Studios, Industrial Light & Magic and Disney Animation. He published Invisible Ink last year, and when we spoke recently, we talked at length about Chapter II, ‘Seven Easy Steps to a Better Story.’ Before we began, McDonald insisted we be clear on one point. ‘I didn’t make this up,’ he told me, referring to the seven-step model. McDonald says he learned the steps from Matt Smith, an improvisational actor who learned them from Joe Guppy, another improv veteran.

The seven sentences that follow can help you start writing a story and build it, scene by scene, to its climax and resolution. And it all begins with those familiar four words:

Once upon a time…
Whether you use these exact words or not, this opening reminds us that our first responsibility as storytellers is to introduce our characters and setting – i.e., to fix the story in time and space. Instinctively, your audience wants to know: Who is the story about? Where are they, and when is all this taking place? You don’t have to provide every detail, but you must supply enough information, says McDonald, “so the audience has everything it needs to know to understand the story that is to follow.”
And every day…
With characters and setting established, you can begin to tell the audience what life is like in this world every day. In The Wizard of Oz, for example, the opening scenes establish that Dorothy feels ignored, unloved, and dreams of a better place “over the rainbow.” This is Dorothy’s “world in balance,” and don’t be confused by the term “balance.” It does not imply that all is well – only that this is how things are.
Until one day…
Something happens that throws the main character’s world out of balance, forcing them to do something, change something, attain something that will either restore the old balance or establish a new equilibrium. In story structure, this moment is referred to as the inciting incident, and it’s the pivotal event that launches the story. In The Wizard of Oz, the tornado provides the inciting incident by apparently transporting Dorothy far, far away from home.
And because of this…
Your main character (or “protagonist”) begins the pursuit of his or her goal. In structural terms, this is the beginning of Act II, the main body of the story. After being literally dropped into the Land of Oz, Dorothy desperately wants to return home, but she is told that the only person who can help her lives far away. So she must journey by foot to the Emerald City to meet a mysterious wizard. Along the way she will encounter several obstacles (apple-throwing trees, flying monkeys, etc.) but these only make the narrative more interesting.
And because of this…
Dorothy achieves her first objective – meeting the Wizard of Oz – but this is not the end of her story. Because of this meeting, she now has another objective: kill the Wicked Witch of the West and deliver her broomstick to the Wizard. “In shorter stories,” says McDonald, “you may have only one ‘because of this,’ but you need at least one.”
Until finally…
We enter Act III and approach the story’s moment of truth. Dorothy succeeds in her task and presents the Wizard with the deceased witch’s broom, so now he must make good on his promise to help her return to Kansas. And this he does, but not quite in the way we initially expect.
And ever since that day…
Once we know what happened, the closing scenes tell us what the story means for the protagonist, for others in the narrative, and (not least of all) for those of us in the audience. When Dorothy awakens in her own bed and realizes she never actually left Kansas, she learns the lesson of the story: what we’re looking for is often inside us all along.

The next time you get stuck while writing a story, try walking your narrative through these steps. Even if your characters aren’t following a yellow brick road, the seven sentences above can probably help you get where you’re going. And your little dog, too.

The Story Spine was created by Kenn Adams in 1991. Read Kenn’s guest post Back to the Story Spine.

About the author

Daniel Scrivner is an award-winner designer and angel investor. He's led design work at Apple, Square, and now ClassDojo. He's an early investor in Notion,, and Anduril. He founded Ligature: The Design VC and Outlier Academy. Daniel has interviewed the world’s leading founders and investors including Scott Belsky, Luke Gromen, Kevin Kelly, Gokul Rajaram, and Brian Scudamore.

Last updated
Aug 20, 2023

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