Has anyone else seen the infographic floating around Pinterest about Pixar’s story-telling rules? The one where they list out how their writers tackle problems and craft their oh-so compelling stories?
I have. If you haven’t, here you go: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/23995810487066329/
The top rule. Numero Uno. The main idea. The big cheese. That’s the one you should be paying the most attention to:
You admire a character more for trying than their successes.
It’s true. Think about your favorite characters, whether from a book, TV, or a movie. Got one in mind?
What keeps you coming back for more? What keeps you engaged and compelled? It’s not their successes, it’s their attempts. It’s their journey, not the destination, that hooks you.
Harry Potter spent seven years working on defeating Voldemort. Oliver Queen is still working to protect Star City. Katniss Everdeen fought against a regime. Moana found Maui and sailed across the ocean. All these characters had obstacles to overcome. And that’s what compelled us to keep reading.
I once had someone simplify this even more:
Writing is keeping people from what they want.
Readers like to see the struggle. They want it to be difficult, to be hard, because that’s where we find the qualities that make heroes. And it’s no fun to simply have a hero already made, to see the end result. Readers want to see the process.
More than that, they want to see the hero fail. Ok, not at the very end. I mean, how livid would you have been if Voldemort had won out and actually killed Harry? In that genre, Harry needed to win. And he did. But was it an easy path to get there? Did he do everything perfectly?
No. Harry (and your characters) need to make mistakes along the way. They need to meet obstacles that they don’t overcome.
Let’s go back to Harry. Did he succeed in protecting Cedric in the graveyard? Did he save Sirius? How about when he blew up Aunt Marge? What about Rita Skeeter’s false articles? The Ministry of Magic denying Voldemort’s return? Harry’s wand breaking when he and Hermione went up against Nagini?
We remember each of these moments because they were obstacles Harry had to face. And he failed. Or he succeeded but at a steep cost, such as thwarting Lucius Malfoy from getting the prophecy, but losing Sirius. Or escaping Nagini but breaking his wand.
So, to sum up, it’s about the journey and not the destination. Make your characters work for their happily ever after. And make sure they don’t succeed every time at the roadblocks you put in their way. That’s what makes a story compelling, and brings readers back for more.