22 Storytelling Rules Everyone Can Master


November 8, 2016

by Carla Johnson

Emma Coats

Emma Coats, former Story Artist, Pixar Animation, and current Editorial Lead, Personality, for Google Assistant.

I’m often asked by business people how to tell better stories. I always tell them to learn from the masters, which is rarely other business people. The best places to go are often outside your industry. Those skilled in the art of storytelling but who work with different constraints. Because that’s how you begin shedding preconceived ideas of what can and can’t be done in business storytelling.

Hollywood is one of the easiest for me. And Emma Coats is one of my favorites.

When Emma worked as a Story Artist for Pixar Animation Studios, she tweeted a mix of things that she learned from directors and coworkers. These are things that she picked up by listening to writers and directors talk about their craft.  And what she found out by trial and error in making her own film.

Often referred to as Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling, here’s the advice Emma shared:


22 Story Basics

#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 likeable 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 and characters – you 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.

For more goodness from Emma, follow her on Twitter

Now it’s your turn

This is great advice for anyone at any level in any size business in any industry. But I know what you’re thinking…you’ll read this list and then give me a HUGE, “Yeah, but…” and start off on all the reasons why it’s unreasonable to think you can apply these ideas to your situation. I don’t care what your excuse is…I’ve heard it. And they’re all BS.

Here’s how you get started. Pick one of these and try it out on your favorite storyline. It could be a movie, a book or a song. It doesn’t matter how long. The trick is to get the hang of using these story basics with stories that you know and love.

Next, transition to something you know really well in your industry. What you create as a story doesn’t have to be true, realistic or anything else that can muster legal review. The emphasis is on practicing story techniques in an area that’s more familiar. If you get stuck, move back into a more challenging storyline from the previous step. You may find yourself swinging back and forth between these first two steps until you feel comfortable. That’s perfectly normal.

Now, think about something in your own work that you want to put in a story format. If you’re a marketing person, maybe you want to think about a new idea on which you’d love to get traction and move forward. Maybe you’re a salesperson wanting to get out of commoditized conversations. Or maybe you’re an HR professional struggling to connect with the top talent you hope to recruit. How can these story basic apply to you?

Related Posts

⇒ What’s brand storytelling and why do you need it? Read
⇒ From stories to experiences: Marketing’s evolving role in creating value. Read
⇒ How to tie ROI, KPIs and other metrics to storytelling. Read
⇒ 7 Storytelling tips for sales teams. Read

Here’s an example…

Let’s pretend you work in the medical profession and focus on infectious diseases. Take the list of story basics and look at the movie “Outbreak.”  How would you change things? What do you wish wouldn’t happen and how would you change the story? Choose one of the characters and become them. How would you act differently?

Next, take the idea of infectious diseases and look at how the Center for Disease Control talked about disaster preparedness with the story of a Zombie Apocalypse. Break it apart. Why did it work? How did it follow Emma’s story basics? What would you change?

Last, search the term “infectious diseases” and find the first company that comes up. Knowing what you know now, how would you create or retell the story they’re telling about their work?

The point is that to be good – or even proficient – at anything, you have to practice. Maybe you do this alone at your desk. Maybe with a trusted few close colleagues. Or maybe it’s the focus of a team get together (and it’s not just for marketers…). The trick is to get comfortable one step at a time, starting with material with which you’re comfortable and familiar, and then moving on from there.

Because the only way you’ll become a great storyteller is to start telling stories.

Need help articulating your story, or integrating it into the culture and branding of your organization? Contact us and we’ll help you bring it to life!

Photo credit: Pixar

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.