Pixar Storytelling: Writing Multi-Layered Stories

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by Angela Bourassa

Dean Movshovitz, a screenwriter and speaker, has written a new book that delves into the secrets of Pixar’s screenwriting magic. The book, Pixar Storytelling: Rules for Effective Storytelling Based on Pixar’s Greatest Films, is a fun, useful read. At just 122 pages, you can digest the whole thing in a weekend and be ready on Monday to bring some new life to your latest script.

The book isn’t without it’s flaws — I caught more than a few typos — but if you can overlook those details, you’re sure to find some helpful insights in Dean’s book.

Pixar Storytelling covers everything from choosing an idea to crafting unique villains. The section that stood out most to me, though, was Dean’s examination of how Pixar creates a “multi-layered storytelling cake.” This is how he puts it:

Pixar films aren’t the only ones that have a multi-layered set of subplots that create many meaningful turns, but it does seem that Pixar cracked the code as to how these subplots should relate to one another. The main plot should be epic, adventurous and rife with action, with an emphasis on life-or-death, physical situations. (A father searches the ocean! A robot must travel through space to bring mankind back to earth!) Under that main plot, there will be an emotional, internal story. (A father must deal with past trauma and give his son space; a rat must come to terms with conflicting parts of his identity.) All of the studio’s stories also feature a major, complex bonding process with another equally flawed character from a different world. (A nervous father bonds with a carefree, brain-damaged fish; a monster bonds with a terrified human child who he believes can kill him.) Sometimes Pixar will add another subplot, usually taking place parallel to the main one. (Nemo tries to escape his tank; Skinner tries to rob Linguini out of inheriting Gusteau’s estate.) This triple and sometime quadruple structure seems to satisfy all the reasons we go to the movies: high-end adventure, meaningful relationships, and deep emotional struggles.

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[Read Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling.]

One of the benefits of examining script techniques through a specific set of films is that the lessons all become immediately applicable. Dean has an example for virtually every point he makes, so if you’ve seen even half of Pixar’s movies, you’ll be able to get the most possible out of this book. (Doug Eboch takes a similar approach in his wonderful book, The Three Stages of Screenwriting.)

Pixar Storytelling is available for $10 on Kindle.

You can also beef up your story skills with our current catalog of Pixar screenplays:

Cars 2

The Incredibles

Inside Out

Monsters Inc.

Monsters University

Toy Story

Toy Story 3

Up

Wall-E

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Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.

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