Pixar’s Andrew Stanton’s Clues To A Great Story

7 Tips From Finding Nemo Director’s TED TALK

How do you write an unforgettable story?

Director Andrew Stanton knows as well as anyone. He’s been doing it for three decades at Pixar studios.

His work as a writer produced animated classics like Toy Story and A Bug’s Life. His time as a director brought beloved stories like Finding Nemo and Wall-E to life.

In a recent TED talk, Stanton shares how Pixar veterans like him and Pete Docter use storytelling to inspire audiences.

The bad news: there is no instruction manual for a great story. While Pixar has a process for discovering ideas, each story comes with its unique set of challenges.

The good news: an excellent story leaves clues. Clues writers can follow to construct compelling stories of their own.

Here are Andrew Stanton’s 7 clues to a great story:

Clue 1: Make The Audience Care

Andrew Stanton identifies this as, perhaps, his most important storytelling clue. Your audience must care before they commit to your story.

Can you blame them? Whether it’s a rambling professor at your university, or a dull co-worker talking about their weekend, we all know what it’s like not to care about a story.

But what makes us stop what we’re doing and listen?

We care when a story gives us a character to root for, a world we wish to live in, a promise we can’t wait to see paid off. Your first job as a storyteller is to find something in your work the audience can care about.

This is especially important with the surplus of entertainment options available. The average person is a click away from a stream of breaking news, YouTube clips, and Netflix series. Now more than ever they need to know up front your story is worth their time.

Clue 2: Begin With An End In Mind

Stanton starts his speech with a joke about a goat-shagging Scotsman. He does this to illustrate that jokes and stories share similar structures.

Both have 3 parts — beats for a joke and acts for a story. Both involve forming and breaking patterns. And most importantly, both build towards a final punchline or climax.

There is an implicit promise, in both jokes and stories, that the details you provide work towards a greater purpose. Without a punchline a joke is just a series of amusing facts. Without a resolution your story is just a compilation of events without a theme.

While this revelation is the last thing the audience learns, it is the first thing the writer should know when composing a story. It is the guiding star of your work. You must arrange all other details with this end in mind.

Clue 3: In The World Of Stories 2+2≠4

One of the cardinal sins of the internet is spoiling a story. It’s why you see the words SPOILER ALERT bolded at the top of any article talking about a film or TV series.

But what, exactly, makes spoiling a story such a grave offense?

Stanton provides an answer in his “unifying theory of two plus two”. The theory states audience members want to put together a story on their own. You can show them 2+2, but don’t you dare tell them it equals 4!

Humans are natural problem solvers. Part of the fun of watching a movie is piecing together the plot; making sense of the details that the creator provides and omits. It’s a lot of work, but our problem solving brains will gleefully clock in overtime to crack the code.

Doing the work for the audience (ie spoiling) robs them of this process of discovery. If a stranger on the internet does this, it’s inconsiderate. But if the storyteller themselves is the culprit, it’s unforgivable.

Remember, your job as a storyteller is to leave the audience some crumbs, but make them earn their meal.

Clue 4: Give Your Character An Unscratchable Itch

You’ve probably heard the writing advice: “characters must work towards a goal.” This isn’t terrible advice, but it’s incomplete. A well-written character needs both an outer goal, and an inner motive that propels their actions.

Stanton describes this inner motive, as an “itch” your character wants to scratch.

An itch differs from a goal. Someone can achieve a goal, but an itch is something you can claw away at and never fully scratch.

Some examples Stanton gives are:

  • In The Godfather, Michael Corleone’s “itch” is to please his father.
  • In Toy Story, Woody’s itch is to “do what’s best for his owner.”
  • In Finding Nemo, Marlin’s itch is to “prevent harm.”

These characters are unaware of their itch. It is the unconscious force that guides their actions. Pursuing it causes questionable choices, and often leads to trouble. But it makes for a complex and entertaining story.

Clue 5: Story Is Anticipation Mingled With Uncertainty

For this clue, Andrew Stanton turns to the words of playwright William Archer:

“Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.”

The quote speaks to two layers of tension in a story. The anticipation audiences feel from scene to scene. And the uncertainty they feel about how the story will conclude.

Anticipation is short-term tension. It deals with how a character works their way out of a specific situation? Will Woody and Buzz escape from Sid’s house? Will Dory and Marlin get through the swarm of jellyfish?

Uncertainty is tension that runs throughout the narrative. It involves the drama at the heart of the story. Will Woody and Buzz reunite with Andy before he moves? Will Marlin rescue his son Nemo?

A great story balances these two elements. It builds anticipation to keep viewers engaged moment to moment, and uses uncertainty so they will invest in the larger arc.

Clue 6: When In Doubt, Define Your Story By “What It Is Not”

In 1993 Pixar hit an impasse on the script for Toy Story. The movie was their first feature and they struggled to find an identity for themselves and their story.

To narrow their focus, Stanton and his team agreed on a list of “unwritten rules”. These rules detailed what they would not include in the film:

  • No songs
  • No “I want” moment
  • No happy village
  • No love story
  • No villain

The list was a repudiation of practically every trope for animated movies at the time. In particular, those popularized by Disney — Pixar’s business partner.

By defining what they didn’t want to do, Pixar and Stanton distinguished themselves as storytellers. They created a blueprint they would use, not just for Toy Story, but all their future releases.

If you’re struggling to tell your story, think of what you won’t include. List the type of devices, themes, and characters you want to avoid at all costs.

Don’t do this to play the contrarian. Think of it more as a process of elimination. You’re getting rid of the items that don’t fit so you can be more precise about the story you want to tell.

Clue 7: Invoke Wonder

If you’ve chosen a creative career or hobby, I suspect there was a specific moment that made you fall in love with your craft. The concert that made you pick up the guitar. The trip to the museum that convinced you to paint.

For Andrew Stanton, this moment came at age 5 when his mom took him to see Disney’s Bambi. He describes walking out of the theatre “wide eyed with wonder.” And feeling the urge to spread the sensation he’d experienced with others.

That feeling of wonder is what draws us to stories. It is why books make us lose our sense of space and time, and cinemas are considered a sacred spot.

It is not a feeling easily evoked. Stanton says it can only come naturally, never with force. But on the rare occasions we capture it, it makes the toil of the creative process worth the cost. It affirms there is still magic in a mundane world. And it reminds us why generation after generation we continue to stare down a blank page and write: Once Upon A Time.

Educator and Copywriter Who Writes About Creativity, Marketing, Pop Culture, And Occasionally Mindfulness Meditation