When you’re a parent, there are a few things that save your sanity when your kid is bouncing off the walls: a solid lock on the bathroom door, a quality set of noise-canceling headphones (my go-to baby shower gift), a shot of brandy in the sippy cup (you know your grandma did it, and your dad’s just fine—mostly), but for all you responsible purists—I mean parents out there . . .
Ah Pixar! Those beautiful, merciful people who produce movies that don’t make me want to run screaming or bang my head against the wall. Thank you for treating children like real people who can understand subtlety. Thank you for including that wicked humor that makes kids say to their parents, “What? What are you laughing at?” (You know Joss Whedon was one of the screenwriters for Toy Story, right?)
Thank you for telling a good story.
I remember the first time I saw Toy Story. I’m dating myself, but I was in college and one of my best friends was a computer programmer who couldn’t stop talking about this special-effects company who had used this new process to *insert long droning noise here* make this AMAZING, NEW, BEST-MOVIE-EVER-MADE movie that I just had to go see!
I was pretty sure it would be a case of computer effects gone awry, but I went anyway; and my mind, as you can imagine, was blown.
While my friend raved about the amazing new look of the animation (which, let’s face it, was extraordinary) I kept thinking about the story. Simple, subtle, profound. It was a giant story wrapped in kids’ packaging. I was in awe of the writing and I’ve been a confirmed Pixar fan ever since.
So, without further ado, here are five things Pixar has taught me about writing:
- “Small” stories connect with people. Toys? Who knew they had such amazing lives? The premise of Toy Story wasn’t world-changing, but the themes are so universal, they touch every viewer, wherever they are in life. Friendship, loss, betrayal, profound life change . . . these are themes that children and adults can relate to. No explosions necessary.
- Who needs a single main character? Buzz and Woody. Mike and Sully. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl. Marlin and Nemo. Don’t tell me that your story has to have one main character to have drive; relationship dynamics between the two characters can become as essential as plot in driving a story forward.
- Don’t be afraid to hurt ’em. Ever seen UP? The five-minute introduction is one of the most concise and heart-rending bits of storytelling I’ve ever seen. Talk about profound? It’s profoundly sad. Did you keep watching, though? I did. UP is one of my favorite movies ever. (Dear Academy, I’m not saying The Hurt Locker wasn’t great, but UP was the best film of 2010. Get over your prejudice against animation. No love, Me)
- Laughter and tears belong together. Just like in UP, some of the best moments in Pixar movies have the audience laughing and crying almost on top of each other. Does your story lack comedy? It’s one of the most universal ways of coping in any situation. Don’t be afraid to use it, even when it might not seem appropriate. That’s life.
- Don’t neglect secondary characters. Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head. Dory. Roz. Guido and Luigi. Just because a character isn’t on the screen (or the page) all that much doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be well-developed. I don’t mean to say you need a detailed biography for every single character that walks on the page, but your second-tier characters should have a back-story, and you should know what it is. It’s part of what gives your story depth.
I think what stands out to me most about Pixar is their emphasis on developing character, which can be a lost art in a lot of entertainment. One of my beta readers told me a few weeks ago that part of what sets A Hidden Fire apart for her is that she views the characters as friends she wants to know more about and revisit. That was huge for me, because I often feel the same way about my favorite works of fiction, so to know that my own characters spoke to her that way made my week! (Obviously, I’m still thinking about it.)
It was one of my favorite secondary characters, Anton Ego of Ratatouille (my all time favorite Pixar film), that wrote a line which speaks a profound truth about life, art, and the pursuit of both to independent writers, musicians, and other artists:
“Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
In the case of Pixar, it came from a bunch of computer nerds in the Silicon Valley. Who knows where will it come from next?
Thanks for reading,