Storytelling Tips from Classic Pixar Movies

Learn key storytelling strategies from your favorite animated stories.


Stories are everywhere. If you’re a writer and you want to learn how to tell better stories, it might seem, at first, that reading is the only way to do that.

Not quite. Movies and T.V., if written well, can teach the same lessons and give you more visual representations of different techniques. Pixar movies are a fun platform to use because, honestly, who doesn’t love them?

We’ll look at two Pixar favorites to illustrate several storytelling strategies viewers can learn by watching them: Finding Nemo and Inside Out. And before you start screaming about Inside Out not being a classic Pixar movie, keep in mind its Golden Globe win and Oscar nominationS and how many times you wished you could have gone to see it in theaters last year. Instant classics count.

Start with a character’s routine and shatter it

Inside Out is one more recent example of how this works. We are guided through the first eleven or so years of Riley’s life and introduced to the details of how her mind and Emotions operate on a day-to-day basis. But as Riley’s world shifts, so does the way she thinks and feels – and suddenly Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness find themselves trying, and failing, to keep up with the changes.

Character development begins when environment, relationships and routine spiral out of alignment. When nothing is the way it once was, the story must lead its characters into the unknown, where they will emerge, one way or another, changed.

Throw the biggest possible challenges at your MCs

Up until Nemo goes missing, Marlin’s fear of the ocean’s (and life’s) uncertainties holds him back, and keeps his son on a metaphorical leash as a result. Then he is forced to face that fear in order to find Nemo again – a challenge he never would have taken on if it weren’t for his son’s accidental fishnapping.

Thrusting your characters into uncomfortable, even potentially dangerous situations forces them to learn to rely on their strengths and teaches them how to compensate for their weaknesses when solving problems.


Let your character make the final choice

At the start of writing a story, you might think you have it all figured out. You might sincerely believe you are in complete control of the beginning, middle and end in sight.

But the truth is, you’re not. And the first step toward telling a good story is accepting that.

Marlin chooses to swim over the trench. Joy chooses not to listen to Sadness when she warns her about getting lost. Whether these elements were original parts of the story or not, in the final product, they shape the rest of the events that lead to a resolution.

Sometimes your character might make the wrong choice at first. But they might make the right one in the end. It’s not up to you; it’s up to them. Maybe you don’t buy into the philosophy that says characters have complete control over our stories. But if you sit back and let them show you what they are capable of, you will be glad you gave them a chance.

Our favorite stories aren’t just for our own entertainment. They’re also tools to help us learn to build our own fictional worlds the best way we can.

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