Put on a film. Within thirty seconds, you will know if it’s worth finishing. Pick up a random book and read the first page. Within 100 words, you can tell if the story deserves your commitment.
From the very beginning, stories need to pull their audience into the world and answer three key questions:
Who is this story about?
What is happening in this scene?
What is at stake?
Make the audience care the moment they step into your world. Pixar animation studios have perfected the art of storytelling.
The opening of Finding Nemo answers all three questions while tugging at heavy emotions under five minutes.
Finding Nemo Opening Scene Analysis
Who is this story about? Marlin, the clownfish.
What is happening in this scene? Marlin and Coral are basking in the joys of future parenthood.
What is at stake? After the barracuda attack that kills his wife and children, Marlin must protect his only surviving son from the deep blue scary ocean.
The Pixar Storytelling Recipe has 22 ingredients that help cook up some of the best-animated stories. While every story is unique and could technically rebel against these rules, they help writers ask valuable questions when building their tale. Here are the five that help you make your audience care.
Challenge Your Characters
Think about your character’s strengths. Now, force them into a situation where they can use none of those qualities. See how they fight to get out of the mess.
This ingredient connects the audience because, in life, people struggle with obstacles that feel overwhelming. They are burdened with debt, medical issues, depression, putting their kids through college — you name it. They want to see a character struggle, just like they do, but make their way out. It reminds them that they are not alone; someone else out there is struggling too.
In Toy Story, we can all relate to Woody’s jealousy of another toy. We have felt inadequate with smarter siblings, better athletes, or harder workers. We refer to Woody when he pushes Buzz out the window because secretly, we yearned to do that in our own life. When Woody struggles, we struggle. Therefore, when Woody transforms and overcomes the challenge, we feel like we can overcome our challenges.
Give Your Characters Opinions
Your audience wants to hear a character voice their opinions and possibly be wrong. Each of us has said something we wish we could take back. Our beliefs create conflict when they clash with another person’s value system. That clash makes for an exciting story and lures in the audience.
If every character agreed with each other in a story, it would be pretty dull. Find out what your character firmly believes in and have them state it early on. Think of Merida in Brave. She has strong opinions on marriage that clash with her mother’s views on culture. Without these two contrasting viewpoints, there would be no story.
Name Your Stakes
There must be a reward for venturing into the story. The audience needs the writer to raise the stakes as the story progresses, so the payoff is big. Raising the stakes makes the audience care because they want to see their hero succeed. If the hero succeeds in the story, the audience lives that feeling at the moment as they place themselves into the character.
Life’s challenges often come one on top of the other. You find out your brother is imprisoned for fraud, while your mom is in the hospital from cancer, and your son just lost his job as the anxiety of paying off his student loans sends him into a depression. The stakes get higher and higher in your life. Will you win?
A good story fuels that victory by promoting intrinsic motivation. The audience wins when the hero wins.
Don’t cheat your way out of a hole
Pixar rule # 19 — “Coincidences that get characters into trouble are great. Coincidences that get them out of trouble is cheating.”
A writer has to back their character into a corner with no possible hope of ever getting out. The audience needs to believe that their characters are about to die, as in the tragic waste furnace scene of Toy Story 3. That scene was held just long enough for the audience to believe that all the main characters would burn to a crisp.
If you resolve the characters conflicts like Adam West in Batman, where he happens to carry shark repellant everywhere he goes, it becomes a slapstick comedy instead of a well-thought storyline.
When writing your characters into their mess, it should take you a long time to figure out how they make it out. If you put enough energy into thinking of the solution, eliminating all of the obvious choices, then your audience will care about the story. The moment you make it easy for a character to succeed, you have cheated the story. Why? Because in life, things are never that easy. People struggle, and so must the characters.
Identify with your characters
Guess what? You are apart of the audience as much as you are the writer. Become the reader/viewer and identify with what the character is going through. How would you react if faced with the same challenge? Don’t breeze over this question. Map out your reactions.
If you were Robert Parr, forced to remove all traces of Mr. Incredible’s actual identity, how would you act at an average 9–5 job you hate? Millions of people work at jobs they hate, but hidden deep in them is potential they are afraid to uncover. Audiences care about the character of Mr. Incredible because he is relatable. Do not be afraid to delve into your psyche for character emotions.