Pixar Rules of Story #9 – Avoid the obvious choices
When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
Rule #9 is about thinking outside the box… the box within which you have created your character.
We all get stuck writing a story. Regardless of all the prep we may put in we are likely, at some point, to get to a position where our original plan doesn’t quite work. We may find our characters and stories veering into the world of cliche. We may even find ourselves writing the obvious.
When we get to this point, something needs to change; we need to think a little outside the box and consider the less obvious choices that our characters may make in any given situation. Rule #9 suggests we can do this by stepping back and making a list of all the things that wouldn’t happen next in any scene.
Now this could get out of hand if we tried to think of absolutely everything that wouldn’t happen, so we need to try and ground this within the behaviour of our character(s), their wants and needs as developed through the story. This is the same whether we are talking about decisions that need to be made by the Protagonist or the Antagonist.
So Rule #9 also reiterates how important it is to know our characters and understand them well enough to recognise exactly what they would or wouldn’t do in a given situation.
So when, as Stephan Vladimir Bugaj suggests, you have an assassin who catches up with their prey, the obvious choice is for them to kill the victim. But this is cliched/too obvious. Perhaps we want to try and make the story take a different turn or it is just too early in the story for that outcome.
So what wouldn’t happen next?
Well, we could suggest that a London Bus WOULDN’T run the victim over, or aliens WOULDN’T fly down to save her or Woody Allen WOULDN’T stumble into the assassin and ruin her shot. We would be going all day if we were to try and compile a list in that way.
What we need to do, as Stephan and Rule #9 suggest, is try to think of a list that reflects the assassin’s character, their wants and needs. Their WANT may be to kill this victim, but their internal NEED may be to reform and go straight/turn the tables on their employers. With that in mind, and looking at what wouldn’t happen, we might have suggestions such as letting the victim go; falling in love with the victim; playing a game with the victim by letting them go, but continuing to hunt them; or offering the victim a job and teaming up for bigger prey.
That way, we have much more interesting and realistic choices, but still well within the realms of believability and our characters’ make-up. Coming up with what might be considered the “wrong” decision will also make for much more interesting plot development and keep the audience on their toes.
Rule #9 could also make an interesting writing exercise to play around with even if unrelated to your current project. Why not take a pivotol scene in a favourite film and think about how you could rewrite it by listing all the things that WOULDN’T happen next for those characters. If you give it a whirl, why not let us know how it goes?
How do your characters decide what to do next and avoid the obvious?
Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #10 – Finding your Voice
Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!
(Thanks again to Alex Eylar for permission to use his great images!)