Updated: Aug 30
Article written by Winnie Khaw. Winnie is one of Screenwriting Staffing's top script readers and consultants. Screenwriting Staffing is an online community that connects screenwriters with industry professionals.
A Glance at Pixar’s Renowned Formula
When a story’s core framework is effective, it’s good structure; when less successful, it’s a tired formula.
Before digging a bit into that oversimplified observation, I’d like to refresh your memory regarding what is undeniably the most iconic screenwriting model: The Three-Act Structure.
Yes, I know you know the Three-Act Structure even if you believe that Aristotle (often credited as the original source of the theory) is an old bag of ill-smelling wind who didn’t specify how to populate said acts with a palatable story.
Into this dark void came the flashlight of Syd Field. A canonical fixture among screenwriting gurus, Field is famous for articulating an understandable Three-Act Structure in his 1979 Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting.
Ha! I’ll do you one better, said Blake Synder (I’m slightly paraphrasing) in his 2005 Save The Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need. By introducing a standardized beat sheet with specific pages numbers indicating which plot point should happen when, Synder made screenwriting foolproof.
Well, then, we’ve finished our journey to enlightenment. That was quick, right? Nope. Keep trudging along with me.
We can’t take the scenic route to the main point I am, in fact, getting to; otherwise, I would have pointed out such worthwhile attractions as Frank Daniel’s eight-sequence structure, or excellent authors such as Marshall Dotson, Dan O'Bannon, Emmanuel Oberg. James Scott Bell, Alex Bloom, Robert McKee, Alexandra Sokoloff, et cetera.
To use a belabored analogy: with such accessible study guides as shown above, isn’t it discouraging that even following every instruction from Fade In: to Fade Out. doesn't necessarily result in a great score on an actual test?
If for the most part it’s unanimously agreed that a solid structure fundamentally determines what constitutes good storytelling, why are we still trying to crack the code? Hasn’t the riddle been solved already?
Let’s look at the preeminent computer animation film studio in the English-speaking world—Pixar. Pixar has a proven template and specific criteria to address that are demonstrably applied to most if not all its productions. Search online for “Pixar formula” and you’ll encounter a list of bullet points and helpful graphics; Google is your friend. [ Get pro coverage on your script!]
Can anyone seriously argue that the Pixar touch doesn’t work miracles at the box office? Can you honestly say you didn’t tear up when Ellie died in Up (2009)? I don’t recall much of the rest of the movie, but wow, that beginning packed a punch.
Pixar obviously knows how to construct a fantastic story with wonderfully endearing characters in uniquely beautiful settings. But then … what happened to Brave (2012) after putting aside the astonishing animation? There was a bear involved, right?
There were two, actually.
How about Cars 2? Worse, Cars 3? Fine, maybe sequels can never perform as well as the original installment. Hm. Toy Story 2 and 3 would prove that assumption wrong.
There’s been an incredible ratio of hits to only a few misses. As well as figuring out what Pixar is doing right, it might also be useful to understand why were the misses were, well, off the mark. What makes Wall-E (2008) special in a way that allows it to consistently rank as the current best of Pixar’s impressive achievements, while The Good Dinosaur (2015) falls considerably lower on the rungs?
These two films, for example, have several overarching similarities that heavily influence structure. I’ll only be pointing out a major few.
The unusual protagonist starts the story as a lonely figure. There’s an unexpected intrusion that disrupts the protagonist’s normal life.
Prompted by this foreign presence, he/it is forced to make a sudden and major decision that propels him/it out of his/its comfort zone and into the great unknown.
A grand adventure follows in which, while becoming friends with the latterly introduced character in the midst of trials and adversity, the protagonist discovers the best version of himself/itself.
I’ll stop here for now, but don’t forget there’s a teary moment of sacrifice near the end. You’ll recognize it when you see it.
Both animated films come across a number of the same landmarks, but that in itself doesn’t automatically mean both offer an equally memorable viewing experience.
What distinguishes one from the other? We’ll discuss that in another post.
Most popular screenwriting theories can fit quite comfortably within a three-act structure. After profound contemplation that may result in your brain leaking out through your ears, you’ll likely discover that the issue often whittles down to a matter of how the material is handled rather than the form of what happens.
Article written by Winnie Khaw. Winnie has placed in the quarter- and semi-finals of contests such as the Screencraft Writing Fellowship, Diverse Voices, Creative World Awards, Other Worlds Austin Film Festival, Stage 32 Fantasy and Sci-Fi Contest, and StoryPros Awards. In addition to doing freelance work for Screenwriting Staffing and various Upwork clients, Winnie has written extensive script coverage for individuals as well as production companies, and recently read for the BlueCat screenwriting contest.
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