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Michael Arndt About The 5 Steps He Learned at Pixar to Write a Good Beginning

In less than a decade, Michael Arndt went from winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay with Little Miss Sunshine, to getting nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay with Toy Story 3 for his second credit, and then on working on diverse genres and scales with great success.

In other words, Michael Arndt knows what he talks about when it comes to screenwriting. And the good news is that he shared what he learned at Pixar about how to start with a strong and steady beginning for your story, as he was struggling to come up with the right story.

This is a great complement to  Pixar’s 22 Storytelling Rules from Emma Coats, and Wall-E‘s screenwriter Andrew Stanton about the clue to great storytelling.

In the video, Arndt illustrates his points by using three Pixar films: Toy Story, The Incredibles and Finding Nemo.

Here are the key steps to a good beginning:

Step 1: Show Your Hero Doing What They Love Most

Usually what you do when you’re introducing your main character is that you show them doing what they love most. This is their grand passion, it’s their defining trait, it’s the center of their whole universe.

So you start with your main character, you introduce the universe they live in, and you show your hero doing the thing they love to do most.

Step 2: Add a Flaw

“But then your character needs one more thing. He needs a flaw. Now what’s key here is that the character’s flaw actually comes out of her grand passion. It’s a good thing that’s just been taken too far.”

Step 3: Add a Storm

And then you want to establish storm clouds on the horizon, which is your character is walking down the road of life, it’s a nice bright sunny day, but off on the horizon, there are some dark clouds gathering. And then… BABOOM! Something comes in and totally blows apart your joyous life and turns it upside down.”

Step 4: Add Insult to Injury

But that bolt from the blue, BABOOM, isn’t enough on its own. It’s not enough just to ruin your character’s life and take away their grand passion and change their whole sense of what their future is going to be, you got to add insult to injury. You gotta have something that’s going to make the whole world seem a little bit unfair.”

Step 5: Make Your Character Pick the Unhealthy Choice

“So now, your main character’s life has changed, her grand passion has been taken away, the world has revealed itself to be unfair, and she comes to a fork in the road, and she gotta have to make a choice on how to deal with her new reality.

There’s a high road to take, a healthy responsible choice, or a low road to take, and make an unhealthy, irresponsible choice. 

And remember, if your character choses to do the right thing you really don’t have a story. (…)

The key thing here is that we are rooting for [the character] to do the unhealthy irresponsible thing because we feel her pain.

Bring It Home

So your story is coming out of your character’s deepest desire, and darkest fear.

The thing they love gets stolen away from them, and the world is revealed to be unfair.

To put things right, they have the make the journey that is the rest of the film, and by the end of the journey, hopefully, not only will they get back what they lost, but they’ll be forced to fix that little flaw they had when we first met them.

So that’s what I learned at Pixar, and I’m not saying that all stories need to start this way, but if you’re writing a script and you’re having a hard time getting started, I hope these ideas are helpful.

I really enjoyed Arndt’s simple, clear and concise way of explaining it. As he said, this is not for all stories, but if you find yourself stuck developing your character, this first act’s skeleton will force you to ask yourself key questions about your character and her journey.

Watch the full video below for practical examples, and if you want to hear more from Michael Arndt, listen to his masterclass here, which also happens to be one of my favorite screenwriting talk.

Thanks to Jamuura