The Secret to Telling Inspiring Stories (A Lesson From Pixar)

Photo Credit: Creative Commons
Photo Credit: Creative Commons

This post originally appeared as a guest post for Bryan Hutchinson at his blog,, in October 2013. You can check out his inspirational writing here

In my story-telling dreams I see entire audiences on their feet. Applauding. Cheering… Crying.

There’s something about a story or a movie making people cry that’s alluring. It’s a beautiful thing. A dark room, filled with 300 complete strangers, all sharing a collective cry. They walk out chattering like life-long friends, united by the story they’ve just witnessed.

I want to make art like that. Don’t you? But how?

When we sit down and attempt to craft a story with emotional appeal and inspiring characters, we quickly find it’s easier said than done.

So, what’s the secret to telling inspiring stories? How can we create heroes that our audience cares for and suffers with?

An (Unlikely) Empathetic Hero

The ultimate test of an audience’s empathy is a silent hero, like those of Charlie Chaplin.

Or like WALL-E.

WALL-E tells the story of a little robot tasked with cleaning up humanity’s trash. He is alone for over 700 years and develops a curious personality. Soon his curiosity leads him to want something that we all crave: Intimacy.

Enter EVE – a shiny egg-like robot designed to locate survival remnants of natural life on Earth. The rest of the film follows WALL-E’s obsessive pursuit of EVE. In the chase he faces overwhelming antagonism – human apathy, a sadistic robot, and the limits of his own battery-powered life.

He is pushed beyond his limits and suffers for wanting EVE so badly.

Yet after each threat knocks him down, WALL-E keeps getting up and chasing the woman-bot he loves. He doesn’t give up. He chases until he has nothing left.

This is the secret of inspiration. This is where we can find the stuff of heroes.

The Pixar Method

Pixar knows what it’s doing. Pre-production on a Pixar film can last up to four years, all of it spent on story and character design.

So where are they spending so much time and energy? Is it really that hard to tell a story about a robot or a cowboy doll?

Pixar’s heroes tend to follow a standard story arc; there are no “anti-heroes” or Macbeth-types in their canon (yet). Within that arc, Pixar’s heroes meet two important criteria that make them inspiring and emotionally potent, gaining them followers and box office rewards.

#1.The hero is always chasing an empathetic dream, no matter the stakes.

In Toy Story, Woody wants to be loved by Andy. Sully, the protagonist of Monsters, Inc, wants to help Boo.

Both of these goals are simple and straightforward.

Yet each is complicated.

Andy is growing up and will eventually abandon his toys. Helping Boo means social exile and the loss of all Sully seems to value.

No matter what, each hero will chase his dream because it defines him. It is a direct result of his ethical fiber. To not chase it would be a betrayal of self.

#2. The hero always suffers in pursuit of the dream; there is never a deus ex machina.

This is perhaps why Pixar needs so much time to refine its stories. When we hold our characters accountable and actually make them suffer for their dreams, we write ourselves into corners. We feel trapped by the impossibility of the situation, just like our characters do.

Pixar uses this pre-production time to go back and rethink, reimagine, and rewrite the possibilities for their characters.

How can this hero suffer and still win?

How can we take him/her to the edge of giving up but still persevere?

The stuff of inspiration – the thing that has captured humanity’s affection for centuries – is perseverance: an unwillingness to give up when the stakes are highest.

The Truth That Inspires

Few movies can jerk a tear like a Pixar flick.

Yet Pixar’s method isn’t so secret and elite that you and I can’t take advantage of it and the truth it contains.

At the core of every protagonist – and at the core of you and me – is a deeply rooted empathetic dream.

And at the core of the universe are forces that oppose our dreams and make them elusive and painful to attain.

This is a fundamental truth that we all know and understand.

Dreams are hard to achieve; the road to them is paved with suffering. (Tweet This)

Yet when we see this truth lived out – even in the life of a curious little robot – we believe that we can make it and the suffering will be worth it in the end.

Stories are about the dreams we desire. Pixar succeeds by giving their fantastic characters incredibly relatable dreams, so when we watch these films we don’t see a robot, a cowboy doll, or a rat.

We see ourselves.

We are inspired and want to inspire others.

And the tears start to flow.

What kind of stories inspire you and bring you to tears? Share in the Comments below.


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