The clues to a great story: notes on the TED talk

 Andrew Stanton’s work:


The first thing I notice is that Pixar’s Andrew Stanton opens this 2012 TED talk with a seriously ribald joke (about bestiality). I recall an incident from just a few years ago; woman children’s writers were pictured in a children’s literature publication drinking wine together, and subsequently faced criticism for… drinking wine… when THEY’RE SUPPOSED TO BE SETTING EXAMPLES FOR CHILDREN, DAMMIT. The audience of the publication comprises adults. The women would not have faced this criticism had they been men.

Likewise, only a white man such as Andrew Stanton can make an audience laugh by telling a joke about bestiality in the context of children’s media.

Later in his talk, Andrew Stanton confides to his audience that when they first started at Pixar they didn’t know what they were doing. Perhaps this comes as a surprise to some. It doesn’t come as any surprise to me. Geniuses do not enter their jobs as geniuses. They get extraordinarily good at what they do because of the opportunities, and funding, they are entrusted with.

Remember that if you’re one of the folk who argue that John Lasseter deserves to go back to Pixar after his sexual harassment stand-down because John Lasseter is the story genius behind Pixar. How many talented women have Pixar lost due to Lasseter, women who would be named geniuses had they not been pummelled out of the company? And what if the other men working at Pixar had spoken up?


Now to the takeaway points for storytellers. What has Stanton learned from his privileged years working at Pixar?

He shares a thought-provoking quote:

Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.

William Archer, British playwright

I’ll pair that with another quotation, which gives more specific advice, building on that one:

The anticipation is our sense of expectancy about what has just happened and how it is likely to produce a new event we suspect is likely to follow. The uncertainty is our sense that even though we have an idea as to what will happen next, we cannot be sure of precisely how it will turn out. We anticipate but are still ready for surprises.

Alexander Mackendrick, ‘On Filmmaking’

Note that Pixar films are listed on IMDb as a blend of drama, action, comedy and ‘adventure’.

I don’t consider adventure a useful genre subcategory (at the story-building end) because adventure is basically action mixed in with a mythic form of some kind. (The characters leave home and then come back, or find a new home. In picture books, we call this a home-away-home story.)

Are those quotations useful? I believe it is useful to mull over the fact that storytellers must put the audience in that slightly uncomfortable position of both knowing what’s coming and also being surprised by it.

How on earth do you do that?

Storytellers use established plot structures, archetypes and tropes that are as old as human communication itself… but mixed together in novel ways. Any audience has a deep understanding of story which they probably can’t articulate. It’s the job of the storyteller to understand them on a more conscious level, and to surprise an audience with new takes… on OLD stuff. (There really is nothing new under the sun, but there is an infinite number of new combinations.)


Later in his talk, Stanton reveals that the Pixar team wanted to avoid the following elements in their films for children, I deduce because they’d been overdone previously:

  1. No songs
  2. No I want moment
  3. No happy village
  4. No love story
  5. No villain

But they tried this and found their stories weren’t working. So Pixar hired an unnamed, anonymous lyricist who contradicted that wisdom and told them they did in fact need ALL of the above.

So… do Pixar films include those things?

  1. They’re not musicals. Disney is making the musicals, not Pixar.
  2. Although there is no ‘I Want Moment’ in a Pixar film, it is always clear what a character wants. Pixar simply trusted their audience to pick that part up without showcasing it.
  3. Sure enough, I can’t think of a Happy Village scene from a Pixar film.
  4. Although there are no overtly sexual love stories in Pixar films, their stories are all about love, for family, and for stand-in family (see Up).
  5. Sure enough, opponents don’t have to be the villainous subcategory of opponent — opponents exist on a continuum. There is plenty of opposition within the character webs of Pixar films.


Stanton talks about Woody from the Toy Story franchise and explains that the storytellers knew that if Woody was to undergo a character arc as a selfless ‘person’, he first needed to start out selfish. They predicted a likeability problem. But Stanton soon understood that they could give Woody all sorts of moral and psychological shortcomings, so long as “he stayed the top toy”.

This struck me as a hierarchical, non-cooperative (read: stereotypically man-box) way of viewing the world, but it has really got me thinking. Is this really the condition for making otherwise unlikeable characters sympathetic to an audience? This is a prerequisite I have never considered before, and I have given the matter some thought.


Stanton talks about watching Bambi at the age of five. This was his first experience of something all story should have but which is “rarely invoked”: He reveals that this “special sauce” is ‘wonder’.

But he doesn’t concretise that for storytellers. This is one of those bits of advice successful storytellers love to throw out there precisely because it is so elusive, and helps the person dishing out the advice to look like a true and utter genius.

He does mention something about ‘innocence’ when talking about the wonder of Bambi. Perhaps we can recreate wonder by creating a young, naive character and immersing them in an interesting, exciting setting after invoking audience empathy for them. In this way, the audience discovers the world of the story alongside the main character.