Pixar’s Pete Docter’s 7 Steps To Discovering Your Story

How to write a story your audience can’t resist

By Antonio Rengel

How are stories made? Pixar’s Pete Docter — the director of such Pixar hits as Monsters, Inc.Up, and Inside Out, says a “story isn’t made, it’s discovered.”

As a young animator, Docter believed Walt Disney woke up with fully formed stories in his head. When Pixar hired him at 21, he learned what looked like a flash of inspiration was a painstaking process.

This is a process Pixar has mastered as well as any in the business. Over the past few decades, they’ve enjoyed a near flawless track record. With Pete himself directing many of their most celebrated movies: Monsters Inc, Up, Inside Out, and most recently Soul.

Pete and Pixar may have a team of talented animators and writers at their disposal, but anyone can copy their creative process. Here are their 7 steps for discovering a story, and some tips to use them in your own work.

Step 1: Finding An Idea That Excites

The film Toy Story became Pixar’s first mega-hit, but it started as a simple idea: What if toys came alive when you stopped playing with them?

Ideas like this are the seeds from which stories grow. Everything from childhood fables like the Tortoise and The Hare to cinematic epics like The Godfather begins as ideas in their creator’s heads.

To tell a captivating story, you need an idea; or ideas if we’re being more accurate. An intriguing idea rarely comes on your first go around. You often need to produce many crummy ones to find one you like. As Docter describes:

“Finding ideas is like digging for buried treasure: you might find a coin or two on the top, but usually the chest full of doubloons is buried deeper.”

During this process, it’s tempting to apply labels like “good” or “bad” to your ideas. Pete advises against this. Instead of chasing the elusive “perfect idea”, look for one that excites you.

Remember, at this stage, your ideas are still seedlings. You don’t know what they’ll grow into until you take the time to develop them. Find one you’ll be eager to work on for the long haul.

Step 2: Elaborate On Your Idea

So what comes after talking toys?

If you’ve completed step 1, you’re now armed with an idea to work with. It may be a theme you’d like to explore, a funny bit you want to perform, or a specific experience you wish to share.

Your next job is to expand on your idea. Find ways to stretch it out and connect it with other subjects.

Some ideas fit together nicely. Docter says for a movie like Monsters Inc., which involves scary creatures, he knew he’d have to deal with themes like fear and anxiety.

Others require more creativity to connect. If you’re having trouble linking ideas, try free association. Simply list everything that comes to mind when you think of a subject.

It can help to ask questions. For instance, if you’re writing about Vampires, you might ask things like: Do vampires have a specific blood type they prefer? What does that preference say about their personality? What if there was a vampire who hated the taste of blood?

Step 3: Look Beyond What You Know

You’ve probably heard the storytelling cliche: “write what you know.” This isn’t poor advice. Writing “what you know” fills a story with your unique style, personality, and experiences. But it will only get you so far. You must also push past your knowledge and seek out new information and fresh perspectives.

Before production, Pete Docter and his team conduct extensive research on the subjects they’re writing about. For Inside Out, they interviewed dozens of psychologists and clinical researchers to learn about human emotions. For Soul, they talked to gurus and experts from the world’s major religions to get their thoughts on souls and the meaning of life.

Your Rolodex might not be as large as Pixar’s, but there are likely people in your life you can collaborate with. If not, hit the shelves of your local library. Or plug your ideas into your Google search bar. Follow your curiosity and see where it takes you.

Step 4: Establish Character & Relationship

Whether it’s a “space ranger” that doesn’t know he’s a toy, a pair of professional monsters that clock in and out of work, or a love-stricken trash robot, Pixar knows how to create memorable characters.

Docter believes characters and their relationships connect people to your story. This makes sense. Humans are social creatures. We’ve evolved to relate and care about others. This is true in life and art.

While there is no fail-safe way to write compelling characters, your research and brainstorming in the previous step should give you a place to start. You can also lean on your experience. Think of people you know. Combine the personalities of different friends and family members to create someone unique.

Remember, your characters don’t need to be kind or likable, but they need to be interesting and relatable. Audiences will gladly root for a flawed hero if they’re written well. As Pete points out “Al Capone isn’t someone you’d likely want to live with, but wouldn’t you love to have had dinner with him?”

Step 5: Find Your Story’s Emotional Heart

It’s near impossible to find someone who hasn’t been moved by a Pixar movie. Just try to watch the first 10 minutes of Up without shedding a tear.

What is it about Pixar movies that affect people like this?

The answer to this question lies in the emotional heart of their stories. Each one touches on some part of what it means to be human. They speak to our common experiences: falling in love, growing up, facing death.

Pete and Pixar are masters at exploring these universal subjects. Just think of your favorite Pixar movie. On the surface, it appears fun and fanciful, but at its core, it deals with a deeper theme.

Finding Nemo is not just a film about fish, it’s a story about parenthood. Up dazzles viewers with talking dogs and floating houses, but it’s really a story about grief. Soul has swinging jazz and sparkling images, but below the surface, it’s a story about searching for meaning in life.

Like Pixar, you must find an emotional pulse for your story. This doesn’t have to be difficult. Just being human equips you with an arsenal of material to choose from. Look to your core experiences or something you’re currently struggling with. While this struggle may seem unique to you, there is likely something within it others can relate to.

Step 6: Seek Feedback

Pixar perfects its films through an extensive feedback process. Writers and animators go through many rounds of edits to come up with what you see on screen. According to Pete, the Pixar team screen tested 7 to 8 versions of Inside Out before completing the story.

The word “feedback” might make you shiver. You’ve spent weeks, months, possibly years on a project, now your work stands naked in front of an audience.

This fear makes some avoid feedback. No one wants to see their precious work torn to shreds. But it is precisely because your work is so precious that you must show it to others.

Pete is emphatic on this point. When you spend a lot of time on a project, you get too close to the story. From this cozy position, you can no longer remain objective about what is or isn’t working. Seeing someone else’s reaction gives you an idea of how a person, other than yourself, will respond.

Step 7: Will Your Story To Completion

If the 6 steps above seem like a lot of work, it’s because they are. Even with millions of dollars to play with and a team of brilliant people, it takes Pixar 4–5 years to make a movie.

Pete is brutally honest about the work that goes into completing each picture. For every project he’s worked on, he estimates the ratio of “fun” to “hard work” is about 10% fun to 90% hard work. Towards the end of the process, there is always a point he has to “drive himself to keep going.”

You will experience similar struggles when discovering your story. At many points, you’ll question your work, your abilities, and even yourself. If you’re tempted to quit, remember doubt is part of the game. Everyone, even the most talented people, deals with it. The only way forward is to continue working, even if you don’t want to.

While the work itself may tax you, the reward is worth the struggle. What you create has the potential to inspire. When done well, it connects your personal ideas with a large audience. At its best, it alters the way someone sees themselves and the world around them.

Pete Docter may be one of our most popular storytellers, but for each of his movies he claims, “If no one ever saw it but me, I would’ve still considered myself incredibly lucky to have had the chance to make it.”

Antonio Rengel is an educator and copywriter who writes about creativity, marketing, pop culture, and occasionally mindfulness meditation