Ten years ago, shortly after Pixar’s Toy Story 3 had opened to widespread acclaim, its screenwriter Michael Arndt delivered a lecture at the studio in which he laid bare the “complete nightmare” that was scripting process. “Toy Story 3: Mistakes Made, Lessons Learned,” a brilliant breakdown of the craft of Pixar-style storytelling, is now available as a video online. Watch it here.
Arndt admits that he walked into Pixar thinking he knew what storytelling was (and with good reason: he’d written the screenplay for Little Miss Sunshine, which went on to win him an Oscar), only to be humbled by the demands of the project. For three years, he drafted and redrafted, trying to nail the “tentpole moments”: those key turning points that hold up the story, like the “inciting incident,” “first-act break,” and “climax.”
Arndt explains what each of these moments requires, using examples from Toy Story 3 — and, fascinatingly, comparing them with discarded earlier drafts, which Arndt can see in hindsight were “bad.” Crucially, he reveals how a good plot is an expression of the characters. If the narrative stakes tell us nothing about who Woody and Co. are and what they think, something isn’t working.