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Story Skills for Animation 4


Previous Tutorial: Story Skills for Animation 3

The story so far; Oh, just go back and read the other stuff.

Some other advice I’ll give you for nothing, though one day I’ll expect you to buy a book.

And the answer to last week’s quiz question…


If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in the last fifteen years in the industry (other than never expect any money from your first invoice) it’s that audiences love characters who intrigue or enchant them. They might be Homer Simpson. They might be an anglepoise lamp. They might be a cute mouse or a reprehensible monster, but if the viewer feels a degree of empathy with them they will stay the course because they like the things that happen when that character is around and want to see what they’ll do next.

As an exercise go back and look at all the You Tube clips linked in part one and part two of this whatever this is. What do they all have in common? Every one of them stars characters that we know and love – or love to hate. Character comes first. A strong character is the audience’s guide to your world – the door into your story. It’s the first thing you should talk about when you try to sell a show too.

But often the characters I see in student scripts and show pitches are flimsy and over familiar. They’re clichés, because we’ve all seen a million movies and archetypes are what most easily come to mind when we write. Now archetypes aren’t bad, especially in animation (a medium that excels in characterture) but when they’re too familiar they don’t excite, or are sexist or racist or crap. So beware the stock cast of characters you have in your head. They’ve been put there by a lifetime’s exposure to other people’s stories and it’s easy to repeat too accurately something we’ve all seen before.

Great characters intrigue because we can’t understand everything about them at a single glance. We do get the gist, but there’s extra to intrigue and surprise us more.

  • Ren and Stimpy?
  • Spongebob Squarepants?
  • A dumb blond girl
  • A hungry fat guy

Who would you rather watch?

Decide what your story is really about

Usually it starts with an image. A moment. A kick ass scene. It starts with something singular that gets you all excited and makes you want to run off and tell your friends “There’s this great bit where…”  Then you have to stick a story around it. Then you have to ask yourself ‘what is my film really about?’

I don’t mean what is the story? That’s just the surface. What is it really about? The theme? What’s the secret objective of the tale you are telling? You’d be surprised how often filmmakers don’t answer these questions early on in the creative process, then go badly wrong because nothing underpins their work. Their scripts are walls without foundations. They don’t know what inhabits their building.

Great films have strong subtexts that the viewer often doesn’t even notice, but the film maker knows well. That’s how they made a great film. Their self-knowledge helped them make the right decisions – what to reinforce and what to take out.

If you have an idea for a story but no idea of what it is really about, you have a truck but no cargo. Think about something you really want to say, then make your story serve that higher purpose. Before you start a script answer these questions…

  • What does your film seem to be about?
  • What is it REALLY about?
  • How do you want to make your viewers feel at the end?

The answers will be your yardstick for judging how successful your script is and how much further you have to go. They will also help you find that ending.

Your film may not reach any firm conclusions, but it does need a sense of closure or it won’t satisfy. It’ll just stop. A good ending is the natural but entirely unpredictable result of all that has gone before. It is your ultimate weapon for leaving the audience in the state you want to leave them – be it laughing, crying or arguing about what you meant. By deciding what your secret intentions are you can better devise an ending that is appropriate and affecting.

Show don’t tell

In every screenwriting book this is rule number one, yet it’s one of the hardest to master for many.

Show don’t tell

So I’ve said it twice.

Show don’t tell

And then again – slightly louder. Always strive for the most visual ways to tell your story. Let your pictures do the talking and save the talking for things that pictures cannot do.

If you’re come to screenwriting from other forms of writing you’ll find this hardest tool to master. Just saying something out loud will be the most natural thing in the world to you and reducing it to pictures a challenge. But this is screen writing – a visual craft – and it truly becomes an art form when amazing images tell your tale.

Screen writing secrets three. When scripting for animation write every scene without dialogue first. Doodle it. Scribble it. Watch the pictures in your head and then jot them down. Not because that’s the way your script may end up eventually but as an exercise. Visual solutions to storytelling problems are almost always more original than those solved by dialogue, which often end up cliché. Removing words forces you to be more creative.

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