Originally Published in “Animation Today” Magazine – Copyright with Author
First in a Series of Three Articles
Screenwriting guru Syd Field describes a screenplay as, “a story told in pictures, dialogue, description placed in context of dramatic structure,” but where does that story come from? With the Indian animation industry’s phenomenal growth there is a new drive to produce Intellectual Property (IP) for both the domestic and international markets. Finding truly original stories to tell is the key to gathering both faithful audiences and international recognition.
In this article I am going to start with the general ideas behind story conception then move through specific tricks and exercises to take that first spark of creation and make it into a well developed tale. The most important fact is: writing is not easy. It takes hard work and discipline. Concepts may pop magically into your head, but the maturity of a story is in the details, which is why 90% of writing is re-writing.
Great writing comes from passion. So start with your own interests. Though there is no right way to conceive a script, you will find it easier if you explore the things that excite you. Some may start with a character that interests them. Others begin with a simple plot or maybe even a theme or point they want to make. As you work let the ideas flow. Keep pen and paper nearby and write down everything. I keep a small memo pad with me at all times and one next to the bed in case I wake up with an idea.
What do you want to write? Features, shorts, serials? Form can suggest content. The types of stories that can be told are different between a five minute short and an eighty minute feature. If you are new to screenwriting start with a short subject since you can learn many of the elements of storytelling without the complications of trying to sustain an intricate plot or create a long cast of characters.
So where do we find stories? They are all around us. The writer’s best assistant is a keen capacity for observation. Watch the world. On the bus or train, walking the streets, at work or at home there are constantly stories unfolding before us. Some will be tidbits that might fit into ideas you are working on, while others will unravel before your eyes as full fledged sagas ready to be developed into scripts. Let your imagination add and change details combining different characters and plots until you find that original combination that animates you.
Besides our direct observations we have many ways to view the world and find stories fit for animation. Reading books, newspapers and websites we often come across inspiration. From simple anecdotes to the wonderfully complex narratives of mythology there are fantastic stories to be told. Of course it is important to watch films, especially animation, in order to consider what stories have already been told, what could be told differently and to understand how style can affect storytelling.
Where to start: characters or plot? This is almost a “chicken or the egg” question, but in the end a well written script must weave the two together seamlessly. Still, those who have taken my screenwriting workshop or classes know that for me great films are driven by great characters. Interesting, unique, consistent, and well motivated characters move a plot forward. Without them your script will be dull and lifeless.
While developing characters the biggest challenge is to create something fresh and unique. It has been written that “there’s nothing new under the sun,” but as a screenwriter the goal is to find a distinctive view with matchless characters orchestrated to play against each other in new ways. There are wonderful opportunities in India because many “Indian” stories, both historical and modern, have yet to be explored in animation.
There are a few simple concepts to keep in mind while developing your main characters. Who is your protagonist? The protagonist is the character whose dramatic need forces the story forward. Dramatic need is the character’s goal or desire, and is essential in all forms, including comedy. In animation these goals are usually simple and apparent. Shrek wants his swamp back. Woody wants to be the Andy’s favorite toy. Now consider “Finding Nemo.” Who’s the protagonist? It’s Marlin, not Nemo. Marlin wants to find his son and he will not stop at anything. Neither should your protagonist.
Who is your antagonist? The antagonist is the character whose dramatic need forces obstacles in front of the protagonist. This character’s drive must match the protagonist’s. If either gives up too soon your story will fizzle out. For Shrek it is Lord Farquaad, for Woody it is Buzz Lightyear, but “Finding Nemo” does something unusual and Marlin’s nemesis is in fact The Ocean. If your main characters are properly matched you will find your story developing with plenty of excitement.
What makes characters interesting? Character development is a subject fit for a book or a semester long course, so here we will only explore two key elements: Internal conflict and the Unexpected. The conflict within a character keeps the audience wondering, “Will they succeed?” A hero without weakness is boring. It is the fight to beat the odds that keeps us glued to the edges of our seats. Marlin’s fear of the ocean makes his swim across the sea an adventure where we cheer for him, all the time fearing that he will succumb to his weakness and give up. Yet, as already mentioned, a well written character will be motivated to fight to the end.
One of the best tricks in creating unique characters is trying to invent unexpected traits. A friendly Ogre. Monsters that care. Vegetarian sharks. Playing against stereotypes can bring freshness to your script. It is important to remember that your character must be formed so that these surprising traits are fundamental and consistent parts of their personalities and not aberrations that the audience won’t believe. You must build the individual as a coherent whole. These suggestions should give you a springboard for conceiving and fleshing out your on screen personas. Now let us take a quick look at plot.
As you begin work on your plot it is often helpful to state your “theme” dramatically. Using the Nemo example again we could say: When his son is captured a father must cross the world fighting enormous odds to save the boy. By putting your plot down succinctly it will help you concentrate on the key elements. Within this statement you have character, goal and obstacles.
While developing a plot you might see parallels to archetypal stories. For example: A prince trying to set his life in order must overcome treachery in his family in order to become a worthy king. This is in fact the underlying theme of both Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Disney’s “Lion King” and other similar narratives have been told in many films. Obviously the two stories are completely different with Hamlet failing and Simba succeeding, but the classic scenarios can often feed story development. The intricate tapestry of Indian myths and folklore can be used to not only tell the actual legends, but to create other stories in various epochs and settings.
There are some special tricks and tips for the brainstorming and conceptualization phase of screenwriting. The first and most important is: just write! Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Let the ideas flow. Don’t rewrite as you go there will be plenty of time to rewrite when after you have completed a full draft of your script. If you get frustrated or have writer’s block take a break, go for a walk, or meditate. There are countless examples from the world’s most inventive minds that their best ideas came to them while doing something completely unrelated to their work. Of course you need to make the effort to get back to writing, but don’t force it.
My favorite tips for both script development and overcoming writer’s block are:
- When you start with a blank page write something, anything on it. It could be your name, the title of the script, or the date. Don’t stare at a blank page it often seem impenetrable.
- Do free association exercises. Write down ideas in single words or short phrases and then let your mind flow jotting down anything that pops in your head. You can also use a Thesaurus to find new and connected words that can spark ideas.
- Start outlining. Gathering your thoughts into any kind of structure can help you come up with new ideas. You might start with something as simple as Beginning, Middle and End, then start filling in details.
- Mindmapping (see graphic) is an excellent tool. This is visually organizing your ideas linking concepts and giving each the necessary details. There are some good computer programs for doing this, but I usually find it’s easier and more efficient with pencil (for corrections) and lineless paper.
- Idea cards are particularly suited for screenwriting because storytelling is not necessarily a linear process. Writing “idea cards” is the practice of putting pieces of your story on separate cards so that they can be shuffled, grouped and easily reorganized. By writing information about each character, plot idea, location, etc. onto a card you can look at your story in different ways that are not possible on a writing pad or word processor. I usually use 3 by 5 inch lined cards, but here in India I buy stacks of blank visiting cards. These are easy to file or tape up on a wall to look at story elements organized differently.
- Character worksheets (see graphic). I have a detailed worksheet (adapted for animation from Dwight Swain’s book “Screenwriting”) that I use dividing character traits into Physiology, Sociology and Psychology. This gives me an excellent template for thinking about what are the key qualities for each of my characters.
Now let’s talk about some exercises you can do to start to understand both character and plot development before working on your own stories. These are helpful because they allow you to become more knowledgeable about the process without the pressure of actually having to come up with original ideas. Watch one of your favorite animated films then see if you can:
- State the theme dramatically;
- Fill out a character worksheet for each of the major parts;
- Outline the script paying close attention to important dramatic moments where the plot shifts to a new level (Plot points);
- Mind Map either a key sequence or the entire film looking for how the key elements work in relationship to each other;
- Make notes about why script works or where you think it could have been improved.
These are just some basic ideas for developing new stories. Understanding more about the art of screenwriting will make you more aware of how stories are told on screen which will in turn inspire and aid you in developing your own ideas. Writing scripts is a complex discipline where your skills can be improved by both practice and study. I highly recommend that you read books about screenwriting and take a course or workshop. Read scripts, many are available on the internet. Watch films paying attention to how the characters and plots are developed, then analyze why the film is successful or fails. Every viewing experience is a learning experience. You can learn a lot from “bad” film writing.
As I said in the beginning writing “takes hard work and discipline.” You need to practice, practice, practice and the only way to do that is to write. It is a wondrous process where you can create untold of worlds and characters only limited by your own imagination. No one ever said the act of creation is easy, but I can guarantee you that it is well worth the effort.