Jean Ann Wright continues her series of articles on writing for television animation. This month she focuses on writing an outline for an episode of an animation series.
What Is An Animation Outline?
Story editors often ease a new writer from the premise into the outline, giving notes for several rewrites, and gradually expanding the story each time. This helps to ensure that the writer can handle the assignment before the editor commits to an outline payment. Sometimes a short cartoon goes directly from premise into script or storyboard. Approvals are, not only from the story editor but also, from producers, programming executives, standards and practices people, and sometimes from toy executives. Remember that each cartoon is different. So the following information is general information. In the outline the premise is expanded so that the structure will be complete. This is a blueprint, a plan, a narrative description of the action. Indicate scenes. Pace your story. You reveal through action, character, a little dialogue. Write in the present tense. You may suggest camera angles, minimally, working them into the sentence structure...we push in, dissolve to, see inside, etc. You may sprinkle in a little good dialogue...not too much. Emphasize action rather than description. You'll be paid for writing the outline.
The Meeting With The Story Editor
When your story editor notifies you that your idea has been approved for outline, you'll want to set up another meeting. Today most writers are freelancers, writing at home, occasionally continents away. So face-to-face meetings may be impossible. In that case business must be conducted by e-mail or snail mail or phone. Ask for a sample outline. Not all outlines look the same, so you need to know what kind of outline the story editor expects. Is this an outline with (1) numbered beats, with (2) master scenes (each beginning with a slug line as in a script), or is the outline (3) narrative prose? Ask about length. Do you understand all the notes that the story editor has given you? You'll need to follow them exactly. Ask questions. Know when your finished outline is due. Typically, you might have a week to finish. NEVER miss a deadline!
Look at your premise. What are the main points needed to tell your story? The specific personality traits of your star/hero put your story in motion. What does that star want? Who opposes him? What are their motivations? What's your hero's plan? Your star's goals should be in direct conflict with the villain's goals. The villain tries to foil the star's plans. Each turning point requires a decision by the star, who solves the story problem. There are no unseen forces, no easy solutions or clues. The star leads the action throughout the story. What's the worst thing that can happen to the star to keep him from attaining his goals? That's the crisis. The crisis is the opposite of what the star wants. What's the climax of your story, the big conflict near the end, the point that the entire story is building toward? Did your hero learn something? If so, that's the theme. Not all cartoons have a theme. You want to develop the main story points, the skeleton, first. Then you fill in the blanks. What scenes are absolutely necessary to tell your story? Are there two acts or three in your sample script? You'll want your acts to be roughly equal in length, leaving your hero in trouble before each act break. Every scene should be visual and have some action.
More To Think About
It's O.K. to restructure your plot somewhat. You may want to add more plot. You may change motivations, if you wish. Is your story true to the elements and characters of that series? Don't change the location or the villain. The story editor is balancing locations and villains for an entire season. If adding more characters is absolutely necessary, get permission from the story editor first, as this increases the budget. Remember to stage action for the budget, using cuts, camera shakes and trucks to avoid expensive animation. Save the expense for the important story points and the important gags. Don't leave out whatever it was that sold your premise in the first place. You may surprise your story editor with a few new twists of plot. You want to include the structure, what happens, the major jokes and where they'll go (even if the minor jokes aren't there yet). You want to show your characters acting in character. Think in terms of scenes (one action in one time and one place). Are your scenes in the right order, or would it be better to rearrange them? Can you combine some scenes to fulfill several purposes in a single scene? Do you need any scenes to fill a gap?
Taking Pencil To Paper
For a comedy you may want to start with a quick gag; for an action story, you may want to establish the threat, then the villain, then the heroes. Get into the action right away, and use plenty of action throughout. The thread of the story, reflected in all gags and dialogue, should be immediately apparent and weave through to the end. Principal characters must appear early. Reveal character through action, reaction and dialogue. Let the viewer identify with universal emotions. The story editor wants to see that you know the series' characters. All action should be motivated and believable for those characters and within that series. Later developments must have a seed planted early in the script. If the story isn't working in the middle, it's probably because it doesn't have enough conflict. New information in the middle spins the hero and/or villain off in a new direction. This information may be new to the hero or to the villain or to the audience. Build your story, your chases, your gags to a climax. What's the closing shot? Include the major gags, showing how you get in and out. Scenes usually go out on a laugh line, so set them up that way. Build your gags, top them, and pay them off. For comedy, save the best gag for the climax. Watch pacing and timing. Think broad. Be specific. Know your location, where each door is. Think like a camera sees. If the outline is too hard to write, perhaps the main situation isn't funny enough, you don't have enough props, the structure is wrong, or there's not enough conflict between characters. Have you told a good story in an original way? Is it funny? Keep your outline light and fun to read. Make it snappy.
Do you need to add more action and peril, a life-threatening time factor (the ticking bomb)? Does everything move the story ahead with nothing extraneous? Is everything clear, specific, concise? Does your writing flow? Check your grammar and your spelling. Usually, you'll get two sets of notes on the outline from the broadcaster (programming, standards and practices). Your story editor will also give notes and may require a rewrite. Once...and if...the outline is approved, you'll go on to write the script. You may be paid separately for the outline, or you may receive payment for both script and outline at once after you've finished your script. Now go out and celebrate! You've got the hard part done!
Jean Ann Wright has been teaching animation writing and development since 1996 and currently teaches for Women In Animation and The Animation Academy. Recently, she started her own consulting business. She's sold her writing to DIC, Filmation and Hanna-Barbera. She enjoys serving on the Los Angeles board of Women In Animation and judging for the Emmys and the Annies.