Chapter 7: Story - What's it All About?
Your premise doesn't have to glare out like a neon sign. You should have enough incident, visual effect and action to dazzle your audience, but you will know it's there, and it will be your sure-footed guide to a strong production.
Your usual starting point on a cartoon film story may be a character. If you don't have one of your own in mind, maybe you'll be prompted to find one on a list such as I was given at UPA, and copied below. But for your purposes a barebones type won't be enough. The only character worth working with cannot be an ordinary anything. He, she, or it will have to be some kind of extreme, either physically, psychically, or socially. If fat, very fat. If weird, all-out weird. If opinionated, extremely. The best characters are over the top!
Animation requires a magnified reality! Quite often, how a character looks will affect his or her every action. If there is a fetish, and attraction, an aversion, then that will affect action. If the character is an outcast, a social climber, or a power-player, then that will drive his or her actions.
Lajos Egri points out that if you want a really strong, and interesting character, you will have to know its physical, psychological, and social make up. When you know your character, you will know what he, she or it will do or will not do, and in your animation its actions, gestures, dialog, and facial expressions will make it clear to us what its "feeling" and "thinking." That is a real character! You will get inside the character when you are writing for it, creating its poses, or animating it. Just as any other type of actor, you will become the character.
Of course, Egri tells a lot more about character growth, development of action, dramatic construction, conflict, and resolution. But that is his book, and you should read it. I won't say that that average animation film will be as complex as a Broadway play, but in essence all the elements will be there, however condensed or stylized. Don't break your head with these technicalities when your mind is singing with a brilliant idea. Write it all down, so you don't lose your inspiration... but THEN put it to the test. Discover your premise and then trim and mold your material to fit.
One way to start is to try the "What if?" approach. "What if such-and-such a character got into such-and-such a situation?" For example, "What if a hungry dog fell through a skylight into a delicatessen?" Another thing Hub told me was about the "Moving Train." When you start your story, the "train" is already moving; events are already in motion. This gets your little movie into action from the outset. So start in action, and fill in your exposition as you go along. Right away you are setting up your conflict, the problem to be solved, the obstacles to be overcome, the complications and switches along the way to your inevitable climax and ending. (If your premise requires disaster, then you must show how the obstacle overcomes the character!)
UPA story people didn't use any automatic plot machines, or story formulas, such as are on computer programs we have today, but they did use some idea prompters to suggest a protagonist for a story. I got this list originally from UPA storyman Phil Eastman in 1948, and I've added a few modern types to fill it out. Just for fun, try it out, and see if you can work up a story with a character from this list, within the principles I've quoted.