Jean Ann Wright begins a series of articles on writing for animation. Here she outlines the steps to getting started, what to discuss in your first story meeting, and writing, the all important, story premise.
Jean Ann Wright.
You want to be an animation writer and you have some really cool ideas for your favorite show. So? First you have to write a sample script to submit to the story editor of that show. Try surfing online to find an actual animation script that you can use as a template for format. Write your sample script for a show that's similar to the show you want to pitch. DO NOT write a sample for the same show you want to pitch, as the story editor will know that show too well and he'll see only the script's flaws. Try to meet professional animation writers and story editors. Learn who they are by looking at the credits of animated shows. Join animation organizations. Go to seminars and workshops and introduce yourself to the writers and story editors there. Network! But never be a pest! When your sample script is ready, contact the story editor you want to pitch, and ask if you can submit a sample of your writing. Be sure it's your very best! You can submit a copy of your sample script to an animation agent as well, but an agent is not a must to find work.
Before you meet with a story editor, watch as many episodes as you can of that story editor's show. Watch it when it airs; watch old episodes that you've previously taped or rented. Analyze the episodes. How long is each? What makes this show popular? How is it different? What's the level of reality? What are the rules of that cartoon universe? What makes it funny? Who are the main characters, and what makes them funny? Make notes about each. How many characters are in a typical episode? How many locations are used in each? Analyze the structure. Who wants what? Time exactly where each plot point comes in. What kind of humor is used? Is there a lesson, and how is it handled? Be sure you really know the main characters and their attitude! The more that you know about the show, the better chance you have of getting a shot at writing an episode. And usually you get that shot by submitting written premises or story ideas. Premises are short and written in narrative form. Unfortunately, there's no pay for writing them.
Meeting the Story Editor
OK! The story editor likes your script, and you've set up a meeting. Come prepared with several imaginative, twenty-five-word-or-less ideas for episodes, springboards that you can pitch verbally, if asked. Request a bible of the show, a script and a copy of several premises. The writer's bible contains information about the show and the show's characters. Listen carefully to everything the story editor tells you, and make notes. Ask questions. Does this show have an A plot and a B plot? Short cartoons do not, longer cartoons often do. Does the show have a joke ratio per page? What are the demographics or target age of this show? And is the target specific, or are the executives hoping for a wide range of viewers? What length does the story editor want your premises to be? Usual length is about one page, but each story editor has his own preference. How many premises does the editor want you to write before submitting the batch...three, four? When do you need to submit your first batch? Animation writing deadlines are usually very short, and you'll want to submit your ideas quickly. As a new writer, you'll probably be lucky to have one idea selected. And you may have to submit premises a number of times before any are given the go-ahead.
Planning the Premise
Now you're home staring at a blank page. Find a different way of looking at things. Come up with something new or a different twist on an old idea. Don't limit your imagination. Think broader, wilder! For a comedy be sure that the main situation is funny. Go for the color...situations are a dime-a-dozen. The basic idea must be visual. Animators must have something to animate. You're writing for the story editor and any executives that have to approve your idea. Remember that broadcasters have censors. Can your audience identify with these characters in this story? In a kid's show, the writing should be "kid-relatable"...it should talk to and with the kids. The story should be so simple in concept that it can be told in a few sentences. Be sure you're telling only one complete story, one single, main incident going directly from A to B to C, nothing extraneous. One problem! One solution! Know the beginning, middle and end. Center the story on the star. Your story should grow out of the star's character. It's the star's weakness, his goal, his story. He should move the action ahead by what he says and does. He must solve the problem. He shouldn't be off stage for more than a couple of pages. Show him off. Normally, the villain in a cartoon is really bad! But pre-school shows may contain only funny villains. Remember that your hero is only as strong as your villain. It takes a super hero to vanquish a strong villain. Every character you include should be absolutely necessary. Be sure that you have enough props available in your setting for your gags. Consider the budget...not too many characters, special effects, expensive action...unless you're writing for a big budget show. You may want to start your planning at the climax of your story and work backwards. If there's a twist at the end, you need to plant the seeds of it in the beginning without giving the twist away. As the story goes along, increase the jeopardy. Add a dire threat. For greater tension include a time factor. There should be no easy solutions to the problems. If the story isn't working, it's probably because there's not enough conflict. Solve one problem, and the solution leads to another. In comedy the harder the star struggles to get out of his predicament, the deeper he digs himself in. A six to twelve minute cartoon most likely has no real plot, only a situation; a longer cartoon will need more structure. And it's good to have a twist at the end.
Writing the Premise
Make your title catchy. Hook the story editor with your first sentence. Joe Barbera used to say, "Get aboard a moving train!" Sparks should fly right away. Set up the star, villain, problem/conflict and where it takes place immediately in the first paragraph. What's the dreadful alternative if the problem isn't solved? Use common emotions. Why are your characters doing what they're doing? Include examples of characters reacting in character. Introduce attitude. Put your own personality into the premise. Add a gag or two. No dialogue. Write in the present tense. Use strong verbs. Check spelling and grammar. Keep your premise as short as possible, and really sell the best parts...downplaying the rest. As a new writer, it's best to include a fairly complete structure, but if that structure doesn't help to sell the premise, keep it sparse. Make your premise fun to read. Scare, tease, tantalize! Write. Put each premise away for a day and rewrite. Be sure you're clear, specific and precise. Remember that the purpose of a premise is to sell your idea! Good luck!
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.
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