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A Guide to Writing Stories for Animation

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When creating a narrative-based animation, always remember that story is king

Anyone can tell a good story. We’ve been learning the building blocks of narrative structure since pre-school, and it only takes a bit of practice to add in the right amount of fluff and polish. As a creative artist, you’ve already learned many of the skills needed to design and animate a gorgeous film. The question that remains is…do you have a story worth telling?

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Story Structure can appear intimidating at first, but the basics of weaving an entertaining tale are incredible simple. Once you understand the fundamental structure of a story, you can mix and match elements to your heart's content. Inception is a wildly inventive film in terms of visual spectacle, but the narrative is surprisingly simple. It all comes down to using the basics of storytelling.

In this article, I’m going to take you through a simple process to elevate your stories. You’ll learn:

What is the Hero’s Journey, and Why is it Important to Storytelling?

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If you've ever studied storytelling, or just been around an English department long enough to overhear the average conversation, you've heard of the "Hero's Journey."

Also known as the Monomyth, the Hero's Journey is the canvas upon which nearly every story is painted. From the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey to the entirety of the Fast and Furious franchise, the Hero's Journey encompasses the totality of a protagonist-driven story. So what does that mean?

Put very simply, unless you are writing a massive ensemble or art-house-style story, you will follow the path of the Hero's Journey.

THE BEGINNING - STATUS QUO

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In order for an adventure to have any sense of progress, we need to see what the world is like right now. This can be as simple as showing Luke Skywalker on his boring moisture farm, or Tony Stark being a philandering jack-hole.

In the beginning, our heroes either state or are explicitly told their WANTS and NEEDS for the story.

CALL TO ADVENTURE

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Our heroes don't go out searching for adventure. They are called to it, usually by a mysterious newcomer. Luke finds a message in R2D2 (and a MacGuffin, but more on that another time), Brian is told to infiltrate and arrest Dominic Turreto, Bilbo is told to join the dwarves on their quest toward their ancient home.

Even in Inception, that trippy movie that "broke all the known rules," Cobb is offered the "one last job" that will reunite him with his family.

REFUSE THE CALL

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Without fail, the hero will ignore or outright refuse the first call. Luke isn't a hero yet, so he doesn't think he is capable of taking on the immense challenges ahead. Bilbo is a Hobbit, and they are absolutely against adventures.

Refusing the call can even be a momentary decision. Peter Parker lets a criminal go to spite a greedy fight promoter (the "call" was to stop a crime in progress), an we know how that worked out.

SUPERNATURAL AID, FINDING "HELPERS"

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When the hero finally decides to take the call, it usually comes with a bit of supernatural aid...if just to kick things off. This doesn't have to be "supernatural," just something outside of the hero's normal life.

Ben Kenobi suddenly reveals his magic Force powers when they arrive in Mos Eisley. Cobb demonstrates the insane power of working in the dreamscape with Ariadne. The cast of Galaxy Quest is beamed aboard a space port from a warehouse adjacent to a big box store.

This is also where the supporting cast is introduced.

CROSSING THE THRESHOLD

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The hero leaves home for the first time. Samwise Gamgee literally says "this is the farthest I've ever been from home." Crossing the threshold can be a physical thing, like entering new areas, or a metaphorical thing, as when Ethan Hawke takes a comical amount of drugs to prove to his new boss that he's ready to work undercover. It is a step well outside of comfort, and it leads to the next problem.

BELLY OF THE WHALE

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Uh oh, we took a few steps outside of home and now we are literally inside the Death Star. The Belly of the Whale is about being overwhelmed by the reality of the adventure.

The Hobbits are pursued by Ring Wraiths, beginning the realization that there is no going home anymore. The Monster Squad encounters an actual monster and realizes they have no clue what they are doing, and they are also literal children and have no business fighting Dracula. This is usually the moment when our Hero comes face-to-face with the Villain...but not always. Remember, in The Fifth Element, Bruce Willis never actually encounters Gary Oldman (or even knows he exists).

ROAD OF TRIALS

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Now that the full scope of the adventure is known, it's time to prepare. This is the Rocky training montage, the Fellowship of the Ring forming and heading out to Moria, the Goonies exploring the caves in search of One-Eyed Willy's treasure.

The trials are represented as a series of small victories and defeats. Each step forward is also a step backward, but the protagonist is constantly learning and growing. Even though the main fight is ahead, they are becoming the hero they need to be in order to win.

THE ABYSS, DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL

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The confrontation. The hero meets up with the villain in a massive battle...and loses! Bane breaks Batman's back. Luke loses Obiwan (and is somehow more depressed than his sister, who literally watched her entire planet get destroyed). The Turtles lose a major fight against Shredder, Splinter is captured, and Raphael is gravely injured.

In many cases, the Abyss is marked by a metaphorical—or even literal—death of the protagonist. It can be a literal abyss as well, as in the movie The Abyss (though this moment would refer to Ed Harris watching his ex-wife intentionally drown so he can swim her frozen body to safety).

TRANSFORMATION

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The hero has been tested in the most grueling way possible...and now they are transformed. Luke flies an X-wing into battle, but he doesn't yet trust the voice echoing in his mind. He is a better fighter, but there is still something remaining. A final choice.

Neo survives the fight with Agent Smith and races to escape the Matrix, but he still doesn't believe he is the One. Nancy realizes she can pull elements of her nightmares into reality...which means she can drag Freddy Krueger into her world as well.

ATONEMENT

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The death of the villain. Atonement can mean many things, but it is usually the team/family coming together in the 11th hour for the final victory. It is the moment the hero believes everything they were told by their mentor (or rejects it outright) in order to win the day.

Luke puts away his targeting computer and trusts in the Force. Neo comes back to life and "sees" the Matrix. Harry and Sally meet on the bridge and confess their love for one another (that's right, even Rom-Coms follow the structure!)

GIFT OF THE GODDESS

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With the villain defeated, the hero receives a gift. This can be a magical amulet, a cool medal, or a delicious sandwich. It isn't what the hero was questing for (more often than not), but rather what they needed all along. Sometimes, these gifts are just complimentary to the real gift...which was the adventure itself.

Willow is gifted a spell book by the powerful sorcerer Raziel. Luke and Han receive medals (#JusticeForChewie), though the greatest gift is Luke's recognition of the Force and his new path as a Jedi. Wolverine might not have his memories back, but he has a family that will support him on his journey.

RETURN

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Finally, the hero returns home...but everything is different. Bilbo is back in the Shire, but he no longer feels the same connection. Neo calls up the machines while inside the Matrix, but they can't touch him anymore. The Ghostbusters are no longer seen as grifters, but saviors of the city.

Great Stories Come From Shared Experience

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Almost every book on story structure begins with a simple message: your story has to be ABOUT something. This isn’t talking about the plot of your book, but rather the purpose. Pixar, some of the best animated storytellers out there, has put on a decades-long Masterclass on purposeful storytelling.

No matter what the movie is actually about, it boils down to a few universal experiences to which anyone can relate.

  • A person doing a mundane job and feeling lonely finds love…and will do anything to keep it (WALL-E)
  • A person struggles with the role they’ve been assigned in life and longs to express their true passion (Ratatoullie)
  • A parent overcomes every fear to rescue their child (Finding Nemo)

The purpose of your story should connect to just about anyone, which isn’t to say you need to write for EVERYONE. Your story can still be specific to a place, a time, a culture, or even a particular group of people. The actual narrative of the film can say something while the PURPOSE of the film expresses a more universal version of that message.

Take for example the Disney Animation short “Paperman.”

Not everyone has worked in a nondescript office space and fallen for the girl across the street, but MOST of the world has had a moment of sudden attraction. People have also felt ill at ease at their jobs before, that they need a change, that they want to shake up their normal routine. While this film is certainly about a specific place, specific people, and a specific moment of their lives, it is also about a universal feeling: that life isn't right yet. That there is more to come...if we are willing to take a leap of faith.

The Four Why’s of Storytelling

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When you set out to write a story, you have to answer a million questions. You need to know your world, your characters, and the elements of the plot that make up the entirety of the tale. Beyond just the mechanics of the narrative, you also need to focus on the Four Whys of Storytelling.

WHY THIS STORY

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This is the hardest question to answer, bar none. If you want to tell the story of a gaggle of children saving the world from monsters...why? Why is this an important story to tell? What is the lesson that is learned from this story? Why is this an important moment in the world of the characters?

In Lord of the Rings, there are HUNDREDS of stories the tell. Tolkien could have written about the fall and rise of Rohan and it would have been enough. He could have covered the strange friendship of a Dwarf and an Elf. He could have focused entirely on the budding romance between Samwise and Rose Cotton. Why did he focus on the story of the Fellowship?

When you set out to write your story, ask yourself why this story, amidst all the rest happening in your world, is where the narrative perspective will fall.

WHY THIS PLACE

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Why set Breaking Bad in New Mexico (aside from budgetary reasons)? Why is Spider-Man in New York? If your story is going to span a few locations, why start in one specifically? Why did we begin, in all of Middle Earth, in the Shire?

Your story is a collection of characters, and the environment is one of them. Watch the Disney short above again. Why did it start on a train platform? Why was it set in an office rather than a hospital or a school?

WHY THIS CHARACTER

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What is it about this particular character that makes them the hero of the story? Neo is the One, or the "special child," so he gets to be the hero...but what if the Matrix had been told as Morpheus' story? Or Trinity's? What if the Lord of the Rings had been from Gandalf's perspective?

When you look at your cast of characters, ask yourself which one has the more important story to tell. Not necessarily which one is the most capable, bad ass hero in the bunch (Aragorn is a much better fighter than Frodo), but which one has the more important journey to see.

WHY RIGHT NOW

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Why is your story starting when it does? Why are you (yes you, the author) telling this particular story at this moment in time? Is it topical? Timely?

Why did Star Wars start when the Death Star was already built? When Luke was just a farmer? Why did Galaxy Quest open with the cast already somewhat washed up?

Your stories are worlds of their own, and these questions help you narrow down your focus on only the most important elements to show and tell. However, none of it matters if you don't have a character worth following.

How Character is Key to a Great Story

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Rocky is a great movie. That shouldn't be a shock to anyone. It's an underdog tale, it has action and romance, and there are only a handful of elements that have aged just terribly. But why is Rocky a great movie?

Because Rocky is a great character.

When you think about stories that have affected you long after the credits have rolled, you're likely thinking about the characters. If you walk out of a movie and can't stop talking about the visual effects, the explosions, the fight scenes...you likely won't think about the movie much longer. But if you're talking about how, in that awesome fight scene, you cheered when Rocky finally summoned the strength to overcome his foe...now you've got a memorable story.

Your characters need to be three dimensional. They need to have feelings, flaws, strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly, they need to have WANTS and NEEDS.

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WHAT ARE A CHARACTER'S WANTS AND NEEDS?

Simply put, a story is built on wants and needs. In fact, they define the PLOT and the THEME.

The PLOT is what happens in the story. The THEME is what the story is about.

The PLOT of The Terminator is a robot goes back in time to kill the mother of the Leader of Humanity. The THEME is that there is no fate but what we make.  

So what are wants and needs? A character WANTS something, which drives the plot. Luke WANTS to save a princess. He WANTS to fly a fighter and blow up the Death Star. He NEEDS to listen to the Force and trust in his instincts...which allows him to actualize and become a Jedi...like his father before him.

Neo wants to know what the Matrix actually is...but he needs to become his true self.

This works for long-form storytelling as well. Ted Lasso wants to coach a soccer team to the best of his ability...but he needs to learn to adapt to the changes not only in his environment but in his personal life as well.

Once you understand what your character wants and what they need, you'll never question how they would act in a given scenario. In essence, answering these riddles about their mindset helps you write your story better.

Telling a Story with Consequences: And Then VS Because Of

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A common mistake of newer writers is consequence-free storytelling. Your world is less believable, and your characters less compelling, when things just seem to happen…rather than certain choices leading to unpredictable outcomes.

In writing, we call this And Then VS Because Of.

For example: My character is a young farmer working in an oppressive regime. A messenger arrives to reveal a tournament is planned, and the winner gets to overthrow the king (what, like your system of government is any better?) And then my characters decides to go to the tournament. And then they win and become king. And then everyone is happy.

Let's try that again, but add a little consequence: My character is a young farmer whose parents were killed by the oppressive government. Because he watched his parents suffer, he longs to see a better king on the throne. The tyrant, meanwhile, wants to entice would-be usurpers with a fake tournament, and spreads the word far and wide that the winner will become King...but he has no intention of stepping down peacefully. My character is told to enter the tournament by a mentor, but refuses. He isn't ready...and there is also a HUGE difference between being mad at the king and actually working to overthrow him. After walking through town to clear his head, he witnesses the corruption of the government and renews his passion to seek justice...so he joins the tournament.

Just by adding a little bit of consequence and decision, the story gains traction. Our character is no longer riding along with the plot, they are actively making decisions to DRIVE the plot. While circumstances can occur to put your characters into danger, decisions must be made to get them out. Otherwise the story is just boring.

If you're unsure if your story has an "and then" problem, go through the beats of your plot like so:

The first thing happens___the second thing happens___the third thing happens. If you can fill the blanks with "and then," you need to revise things. Your story should be a series of dominos tumbling.

Now Go Forth and Write Your Story

This is just the tip of the iceberg for storytelling. There are so many lessons to learn, so many hurdles to overcome, but the expense is well worth it. Remember that writing, like so many creative arts, is about practice. You will get better with every story you tell. Heck, you'll get better with every word you write. Best of all, there is an enormous community of storytellers waiting to support you.

I would love to say this is when we announce The Academy of Words, where you'll spend 12 weeks learning to write like a true professional, but we're not quite there yet. What I will say is that, if you're serious about storytelling and animation, you should look at combining Animation Bootcamp and Character Animation Bootcamp.

These two courses will show you how to add life to your animation...and then you just need to add the story. However, the Academy doesn't exist (yet). But if you're a School of Motion alumni, you should join us on The Square. There, you can work with a community of incredible artists (including this here word wrangler) to take your ideas to their final form.

No matter where you go from here, go confidently. You can do this.