Writing the Premise

This is the first of a 3-part post about the writing process for A:TLA and Legend of Korra. My goal is to describe the steps we take to bring a story from an initial idea to a finished script. Although this applies specifically to a half-hour animated TV show, I think the principals can be used when approaching any writing project. I also will provide examples of the premise, outline, and scripts from episode 207 “Beginnings, part 1″ to show how the story evolved. I want to take some of the mystery out of the writing process. We’re used to only seeing the shiny final product, which seems to appeared fully-realized on TV. I always enjoy examining the process it takes to get to a finished book, movie, or show, so I hope you find this helpful.

Rough animation of Avatar Wan by Studio Mir

Rough animation of Avatar Wan by Studio Mir

Writing stories is a daunting process. My early attempts at creating short stories and scripts always fizzled out after several pages. I’d have what I thought was an intriguing premise or character, I’d set them in motion, expecting narrative fireworks to erupt, then… nothing. I’d put the pages away, always wondering how to go from an idea to a finished story. Jump forward to Avatar, and my first experience working with other writers in a writing room environment where I learned how to break a story down into beats. I’ve now done this process 113 times over the course of the two series. Combined with studying more about story structure over the years, I feel like I finally have somewhat of a handle on the story writing process. It makes it a little less daunting, but it’s still always challenging. I guess that’s what I really love about storytelling — it’s almost like a puzzle and creating new ones always brings up new problems to solve and pushes my creativity and imagination to new places.

Different shows have different ways of “breaking” a story. I honestly don’t know why it’s called this, since you’re actually “fixing” or “finding” a story, but that’s the industry-speak for what goes on in the writer’s room. For each season, the stories all move from very general to specific. In the case of Korra, for each season or “Book”, me, Bryan, and our writers brainstorm general ideas for the whole season – We ask ourselves big questions like: What’s the theme? What’s Korra’s emotional arc? Who’s our villain? We also come up with random ideas for a scene, or a cool action sequence, or even a vague notion of wanting to see a particular character more. So this first stage is about getting everything on the table and seeing what resonates with us. This process usually lasts a few weeks, but it’s an ongoing process through the season, since we don’t figure out every story beat up front. But once we have a sense of the beginning, middle, and end, we move on to the premise phase. Plus, the production moves so quickly, we usually have to start writing before we’ve figured out the entire season.

Quick sidebar:

In the case of shows with continuous storylines like Lost or Breaking Bad, there seems to be a myth that the writers have (or should have) figured out everything from the start. TV just doesn’t work that way, due to the demands of production schedules (unless the show is True Detective, which was written all by one writer before production began). In an interview before the Breaking Bad finale had aired, creator Vince Gilligan was asked:

In interviews last summer you still weren’t sure how Breaking Bad was going to end. Was this just a matter of specifics? Or had you still not decided whether Walt was going to live, die, or go to prison?

His response?

“It was everything. We knew very little as of last summer. We knew we had an M60 machine gun in Walt’s trunk that we needed to pay off, and that was about it. We kept asking ourselves, ‘What would satisfy us? A happy ending? A sad ending? Or somewhere in between?’”

He’s talking about the final season and they had a machine gun in Walt’s trunk and weren’t even sure how to pay that off. That’s how these types of shows work. Every season is a new storyline with a new set of problems for the writing room to solve. So the best you can do is have a plan of which direction you’re headed, but realize that you’re going to have to figure out the path a bit on the fly.

As George R.R. Martin has said, regarding Game of Thrones:

I have a broad sense of where the story is going; I know the end, I know the end of the principal characters, and I know the major turning points and events from the books, the climaxes for each book, but I don’t necessarily know each twist and turn along the way. That’s something I discover in the course of writing and that’s what makes writing enjoyable.

Okay, back to the writer’s room.

Once we’ve decided on the major character arc and overall plot of the season, it’s time to tell that story episodically. Enter stage one:

THE PREMISE

For this part, we take all those ideas we had in the general meetings and make episodic stories out of them. Some episodes come easily, like season premieres — certain things are just going to have to happen, according to the story we want to tell. Other episodes are a little trickier to figure out. The premise discussions are basically a more focused version of the season overview discussions. For me, the episode starts to click when I know the character’s emotional arc for that episode. For example, in Book 1, Bryan and I had a big hole where episode 4 was supposed to go. We knew we needed something there, and had a bunch of plot ideas for it, but nothing that clicked. Then we hit upon the idea of Korra dealing with her fear, after learning of Amon’s power to take bending away, which was her biggest nightmare. Once we knew what Korra would be dealing with emotionally, it was much easier to tailor the plot around that.

When the writing team has a handle on what that story is about, one writer is assigned to an episode and has a few days to write up a 3-4 page premise, including a log line which is the quick pitch of what the episode is about. Our premises are pretty detailed, though as you’ll see in the example, there are still a lot of missing pieces to figure out. Our goal in the premise is to hit all the main plot points and emotional beats. It needs to be clear what this episode is going to be about and what the character is going to go through.

After a first pass of the premise is done, we usually all discuss it further as a group, figuring out any of the problem areas. The writer revises it, then it’s off to the network for notes!

Quick sidebar #2:

Premise is a word that is thrown around a lot in the writing world, and it can have different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. For our purposes here, I’m using it to refer to the actual document that we create, which includes what is traditionally is known as a premise — that one sentence blurb you see on the Netflix or Amazon descriptions. For this episode it was: “In order to regain her memory, Korra must delve deep into the Avatar’s past and learn the truth about the epic and mythic origins of the first Avatar.” What follows is a summary of the story that explains the premise in more detail. Some might consider it a treatment or outline, but as I’ll show next time, our process splits up the premise and outline phases. Every writer and every show will have their own way of getting the ideas on paper.

The link below will take you to the “Beginnings, part 1″ premise, written by yours truly, though by now I hope it’s clear that this is hardly a one-man effort. It’s important to have one writer in charge of writing each episode so it has a consistent voice and tone, but as with all Avatar and Korra scripts (and most TV shows), it takes a group effort to create each story.

Korra_207_Premise_10.12.11

A few things you’ll notice if you’re familiar with the episode. Korra is much more talkative in the opening of the premise and many of the characters have yet to be included, like the Huntsman, the Chou Brothers, Aye Aye, and Mula (Wan’s trusty cat-deer). On page 3, there’s a mention of a man who has lost his mind from being out in the wilds, which later became Yao, the half-tree man. But even though there is a lot missing and the story still needs to be fleshed out, you can see the main beats of the final episode are all there: Wan being bullied, stealing the fire, being outcast, surviving in the wilds, and splitting Raava and Vaatu.

I realize this is a rough overview of the process, so if anything’s not clear, feel free to add questions in comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Next up… THE OUTLINE!

 

38 thoughts on “Writing the Premise

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I think it’s really important to take a note on how a script is finished. Certainly, the premise of Korra’s episode 7 is really different from the final script and episode, but it keeps the main idea. I see how objectives are important, we can’t just start writing and hopping to get an excelent script, we need the main ideas first. My question is: have you ever wanted to return to how the events were written in first place, after seeing the final results?

    1. Hi Jennyfer. I can’t really think of a time when it would’ve been beneficial to return to what was written originally. The story gets more refined with each stage and there are usually story reasons for things to evolve from the original. Though I have realized to trust those initial ideas and not totally throw things out just because part of a story isn’t working. Thanks for the question!

  2. I think its a very interesting process. Will we ever find out how jinora revived raava, or how korra defeated an avatar after being separated from raava. I thought the finale was brillantly written, I just wish we could have had another episode explaining those things.ps both the last airbender and the legend of korra are my favorite shows.

    1. I wondered the same things at the end of the finale. Minors seems to actually find Raava, like she was. Irked somewhere and Jinora’s goodness brought her out, but it’s clear. I also wondered if any random person could have sat under that tree and meditated to become a giant celestial spirit version of themselves, or if it had to be Korra. If not, why didn’t they all do it?

    2. Don’t mind me, I’m just awkwardly posting a useless comment so that I can check the box marked “notify me of follow-up comments via E-mail,” because I forgot to do that earlier.

  3. As someone who is writing my own project, I find this to be a very interesting read! My question to you is, have you ever struggled to start a story to a point where the project almost felt impossible?

    1. Hi! Usually the starting is the easier part for me. It’s the middle stage that’s usually the most challenging. Keeping up the momentum of a long-term project is tough.

  4. Thanks for this; both this post and the premise are really interesting reads. I’m curious, are there any principles or exercises you have found most helpful when breaking down a story?

  5. As a huge fan of Avatar and Korra, I love seeing this behind the scenes stuff. You guys and Studio Mir really did an amazing job with the Beginnings. It felt like a Miyazaki movie at points.

    I like that you cut out that dialogue at the beginning. In the actual episode we quickly get into the flashback which is what we want to see. It also seems like Wan is less likable in this version. He attacks the bullies and is only stopped because he’s overpowered. I like that in the final version, Wan backs down when he has the chance to attack the lord’s son, who says, “Even when you have the power, you’re still weak.” It’s a great parallel to what the Fire Lord said to Aang in the series finale.

    Also a question about canon: is it an official part of the universe that those sages are the Bhanti as you say in this outline even though that wasn’t mentioned in the actual episode? I personally assumed they were fire sages although I thought it was odd that they had never warned Korra about Harmonic Convergence if they had known about it for generations.

    1. Yes, the Bhanti is the name of that tribe. Sometimes we come up with backstories for characters that don’t always get spelled out in the final scripts. If the exposition isn’t vital to understanding what’s going on, it usually gets trimmed.

      1. I understand why exposition often needs to be cut — the pacing and run time of the show simply wouldn’t support it in a lot of cases, but as a fan I’d always love to see more of the stuff that was cut for time but still part of your perception of the world you’ve created. You give us some in the art books and the commentaries, of course, but it always feels like we’re missing other parts that could be equally interesting.

  6. I love learning about what goes on behind the scenes, so this series of posts is right up my alley.

    The difference between the premise and the final episode really surprised me. All of the main plot beats are there, but Wan was a completely different character in the premise, even if some of the elements of what he became (i.e. his strong opposition towards bullies) were there in an embryonic form. Is it normal for characterizations to change so thoroughly in the process of writing an episode, or is that something that happened because Wan’s story was completely contained within two episodes?

    I’m also curious about the status of material created early on that doesn’t contradict anything in the show but couldn’t be used directly either. Do you still consider the head sage to be blind even though that was never mentioned?

    1. In the case of this episode, we were still figuring out Wan’s character so that’s probably why there’s such a difference. His character definitely evolved with each stage of the process. And the old sage was intended to be blind, but if I remember correctly, when the animation came back she was looking around a lot. Rather than fix the animation, we kept it as is, since her being blind or not didn’t affect the story at all.

      1. So, for characters that have season-long arcs like Korra and the villains, that sort of thing happens much earlier, then?

        As for the old sage, I’m now rather fond of the idea that she sees people with their chi/”inner fire” the way Toph sees with earthbending. It makes a certain amount of sense given the way she uses her firebending. ;)

    2. I’m also intrigued by that question, but I wonder if it might be the case that he’s unsure of how much, if any of it, will be incorporated into the official canon? The theme here seems to be that this stage is all a rough outline, & it’s unclear what will be changed around or removed. Or maybe we’ll find out the answer in one of the other parts.

  7. Thanks for sharing the writing process to build a masterpiece like the team do. It’s good to read that when you have a lack of imagination for an episode, you are capable to end doing a perfect brilliant and heartbeating episode like A Voice In The Night!
    I have a question about how you guys chose the best posibility to shape a plot for an episode, or for a season. The introducing part of Beginnings had a lot importance here but finally it was reduced.
    Is it difficult to make all the scripting team to arrive an agreement, or do you auto-rectify your writing?

    I also would like you to ask a couple questions about that episode, but I will understand if you don’t mind to answer them:
    That secret tribe named “Bhanti”, is that the official name? Are we going to see more of them on the future?

    1. That is the Bhanti tribe, but no we don’t see them again. And since it’s a small group of writers, it’s not too difficult to come to an agreement on the stories. Since we’re all discussing them together, it’s a very organic process.

  8. What a fascinating read for all of us practicing the art of storytelling. The collaborative process (especially within the writer’s room) is such an amazing, amorphous process. It is clear upon reading this that the seed of an idea, no doubt dropped from an allegorical bird with a shell, can truly take on a life of its own. Thanks, Mike, for so generously sharing some of the wisdom you’ve acquired over your career– I know you aren’t getting any break on production between books 3 and 4, so I wanted to share my appreciation of the precious time its been taking for you to write this. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of it and am certainly eagerly awaiting Book 3! Keep fighting the good fight.

  9. Thanks for posting this, this is seriously rad! Beginnings was one of my favorite arcs of all Avatar, hands down. Two questions – you talked in your Premise about how you wanted this to have a very “Fantasy” vibe, like an old legend come to life – were there specific fables or myths that you guys were referencing and talking about when making this specific story? Do you guys go back to reference often, visiting other works mid-sessions, or is it more off-the-cuff?

    And second – at what point in the writing process do the first seeds of visuals come into play? I’m in a yearlong animation class at the moment, and the neatest stuff I’m seeing on screen come from sketches made during our first couple of story writing sessions. Do your writers ever act as early artists, or is that line blurry enough where that isn’t a distinction that needs to be made?

    Again, can’t thank you enough, it’s wicked to get to see this process.

    1. The Wan story wasn’t based on any specific myth, it was just more the vibe we were going for. And often Bryan will do some early concepts for some of art work when he’s in the writer’s room, which was really helpful especially for Raava and Vaatu, since it was difficult to describe what they would look like.

  10. It seems a really difficult but also funny. My question is Have you ever had an unexpected idea to include but the same history doesn’t let you change it?

  11. It really is great to see how you guys create such a rich and filling story, all the collaboration and time put into each episode really shows. The difference in the premise from the final product really illustrates that in the story writing process you still have a lot of work to do even when you have your general idea of how an episode flows. What surprised me is how much different the story is in the premise even though the beats of both premise and final are the same.

    The Beginnings itself really stood out in Book Two of Korra, I’m sure that I don’t only speak for myself when I say that this sort of lore and culture is what really stands out in the Avatar universe. I have been enthralled by the Avatar universe and your team’s work for the past nine years from the moment I first laid my eyes on The Boy in the Iceberg. The storytelling and the world itself is just a work of art, and now I can see why with this post so thank you for that.

    My only question, which you don’t necessarily need to answer, pertains to the time constraints of each episode, have you guys ever had to omit a lot of detail from the premise that you wished to include or remove excess detail in the transition from premise to final due to these time constraints? In The Beginnings I felt as if you guys had so little time to explore such a vast world and history, the inclusion of obtaining the power of the elements from the lion turtles vs. learning from the original sources was one such instance which left me with many questions due to lack of extensive details.

    Just want to tell you guys keep up the good work and I look forward to books 3 and 4 and whatever other works you guys may have for the world in the years to come.

  12. Hey Michael, I’m currently writing a story (about the zombie apocalypse, how original) and my biggest struggle is trying to make my characters believable and likable, so that, if they were to, say, all die, whoever was reading would actually care and want justice to be served on whoever was the cause?

  13. Hey Michael,

    Like you have mentioned, TV shows evolve and many times thing change from what you had originally planned. I was curious in regard to the origins of bending, if you decided with this episode to either twist that or add to it. In ATLA, it’s said that people learned bending from other animals or objects such as dragons, the moon etc. With the Avatar Wan episode it seems to shift these origins a bit. Was that your intention?

  14. Hi Mr. Dimartino,
    Thank you for the great blog post – hearing from a favorite writer is always a pleasure, especially when the topic is one of my favorite episodes. My main question has been bugging me for a while, and is actually about the Avatar itself: is the Avatar one or many? I ask because it would seem at first like there are many separate Avatars that Raava passes between, however the term “reincarnation” keeps coming up, along with several other instances that would indicate they are actually all the same person, reincarnated over many lifetimes. I know real-world religions have a large influence on the show, but how literally can we take the word “reincarnation?” In other words, was Korra Wan in her past, or are they totally separate people/souls? Furthermore (sorry), how would you define the term “Avatar Spirit”? Raava? A combination of Wan and Raava?

    My other question is about the past avatars’ role in the writing/story, since a past avatar was the main focus of Beginnings: why/how do you decide to have a past avatar appear in an episode? For example, in the original series, Roku often appeared to Aang to provide guidance and advice… How do you decide which moments are appropriate for such an appearance? Related to my first question, do the past Avatars live in the spirit world, or are they something closer to just suppressed memories of the current Avatar?

    Thanks again, and my apologies for the long reply,
    FanOfAvatar

    tl:dr 1. Is the Avatar one soul bonded to Raava, or does Raava pass between many human souls over many lifetimes, and:
    2. How/why do you decide on when to have a past Avatar appear in an episode?

  15. Hello Bryan, normally I’d say I’m a huge fan of the Avatar series, but that wouldn’t be accurate. I’m an enormous, colossal, gargantuan fan of the show. So much so, I’d like to write my own Avatar fan fiction novella. I’ve got the skeleton of the story planned out, I just need to start writing.

    Thing is, I don’t want to half-ass this, so I’m looking for some reading recommendations if you’ve got any. Books on the topic of Buddhism or the philosophy of martial arts if you happen to know of any good ones. How much research did you do for your show? Where did you start?

    Thanks for your time, but mostly thank you for creating such an inspiring show.

  16. Greetings Mr. DiMartino. As a big fan of both shows, I’ve always been curious about where you drew inspiration for the four types of bending. From what I have read, the initial inspiration for creating the Last Airbender was derived from ideas about a nomadic society residing in the air, combating a belligerent nation of fire people. Following these concepts, your team decided to base the civilizations of the Avatar Universe on the four elements of classical Greek and Western philosophy (Water, Fire, Earth and Air) instead of the five elements of classical Chinese philosophy (which included Wood and Metal, but neglected Air). You might have discussed this topic at length elsewhere, but I’ve always thought about the implications of making Wood and Metal elements in their own right.

    I have explored these implications in a fan fiction story of mine *shuffles around awkwardly*. I know in the canon, metalbending already exists as a secondary form of earthbending (via manipulation of earthen impurities in metal). Perhaps as a separate element, Metalbending could encompass the manipulation of electromagnetism, allowing for a wide range of possibilities in bending besides just manipulating metal, (bending light waves to render an object or person invisible, reading or controlling one’s mind, shooting lightning bolts, etc.)

    As for woodbending, I know the idea of sending furniture and tree branches hurtling through the air at an enemy might not sound exciting, but taking the whole “wood”part nominally, it might translate into something more interesting. Wood bending could perhaps involve the manipulation of the growth of living things, including flora, fauna as well as the bender’s own body (shape-shifting or super strength/stamina).

    I apologize if this comment has taken up too much space, but it’s hard not to ramble when discussing the creation of a world as interesting as the one the Avatar lives in. I hope my ideas sound somewhat interesting (or at least amusing), and it’s always a pleasure getting to talk to one of the writers of such a magnificent story.

  17. Thank you, it was as if though after watching the show, being inspired and not knowing where to look, Sensei has posted a wonderous scroll of wisdom. Thank you SIR! Truly I have for years wanted to create stories worth telling. You guys (AND Pendleton Ward) Have renewed my faith in American Animation. I Love this, I see the Ghibli influence and it brings such joy. Thank you for the guide here it is a grace for many of us. I can’t resist, please forgiveme for the following rumination on Korra. She has style, please dress her in more clothes.PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE new clothes for korra ‪#‎KorraStyle‬

    Loyal and new fan,

    Erik

  18. Sorry if that was a little obnoxious. I really want to say thanks again for this wonderous guide. Seeing the drafts is of immense value. Thanks again for sharing the wisdom.

  19. Thank you so mutch for this read! I was wondering tho how you came up with their names and how every charector fits into relation with the others it melds very well. P.s please excuse my grammer, i have great aspirations and ideas about story and can draw but suck when it comes to words on a page, please dont judge to harsh .

  20. That was really clear and I can see the breaks. I am really grateful for the time you put forth in making this awesome writing process to help inspire people. Something that i’m really interested in understanding is when writing the premise to an episode, how do you deliver dynamic breaks. I can see how the bullying was an overarching concept used in building momentum to him freeing Vaatu. I know it’s left up to creativity and the emotional arks, but how do you do it when writing episodes on season 3? it’s dynamic but not driven by the same emotional arks like the bullying, and fear of bending. It’s a matter thats so clear but seems confusing to me. Do you associate some episodes to a degree of emotional arcs and others to other aspects? Again so clear but feels confusing :P I can see no one else has gotten a response since uploaded, I put notifications on so when your free please get back to me. I’m really interested in telling stories that actually develop on the publics being and help them awaken to a higher consciousness.

    1. ”I’m really interested in telling stories that actually develop on the publics being and help them awaken to a higher consciousness.”

      Damn i like that one. The world is evolving and storytellers like Mike, you and us all are contributing to that. Reading all these comments makes me hopeful. :) We want the world to awaken!

      1. It’s just the means of pursuing it, You need to know your direction and story. Then you create your own, based on your journeys meaning. From this you resonate with oppurtunitys and it’s clear to see which ones are for you – Reflected in the release of your material :D Reason why i typed this? Very recently I was in a confused state, until i supassed it. Just wanted to share to whoevers looking at this post (5 months later :p) that you need to listen to yourself, before, in order to right your own originality

  21. Man, seriouly you are the best !
    Thanks a lot for this post, it helped me so much .I want to be a screenwriter and now I’m working in a comic book with my partner. Your post make our path, our mind clearer.
    I’m from Brazil and here we don’t have courses like that (about writing, screenwriting), so everything that I learn comes from the internet.

    What it takes to be a screenwriter/writer ? Do you have some course to indicate , or some book ?
    What it was for you and Bryan ?

    Thanks a lot, I’m a big of you all.

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