Writing the Outline

The premise has been written, we’re received notes from the network, and now we’re ready for phase two — the outline!

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Legend of Korra outlines are a detailed, beat for beat description and summary of the episode. Like with the initial story ideas, all the writers gather together in the “writing room” (AKA my office) to pitch out the story in further detail. We use the premise as our starting point, and over the course of two days, flesh out the emotional arcs and story beats as well as pitch out dialogue ideas and jokes.

On day one, we spend a good chunk of time working out the entire plot in detail. The premise provides us the story framework, but now is the time to nail down story specifics. In the case of “Beginnings, Part 1″, several of you pointed out how different Wan’s character felt in the premise compared with the final episode. His personality definitely evolved over the course of the writing process, due mainly to the fact that he was a brand new character. Bryan and I always imagined him as a classic trickster hero. In myth, the trickster hero often causes change in his or her world by messing with people and ignoring society’s rules. Our challenge was to keep Wan’s mischievousness and trickster tendencies, without making him too selfish or unsympathetic. We also wanted to give him a specific personality beyond the trickster archetype. With each stage of the writing, we honed in on his more generous side. He because a guy who always stands up for the downtrodden, whether they’re animals, humans, or spirits. In the outline, you’ll see how the beat of Wan giving up his stolen bread to feed the animals is missing. I added that in the script phase to show Wan’s generosity and also set up his connection with animals (which comes into play when he saves Mula from the trap).

A few logistics about how we structure the outline: The show is split up into three acts, and each act has seven to eight story beats. As we discuss the story in the writer’s room and pitch out the beats, the writer will write a sentence or two describing that beat on an index card and tack it to the wall. This is usually done in order, but sometimes we might have some beats figured out at the beginning and the end, but act 2 will be empty. Another way we approach the story structure is to look at the premise and decide what our act breaks will be. The goal of the act break is to have a dramatic moment that turns the story in a different direction (and keeps the audience watching after the commercial break!) We then fill in the missing beats around those tent-pole moments.

With this in mind, we knew that act 1 would have a lot of set-up involved. We had to show Korra in the beginning, establish Wan and his normal life, and see him enact the plan to steal the fire from the lion-turtle. For a while we thought the first act break would be Wan’s banishment, but that would’ve made the first third of the show too long. Therefore, we decided that the act 1 break would be Wan returning his tree house and showing his friends that he stole the fire, a bold action that causes the story to take a new direction in act 2.

Act 2 encompasses Wan using the fire to defend his friends from the Chous, being banished, and surviving in the wilds. The end of act 2 shows Wan saving Mula the cat-deer by standing up to the group of hunters. In act 3, having gained Aye-aye’s trust, Wan lives with the spirits and learns to master his firebending skills. Then he sets off into the world where he encounters Raava and Vaatu. He splits the fighting spirits and learns that his actions have great consequences, setting up “Beginnings, part 2″.

And after a day of discussions, we have all our index cards filled out. This is what the episode looked like, broken into beats.

The pitch out cards. The different colors denote different characters.

The pitch out cards. The different colors show the Korra beats separate from the Wan beats.

Act 1

  • A weakened Korra is taken back to Bhanti Village. She wants to regain her memory.
  • Shaman tells Korra her spirit is weak – if she doesn’t regain memory, she will grow weaker and die.
  • Korra taken to isolation chamber. She must return “to the beginning.”
  • Korra goes into sensory deprivation, transition into flashback.
  • Wan chased by bullies through city streets – tricks them and gets away.
  • Wan meets up with Jaya and Crazy Yao back at hideout. Wan has plan to change things.
  • Goes out with hunters. Gets power of fire from lion-turtle, but ditches hunters and sneaks back to city.
  • Wan shows Jaya he has firebending.

Act 2

  • Wan demands food from bullies. They attack – he firebends. They run scared but now town is on fire.
  • Fire rages. Lion-turtle puts it out, Wan tackled and arrested.
  • Wan banished. Lion-turtle takes mercy, lets him keep firebending.
  • Wan’s first night in wilds – frightening, mystical. Can’t sleep, keeps getting attacked, ends up filthy and starving.
  • Finds oasis, tries to trick spirit guardian but is driven away (pretends he’s a spirit).
  • Comes across animal caught in trap. Tries to free it.
  • Hunters show up and order Wan to turn over animal. Wan refuses.

Act 3

  • Wan fights hunters using fire and knowledge of the wilds, but he’s overtaken.
  • Spirit from oasis saves Wan – tricks hunters into attacking each other – one gets away.
  • Spirit brings Wan back to oasis to heal – “you’re different than the others.”
  • Montage – intercut Wan’s skills growing with Wan’s legend growing. Wan lives in harmony with the spirits.
  • Wan and cat-deer rest – spirits and creatures flee a giant rumbling/chaos. Wan checks it out.
  • Dark and Light spirits fight and destroy everything. Wan splits them apart.
  • Dark Spirit escapes. Light Spirit tells Wan he has thrown world out of balance.
  • Korra twitches violently.

Now that we have all the beats, we spend the second day talking through the whole story, card by card. We pitch ideas for dialogue and jokes during this pass, while our writer’s assistant furiously takes notes of everything we discuss during the course of the day. At the end of day two, the writer takes the cards, all the written notes, and has about a week to write the outline. While it seems like all the heaving lifting was done in the pitch out, writing the outline still takes a lot of thought and skill. Many ideas are discussed over the two days, so it’s the writer’s job to hone all those ideas into the structure we discussed in an entertaining and clear way.

One thing to keep in mind as you’re outlining your own stories is to make sure the main character actively drives the story forward. Often a story will hit a wall or fall flat if the main character simply reacts to events around him or her. In Wan’s case, he steals the fire, saves the cat-deer, and splits Raava and Vaatu — all major story points which coincidentally (or not so coincidentally) correspond with the act breaks. Sure, events happen to Wan as well — he’s bullied, he’s banished, and he’s attacked by various spirits. But each of these events has an effect on Wan and results in him choosing to act in a new way moving forward.

In the outline, you’ll see there is a lot of sample dialogue. I’ll be the first to admit, most of it’s not that good. But that’s not its purpose here. Rather, the outline dialogue is used to get a sense of the kind of thing a character might say, but much of the time the dialogue is very “on the nose” and doesn’t always capture his or her voice, especially in an episode like this with many new characters. Lines and jokes from the outline often make it through to the final script, but they’re usually tweaked along the way. At this point, I don’t worry to much about getting the dialogue exactly right — I save that for the script. The goal of the outline is to give a clear picture of how the story will flow and how the characters will act.

Also in our outlines, there are headers indicating location and time of day. These are the same slug lines that appear in the final script. Their purpose is to indicate each time we are moving to a new location (necessary for the BG designers and storyboard artists to know what locations will be used). And later, the BG painters will reference the times of day in the script so they know whether a BG painting is supposed to be morning, day, night, etc.

As you read the outline, you’ll notice it much more closely resembles the finished episode, story-wise. But there is still some character-finessing to do as well as finalizing all the dialogue.

I find the story pitch out process and outline writing really fun. This is where the vision of what the story will be becomes much clearer and the possibilities (and problems) are more evident.

Click on the link to read the outline: K207_OUTLINE_11.10.11

Next time — the script!

 

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27 thoughts on “Writing the Outline

  1. Hey Mike. Truly enjoyed this blog post. A couple of other guys and I have actually started a podcast series with the aim of interviewing folks involved in the production of Korra. We have already had a great episode with Jeremy Zuckerman and are set to talk with Sifu Kisu this coming Saturday. The series is essentially a collaborative project between three groups: a forum, a blog, and a webseries, which use our respective followings to gather questions. We pick the best ones and pose them to the interviewee in a fun, relaxed setting. Anyway its called KorraScope (http://bit.ly/1ijHgRp) and you are certainly welcome to be a guest anytime. Our plan was to schedule interviews with more of the supporting staff before we even dreamed of inviting top brass individuals such as yourself, but judging from these blog posts, which really showcase your willingness to connect with fans, I thought what the hay and ask you now. Anyway keep up the great work!

    Cheers, Andrew
    korrascope@yahoo.com

  2. Fascinating. This looks like a really good system that I wouldn’t have thought of. I don’t do animation, but I hope that I can incorporate some of it for organizing ideas. Actually, this step seems more difficult to me than the Premise, since there is a lot of detail & trying to get it closer to the episode. Though I definitely sympathize with the notion that coming up with the initial ideas can be “heavy lifting,” too.

    There is one thing that I’m kind of looking to see if it was addressed in the writing room, though. With the Lion Turtles apparently being the origin of Bending, was there any talk about how this would synch up with the removal of Yakone’s Bending, which did not affect his children?

      1. So what the Lion Turtles do is different? Since they took the Bending power back from the hunters when they returned from the city, but it didn’t seem like people were born in the city with the Bending power.

        Either way, I second that these posts have been very informative. Thank you for writing them.

  3. I suppose this question would be better suited for this blog more than the previous one…

    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?

    1. In answer to your first question, our version of reincarnation is probably most similar to the Buddhist view. Wikipedia’s explanation is more eloquent than I can muster up at the moment: “At the death of one personality, a new one comes into being, much as the flame of a dying candle can serve to light the flame of another. The consciousness in the new person is neither identical to nor entirely different from that in the deceased but the two form a causal continuum or stream.”
      This is how I view the different Avatar’s personalities. They are definitely linked, but each has his or her own personality. The constant is Raava’s spirit which moves from lifetime to lifetime with each incarnation.
      2. The appearance of past Avatars just depends on what story is being told. And no, they don’t live in the spirit world, per se, but we’ve seen how Aang was able to talk to Roku there. But it’s not like Roku hangs out with Iroh in the spirit world or anything.

      1. Sorry, lots of questions… this is such interesting and enlightening (no pun originally intended) material to discuss!
        Do normal people reincarnate in that manner as well? If not, what happens to them after they die? Could a normal person call on a past life as the Avatar can, or is Raava required for that? (How does Raava factor into the “reincarnation mechanism”?)
        Could you say that the past avatars are like suppressed memories the current avatar has?

        When you say the old personality is replaced by a new one, is that new personality of a new soul, or simply a new personality on the same soul? (Is there even a soul involved? if not, what passes to the spirit world when the body is left behind? (In one of your previous blog posts, you mentioned that BlueGiantKorra was her Atman/soul… is her’s the same as Wan’s/Roku’s soul? I guess what I’m trying to ask is to what degree are they separate/the same: Roku told Aang, “I am a part of you,” and said that Aang had mastered the elements before, and the shaman said that Korra had to “confront her own past”, yet they are still said to be somewhat separate.))

        Considering there is a certain degree of separation among the incarnations, and the past ones aren’t in the spirit world, where do they go? Also going along with that, how was Roku able to send Fang to Aang in “The Winter Solstice Part 1″?

        Lastly, I know you’re not allowed to talk about unreleased material, but my friends would kill me if i didn’t at least try :) … since the past avatars were lost at the end of book 2, does that rule out any chance of Korra (or a hypothetical future Avatar) reconnecting with them ever again, or them appearing on screen ever again?
        Thank you so much for taking the time to write these blog posts and answer the fans’ questions! Keep up the good work!

      2. From what I’ve seen of Mike’s blogging style, I’m not sure if he sees the comments that are made after his initial round of replies. Of course, he could just be busy making the show — what he does is already far more than we could ask of him, after all.

        With that said, it’s an interesting discussion, so here are my own two cents:

        Beginnings seemed to imply that reincarnation was normal. Raava said she would be with Wan for all of his lifetimes, which only makes sense if reincarnation is expected (otherwise, she’d probably suggest that she was creating a reincarnation cycle rather than following an existing one).

        Raava seems to be integral either to preserve the personality of a former Avatar intact or to facilitate connection between that personality and the current one, so it seems unlikely that non-Avatars could contact their own past lives.

        I don’t think the Avatars are merely suppressed memories, because they’ve been shown to have a separate existence in some ways (eg. Kuruk going off to find Koh after Aang left him in Escape from the Spirit World, and that game’s very concept of Aang needing to find his past lives to begin with). And, as such, I think each Avatar does have their own individual personality (which is, in my mind, linked to their “inner spirit” because that spirit is represented as a giant version of an individual rather than a generic human figure) as well as a shared soul (which remembers the spirits to which it was connected and passes some connections from one life to the next, hence the Avatars’ ability to identify their past lives’ relics, but directly affect the inner spirit).

        I’m not sure if the show is ever going to explain the metaphysics to such a degree, but my guess as to what happens after the death of the body is this — the “flame” of the soul passes to the next spirit “candle,” taking some memories with it, but the “candle” continues to exist as a discrete unit in the cosmic energy of the universe as a whole. In the case of Raava, she can access those “candles” and light them back up to allow them to talk to the current Avatar.

        Or, to use a technological analogy, imagine souls as URLs — they’re unique, they can be passed between individuals, and it’s nearly impossible to connect to a website that doesn’t have one, but losing a URL doesn’t destroy the site’s data, and Raava knows how to connect to Avatars whether they have URLs or not. (At least until Vaatu destroyed her contact information…)

  4. Great post. I’ve found in my own writing experience that I can come up with act 1 and 3 easily but act 2 is always hard for me. Have you had that experience?

    Also I noticed while I was reading the outline that there’s no mention of the dragons in relation to Wan’s firebending. When was that detail added, because that was one of the most fascinating elements of the Beginnings for me. Rather than having the animals (dragons, badger moles, sky bison) teach human’s bending, they were given bending by the lion turtles but could only master it by learning from the animals.

    1. Yes, act 2s are notoriously tricky and that’s usually the biggest part of what we have to figure out in the Outline phase. Often with the premises we’ll have the beginning and the end, but once we start laying out the cards, we realize there’s not enough story so we flesh out the middle.
      And I had forgotten that the dragon was added in the script. The outline has a beat that just describes that we see Wan get better at firebending, but then in the script I needed something more specific and visual to show how he mastered firebending, and that’s when we had the idea to add the dragon and tie it into Aang and Zuko learning from Ran and Shaw.

  5. Hi Mike,

    I’m enjoying reading your 3 part series on writing. My question is “Once you get to the outline stage of the writing process, is the premise set in stone or is there still room to maneuver?”

    1. I don’t think we’ve ever totally scrapped a story at the outline stage, so in that sense the premise is locked down. But certainly the story evolves and beats will change throughout the process.

  6. Thanks for taking the time to offer your valuable insight, Michael. It continues to be both enlightening and inspirational for me and other aspiring writers and Avatar fans like me. All of my thoughts are going on a wall of index cards from now on! ALL of my thoughts…

  7. It’s a real treat to be afforded a look at the inner workings of a great show like the Legend of Korra.

    Keep doing what you’re doing, Mike. It’s clearly working out.

  8. Thank you for taking the time to explain all of this to us.

    Reading the outline, it’s interesting to see how things changed even after all of the beats were in place — there were small things like the sage who spoke originally being male (is the name “Karu” still canon-compliant even after the sage’s gender was switched to give Serena Williams the role?), but significant changes existed, as well. I wouldn’t have guessed that the political dimension of Wan’s beef with the Chous came in as late as it did, for instance.

    The idea of Wan being the one possessed by Aye-Aye was cool, but I’m guessing it didn’t mesh up with the idea that Yao’s disfigurement was permanent (though I’m still curious about why Raava and Vaatu’s possession doesn’t cause physical change when the other spirits’ do). There also seems to be a discrepancy between the way Raava and Vaatu’s relationship was portrayed here and how it was portrayed in the canon Beginnings, Part 2 — if Raava and Vaatu had been locked in eternal conflict, Raava couldn’t have known what would have happened if one of them were destroyed, right? Was Harmonic Convergence something that only came up in the creation of Beginnings, Part 2?

    One last thing I’m curious about is the time frame — the date on this outline is 11/10/11, while the date on the premise is 10/12/11. How much of that time is spent working on premises for further episodes, and how many premises had been written by the time this outline was finished?

    1. We did give that line to the female sage, but Karu’s still there — he’s one of the guys carrying Korra and who spoke at the end of the previous episode.
      We had the idea of Harmonic Convergence, but we were still evolving the rules and figuring out the mythology of Raava and Vaatu during the writing of these episodes, which would account for any discrepancies. Our idea was that every 10,000 years one or the other does win the battle, which is why Raava knows what happens to the loser.
      We usually worked on premises in 3 or 4 episode chunks so we probably had up to episode 8 in premise form, with ideas for the second half of the season.

  9. They need to spend more time thinking about how the story ends and less time thinking about how to shove even more unnecessary romance drama into it. Then they wouldn’t have to deus ex machina their way into a resolution. Like they did at the end of Season 2. And season 1. And ATLA. And like they inevitably will do at the end of season 3,

  10. Thanks for sharing such valuable information about scripting.

    In some way, it reminds me like when Software Engineers have to build a whole super-complex system, parting only from a large and extended wording written by an enterprise which requires it.
    Seems like scripting is a kind of engineering, with all its steps, team working and own techniques. I never imagined that it was like you are showing us.

    When you posted Writing the Premise, you said that you guys made that process with Beginnings, but by the time, you ownly shown us the Part 1 and nothing from Part 2. I guess if you did that for simplify us the reading of the post, or it’s necessary to repeat the whole process for Part 2.

    While reading the moment when Wan bursts into the spirit battle, I came up with another question. Spirits become Dark Spirits when they are under the influence of Vaatu or any other powerful source of darkness. However, I wonder when they become Light Spirits. We have seen how Unalaq and Korra induce light spirits through waterbending, but they only last a few seconds shining and then they become a normal spirit.
    What I mean is, why Spirits can remain dark for much time while being light they only remain a few seconds?

    Sorry if my question is unrelated to this post. I think that by reading the outline of all the episodes, fans could answer themselves many questions that come up during the show. For example, when I asked you about the Bhanti Tribe at Writing the Premise.

    Thank you again, I’ll be waiting for the third step of scripting :)

  11. So Mike in planning this episode, how did reflection of the previous Avatar lore come into play? As in it being established that the moon, dragons, badgermoles, and sky bisons were the 1st benders respectively and then having the lion turtles grant the ability to bend. Did you fear any conflict with the two? And would it have been possible for people to bend without the aid of the lion turtle during that time frame.

  12. Hey Mr. DiMartino, I’m a huge Avatar fan, and I think you and Mr. Konietzko are amazing. I absolutely loved the Beginnings 1 and 2 (probably my favorite Korra episode so far). I came up with possible explanations to questions that most people have about lore continuity in these episodes, and was wondering what you thought of them:

    1. As for the Lion Turtle saying that before the Avatar, they bent the energy within themselves and not the elements, I figured that the Lion Turtle was a referencing a time even before Wan’s time, at the very, very beginning. It is said that the Lion Turtles came to protect the humans for thousands of years, so we know that they’ve been around for a while as well.

    2. As for the fact that the original benders (moon, badgermoles, dragons and air bison) were supposed to be the originators of the elements (yue even said that the moon taught people how to push and pull the waves), I figured two things. One, It could be a legend that may not be reality. It happens all the time, where the truth gets lost in history, and instead, legends get made up. Just imagine King Arthur, or George Washington and the cherry tree. Perhaps it’s the story of the origin of bending, but Wan’s is the true version.
    Secondly, it could also be that when the moon “taught” the benders how to push and pull the waves, it wasn’t so much that it gave them the power to waterbend, but that it just taught them how to use that power. It’s possible that the Lion Turtle had given them the power of water, and they didn’t know how to use it until the moon “taught” them how to push and pull the waves. After all, we get a little nod to the dragon teaching Wan the dragon dance move. And the fact that they are the “original” benders doesn’t mean they taught people, just that they are the original source.

    Anyway, those are my two cents that made sense to me. It would mean a lot to see what you think of my thoughts, Mr. Dimartino; thanks again, and I look forward to season 3.

    1. Well, I’m not Mike, but please hide your shock at that revelation while I offer some input anyway.

      1. I figured that (aside from it being a change in the plot) the Lion Turtle could have been referring to his own species. Although, at the end, Tenzin says something similar that couldn’t doesn’t seem to mesh up with any known timeline, so I don’t know.

      2. The problem with Explanation A is that, in Fantasyland, “legend has it” is pretty much code for “this is mostly, if not entirely, the truth.” It’s important that the audience trust the legend, because it is frequently the only way to exposit “forgotten knowledge” that is relevant to the plot. How people find the current Avatar, what happens at Harmonic Convergence, the Sun Warriors, etc. Explanation B is generally agreed upon.

  13. These blogs have been fascinating to read! I’ve been keeping up with each one and I love the ideas and inspirations you’ve described.
    The simple idea you bring up in this one — making sure the main character actively leads the story-line — was a surprising wake-up for me. As fundamental as I’d think the idea is, I kind of realized that I hadn’t been doing that in the story I’m working on now for myself.
    It’s also fascinating to see how a television episode is created. I wonder if it’s about the same for live action? I would think so, seeing as this is the story and not the animation.

  14. Dear Mike,

    Ever since 2005, the story of Avatar: The Last Airbender, I was hooked and I never would have known how this show would change my life. From the first episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, I was hooked! by the time the first season was drawing to a close, something kicked, and I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write my own story about this fantastic universe.

    when the show came out, I was 11 years old, and my skills in read or write were drastically low. Unfortunately, during this time, I was painfully unselfconscious, and even though I desperately wanted to write about this world, I felt it was wrong to write about a world that has already been created. eventually, over time with my father, I confidence had grown and for the past 5 to 7 years I’ve been working on my story.

    So, I’ve finally worked up the nerve to ask you this question: How do you and Bryan feel about fans of avatar writing their own stories inspired by your work?

    Thanks for your time and story,

    Margaret

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