Writing the Script

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In the final part of this series on “Beginnings, Part 1″, we’re going to take a look at the script — essentially the blueprint for all the actors and artists once we move into the production phase.

Once the outline is written and we’ve received notes from Bryan and the network, I usually go over the notes with the writer before they head off to write the first draft. When I write a script, I also have all my other executive producer meetings to do, so often I’ll write for an hour here and there, sometimes at night, or whenever I have a spare moment. This isn’t my idea way to write, but I make it work.

Because we’ve thoroughly worked through all the story beats in the premise and outline phases, the script writing is more focused on nailing down dialogue and describing the action in a clear, visual way. I find it’s really helpful to have to only focus on those parts, without simultaneously trying to figure out the plot as well. It’s like if you tried to build a house while also drawing the blueprints at the same time — there would be a lot of wasted effort going back and forth between the two.

One technique our writers Josh and Tim taught me is to take the outline and copy it into Final Draft (the scriptwriting program we use). Then you simply format the dialogue and action paragraphs and in no time at all, you have something that resembles a script. It’s much less daunting to start that way than with a blank page (and saves you from retyping things from the outline you may want to use). From there, I go through scene by scene, improving on and adding to the dialogue and action descriptions.

One tip when writing action descriptions, especially for animation (though this would apply to live-action as well): because an artist needs to draw what is written on the page, the action descriptions must be a specific as possible. Good writing always conjures images in the readers imagination, but there is little room (or need) to get flowery in a screenplay, so I make sure to use action verbs and keep the language very concrete. Very rarely do I use adjectives, unless it’s important to the way a character will be animated. Otherwise, adjectives don’t add to the clarity of the description. Here’s an example from the script.

Wan shoots wild blasts of fire at the Chous and the guards, but their numbers overwhelm him. Little Chou closes the gap and jumps on Wan’s back. Wan spins around with his arm extended, trying to hit Little Chou, but instead he creates a ring of fire around them. Little Chou falls off Wan’s back, pulling off Wan’s mask in the process. Wan raises his fist. Little Chou cowers and closes his eyes.
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There is one adjective in there — “wild” — to describe the way Wan is using fire. In this case I think it’s helpful for the storyboard artists to know how Wan is firebending. Since he’s still unskilled at this point, I went with “wild blasts”.

After about three weeks, the writer turns in the first draft. Usually, it comes in a few pages long, which is fine at this point. We’d rather have more to work with than less. Before we turn it into the network for notes, we once again gather in the writer’s room and do an internal punch up session. As a group, we project the script on a screen, and go through it page by page. We pitch alternate versions of lines and try to make the dialogue as good as we can. We also trim out any lines or action that aren’t strong or critical to the plot, with the aim of getting the page count shorter. Once we are all happy with the rewrite, we then turn it into the network for notes.

Once we get the notes back, we do one last punch up session (which is usually a lot quicker than the first), addressing anything that needs to be tweaked. We look for more cuts at this point as well. The goal is to finish with a 26-28 page script. Shows with a lot of action (like finale episodes) are usually even shorter, around 21 or 22 pages.

We call this script the Record Draft, and this is the version we use to record the actors and which the storyboard artists use to begin visualizing the story. You’ll see numbers next to each dialogue line — these are used to keep track of each line as we record.

Roughly eight weeks later, Bryan, the writers, the supervising producers, the director and assistant director, network executives, and I gather and watch the animatic. The animatic gives us an idea of how the story and action flows. We also get to see how long the episode is. We ship shows to Studio Mir at 23 minutes (for Books 1 & 2) and 22 minutes (for Books 2 & 3).*

Aye-Aye stands guard. Wan, (covered completely in mud, twigs, and leaves) walks up to the spirit. Aye-Aye looks suspicious.

Aye-Aye stands guard. Wan, (covered completely in mud, twigs, and leaves) walks up to the spirit. Aye-Aye looks suspicious.

Sometimes animatics run long. Like really long. Like 25 or 26 minutes long. Those are always the toughest because we have to find a way to cut them down without compromising the story. Usually it’s a combination of cutting (or speeding up) some of the action and cutting dialogue. I’m always surprised just how much we can trim out without breaking the story. This episode came in at around 24 minutes, about a minute too long. We make these cuts in yet another group writing session and turn in the Animatic Draft, which the directors use to finalize the storyboards before sending the episode to Studio Mir.

For this episode, the first sequence with Korra and the sage became shorter and shorter with each stage of the writing, until only the essential elements were left. Since this was Wan’s story, it made sense to get to him as quickly as possible. There’s also a scene on page 4 during the chase montage, where Wan is disguised as a woman. It was the least funny of the beats and I don’t miss it at all. It was a good cut. There’s also a short spirit wilds montage scene on page 15 that was cut out — again, it didn’t really add anything to the story, so we got rid of it. The Record draft is 28 pages, but the final version we sent to Studio Mir was 26 pages. And sometimes we have to trim out a little bit more when we edit the final episode.

By breaking down the story into the premise, outline, and script phases, it makes the story writing process much more manageable. It’s similar to the animation process. You can’t start with the final, cleaned up animation. You begin with very rough storyboards and build from there. Likewise with the script. It just wouldn’t work to sit down with a blank script page and start writing some dialogue, hoping the story will gel in the process. Working through the premise and outline helps you as the writer figure out what the story will be. And if you want to make any big changes along the way, it’s much easier (and less demoralizing) to rewrite a few paragraphs of description than an entire script.

Here’s the Record Draft of “Beginnings, Part 1″: K207_RECORD_DRAFT_1.16.12

*Due to Nickelodeon shortening our air times, the length of the shows decreased by a minute for Books 3 & 4. At first, I was concerned we wouldn’t be able to fit all the story we wanted into the shorter length, but it ended up working out fine.

If you missed part 1 or 2 of this series you can find them here:

Writing the Premise

Writing the Outline

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42 thoughts on “Writing the Script

  1. Thank you, Michael, for these great gems! As a newbie creator, learning about the process to one of my favorite shows is hugely informative and inspiring. It’s so gracious of you to spread your knowledge of the craft, and perpetuate quality, original stories. I hope to be among such wonderful creators as yourself soon! Again, thank you for everything!

  2. Is there any chance you might share with us the outline and record draft of Beginnings pt 2? The notes in them about character details that never get translated to the screen are very interesting (Wan’s intended age of 18 at the start, the shaman and how fire chi readings sort-of work, etc). And with as little time as we get with Wan due to having to compress his story, it would be nice to have access to some of those details. Just to get to know him and the era he comes from better. What you’ve released for this writing series is great and I personally really appreciate it. But reading the attached scripts and drafts leave me wanting to know more and to see the other half of the episodes as you wrote them, not just as they came out on screen.

    Thank you for the look into how the animation writing process works and for sharing as much as you have about the Legend of Korra specifically. It’s been an interesting and fun read.

  3. I’m curious how much time is the writing department and the art department working in unison, or besides from a few key players do these departments primarily keep to their own worlds? Also what do you consider the line between the pre-production and production stages?

  4. Great blog post; my favorite of the three! It was very informative and interesting. I didn’t know that action heavy episodes would have shorter scripts.
    On your last blog post, your answer to my comment revealed that the Avatar’s reincarnation is closest to the Buddhist version, and that Raava moves with the Avatar as a constant as he reincarnates again and again. I find this aspect of the show to be the most interesting thing, (besides the bending of course :) ) and I was hoping you could elaborate a little more on the metaphysics of the Avatar. My apologies in advance for the long reply, this is copied from my second reply from last time:

    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? (What happens metaphysically when a past life is called forth for advice? are they talking to a projection of their own suppressed memories, or…?)

    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/etc. 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!

  5. I see that there are a lot of notes in the script referring back to previous episodes or real world concepts. Is Book 3 going to have a lot of references like that? For instance, will the effects of Harmonic Convergence give us an idea of what happened after the Harmonic Convergence in Wan’s time? Or perhaps more elaboration on the mysticism parallel to real world concepts like reincarnation?

  6. “*Due to Nickelodeon shortening our air times, the length of the shows decreased by a minute for Books 3 & 4. At first, I was concerned we wouldn’t be able to fit all the story we wanted into the shorter length, but it ended up working out fine.”
    Did Nickelodeon give you a reason for shorter air times? Also, did you have to cut anything that you felt would’ve assisted the story in Books 3 and 4 due to this? Finally, does the shorter run time make it harder to pace the shows?

  7. Greetings Mr. Dimartino

    As a fan, it’s really interesting to get to see how your writers make these episodes. I myself am working on a fan fiction series *shuffles around awkwardly* and It usually takes me just as long to finish each chapter as it takes your team to finish the writing for an episode.

    It’s especially challenging since I chose to create a microcosm in the Avatar world, a sort of terra incognita on the other hemisphere where the endless ocean resides, populated by a Metal Empire (which I’m basing on Ancient Roman/Imperial British culture) and a handful of Wood Clans (Tribal Celtic/Medieval Scotch-Irish). Adding to the difficulty is trying to include the characters from The Last Airbender while still trying to stay true to the canon’s chronology.

    Recounting my experiences with writing from the past few months, I think I can really relate to how much effort is put into writing the script for these shows. It’s really interesting getting to see how it’s done and I hope my ideas sound interesting (or at least amusing). I hope this post isn’t too long, but it’s hard not to ramble when talking about creating a world as interesting as that the Avatar lives in. It’s always a pleasure getting to talk to one of the creators of these magnificent shows.

  8. Hey, Mike! Sorry to leave this here so out of place, but I couldn’t find a better way of contacting you. This is Irene; we met in person finally at Leigh’s release party, and just wanted to say it was a pleasure! I’m sorry we didn’t get to talk more. Cheers!

  9. Thank you for posting these insights into the Korra writing room. As both a film student and a fan it’s been a pleasure to read them. I did notice that you said 26-28 pages for the script even though the episode is 22 minutes long. The rule of thumb is one page=one minute but do you find that Korra has a enough fast paced talking that you need more pages?

  10. Hi Mike love reading about this process, but there is something that has been on my mind for a while; on season 1 of Korra you and Bryan were the only writers for the show. So my question is how did the process go for you two being the only writers, did you already know how the story would play out ( like True Detective) or was the story progressively pieced together? Sorry if this is a loaded question im just really interested.

  11. Reblogged this on Proseia and commented:
    I haven’t been blogging much lately, so here’s a bit of a cheat post. For anyone familiar with the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series and its most recent incarnation “The Legend of Korra,” here’s an interesting look into the story and script writing process for an episode. Enjoy! <3

  12. WOW fantastic blog,
    I really Loe both the Last Airbender and the Legend of Korra. But I also wanted to ask you a question?? It is said that Koko (Kyoshi’s daughter became the towns governor after her mother) but Avatar Kyoshi was 230 when she died. So did she leave her hometown to live somewhere else or did she give birth on a very high age??

  13. Salutations

    My good sir, I am wondering about how the storyboards reach fruition…is this mainly the director and artists? Or do you have much back and forth with these good folks, do they inquire with the writers often for the greenlight, or are they seasoned enough working with your team that they have a head for most things? For instance, that flashback sequence is a victory for animation. I’ve taken many stills just for the viewing luxury. (The scene where the air monks are gathering sustenance from the tree is a unique crest of imaginative treasure. Scenes like these lift our hearts with its bowing the way of natures kin, benevolent gifts infinite flowering nature and her fabled well of souls, starlight whose gravity tugs at our dream runways. You all are weaving magi, looming fabric of luminous witchcraft and sorcery. This is why The Legend Of Korra is a floating isle of refuge and sanctity for seekers sailing sofas with remotes for boats with legs that can only stand landing on safe harbors and lore extaordinaire. One scene, but filled with sense and sensei. Sunshine for the caring witness (sometimes it’s more like beholding miracle which reveals the crime that there is yet a channel which is forever transmitting great things, it’s like…must we still only know the good because we have seen the bad?!Have we not seen enough? )Witnessing the backgrounds for these episodes for the embodiment of brisk fresh win. They deserve eternal viewing in galleries, maybe in a coastal cultural forward thinking city, maybe in a mountain cave, or on the mantle of the eternal cosmic hearth of good.) Do the writers (or did the writers) get very involved with evoking the correct feel for these scenes?..( The style of Wan’s tale show humanity as being small and nature (in her glory) as being divinely vast …very true of traditional Eastern styles…Taoist and Buddhist and Shinto reverberations hidden within details like this make this show the wonder it be and it, in turn, is of a higher order as well..)

  14. I’m pretty stoked about the new season, but already it seems like it will suffer from some of the same problems that plagued the fist two. Many of the things tha, made the Last Airbender the best animated show ever are missing. One of these is the lack of focus on one main villain. Ozai was a great villain, and the audience knew he was a straight up terible person. I don’t know what you have planned for season four, but we need a great villain that is extremely memorable. Unalaq paled in comparison with Amon. I found it hard to watch season two because of the inconsistency with him. Amon, on the other hand, was a great villain because he was as terrifying to Korra as Ozai was to Aang. I would love it if you replied because I have tons of ideas for season four, and I think I can help give the fans the spin off show they deserve. If not I wish you luck on the creation of season four. Thanks!

    1. They’ve already basically finished writing Book 4, & even if they didn’t, nobody would ever take you up on that offer, because legally, your suggestions belong to you. They would either have to pay you for them or you’d have to enter into some formal agreement to give up ownership of them. Either way, it’s more trouble than it’s worth, & that’s assuming that they would want to, which is also unlikely, because most content creators get into this business out of a desire to make their own art.

      1. Legality aside you must admit that Legend of Korra has continually suffered forms problems that are easy to fix, but for some reason they have yet to fix them. And since you are more than likely correct in saying book four is mostly finished we need to hope they have already corrected the aforementioned problems. Otherwise the quality of the show will continue to spiral downwards.

      2. I don’t agree to any claim without knowing the specifics, especially knowing how absurd many of the complaints about the show have been.

  15. The critique of the villains can be specified like this. Ozai was one bad dude, and we got tree whole seasons to understand just how bad of a character he was. He inflicted great trauma one of the main characters, Zuko, and caused great inner conflict to another, Aang. The character that is the closest match to Ozai was Amon, but the terror and evil that surrounded him was only felt by one character, Korra. Unalaq had almost no direct influence with any character outside of Korra. This was partially due to the fact that the main group was so split up the who time. Now, in season three we don’t care about any characters because; one the new Gaang is always doing separate things; two so many characters are being added and written out so quickly we can’t form the same attachments we did with the original Gaang. Sorry if I veered off from the original topic. I thought the lack emotional attachment needed to be addressed.

    1. I don’t think I’d really agree. For starters, Ozai himself wasn’t really that interesting. His personal character was more relevant to Zuko, but for the most part, it was the idea of Ozai that caused so much angst, while Ozai himself did little to nothing.

      I liked Amon, except for the Twist Ending, so no arguments there. I also wouldn’t argue that Unalaq wasn’t as interesting, but he still had his moments. He got Tonraq banished & tried to imprison him fore life, he corrupted the spirits, he wrecked up Republic City in the finale, & he caused a number of problems with Tenzin’s family; nearly killing Jinora then abducting her, leading Tenzin & the others to fear for her life & enter the Spirit World, become separated in the Fog of Souls & almost go crazy. Basically, he was a little dull, but he could be a scary dude–kind of like Ozai, actually.

      I’m still on the fence about Book 3, since it’s about halfway in but I’m not really sure where it’s going, but so far, I don’t really see those complaints. If anything, I would say that splitting the Gaang up helps me believe that these characters are individuals, & not all there to serve a role in Korra’s group. There’s no character that I can really say that I’m disinterested in–I dislike Kai, but dislike is a form of interest.

      1. lith…? Nothing strikes you irksome? really? well for me, i was all about it…..korra and stuff….but like..yo….should the avatar really be eating fish and killing animals without need for food. like you guys had it right with the Air Bs but yo get your messg fix fast we got kids watchin your sister savior go all darkside with that. like yo. fo real. not fighting anything not worth fighting for, lives matter, even for that swimming friend. so sorry for being the more refreshing commenter that 4 goin on 5 bigtime cowriters enjoy more, we got em. slayer of hell, seduced by heaven

      2. It’s not that nothing ever bothers me, it’s that most complaints tend to be either nonsensical, blown out of proportion, or things that people accepted of ATLA with no problem. Even some of what I would call “big problems” are beaten SO far beyond dead that it’s ridiculous. Like how people got so traumatized by the love triangle that they now panic at any mention of romance. Yes, it was annoying, but seriously, it was a cartoon, not a warzone, those people really need to move on.

        Also, when did Korra ever kill animals without a need for food?

      3. yo maybe the divine nature surging in her will show her the light of altruism and care for the world round even if they are called food, a rose by any other name is not food. you cant call a rose food, and eat the rose, and be like, ow why is this food not thorny. Yet…..owhen we leave the island what TENZIN just like SAYS NOTHING? NOTHING? like yo Korra, you are ruining dinner…You are making my daughters cry, and the AIR BISON DO NOt WANT YOU TO RIDE THEM they are MAD with you. for being a bit of fake, like oh yah all veg on the island free rent cha ching of yah sweet thanks queeny you are kind of hot and rule with an iron fist of metal so yah ill just be a BENDER watch me FOLD LIKE A CHAIR and eat this meat cuz ya…i am so one of a kind, that i can eat just one of your kind, even if you were just one. cos i AM KORRA. i can eat without a conscience, and no wonder the other voices of the divine left me….ooh roll the dice…korra see what the dealer takes …. and yeah. what else. nothing just want to show my future kids a nice show and recommended your show as being really good dont make this weird for me i wont stand by you at soirees if you are lame

  16. I see your point with how the split up Gaang does help show that Korra’s needs are not the first priority for everyone, however; I think they could show that in a better way. In the Last Airbender it was very easy to see that everyone was an individual, but the camaraderie they had really helped make them interesting while at the same time they were strong characters on their own.

    On your second point. I haven’t watched season 2 in a while, so I’m a little fuzzy on the details. One thing they did well in season one, in my opinion, was wrapping up the villains. Amon’s ending was a good ending for him and his brother. Unalaq’s ending, although it hugely expanded the world by mixing in spirits, was hard for me to follow and I was left underwhelmed by it .

    I’m also on the fence for season 3 because it seems to have tons of potential, but the way in which we see the story is subpar to me. Don’t get me wrong I loved seeing Toph in Lin’s flashbacks, but I didn’t really care what was going on because its been hard to really get invested in characters since they introduce them and get rid of them at lighting speed. The only character story I’m remotely invested in is Zuko’s since we already know Zuko’s character and no one wants to see Zuko get killed unless there was another character who we cared about to share his last moments with.

    Also, I can understand why you’re interested in all the characters because whats happening to them is interesting, but we don’t have the same connection to them as previous characters.

    1. True, Avatar didn’t have problems with characterization, but every now & again, it would have characters split off from the main group. Maybe there’s been too much of that in Korra, but I don’t really see it as a big deal.

      As for emotional investment, it depends on the character. Korra, the Gaang’s kids, Asami, Earth Queen, sure. Kai, Meelo, Rohan, not really. Opal, Mako, & Bolin, a little iffier.

      But I wasn’t always “ZOMGSOAMAZING” about the Avatar characters, either. It took me quite a while to realize what great characters Sokka & Zuko were, & a lot of them I had an emotional attachment towards, but wasn’t particularly interested in. As in I didn’t really care about Aang’s zany antics, Air Nomad philosophy, or romantic pursuits, but seeing him struck by lightning in the finale of Book 2 was quite–shocking.

  17. All I got to say is that you and Bryan are awesome writers, Seeing how you guys wrote the entire episodes of book 1 of Korra with all the twist and turns was very detailed and impressive.
    I’ve watched a lot of animated shows and none that have I seen are so well written and so well thought out and I love the those “omg, hell na” moments! Like in (ATLA: The Boiling Rock pt.2) When the guards were sawing the cable and Mai comes out of no where and takes on the guards, Or when Azula and Mai where about to throw down and in the last second Ty lee throws her quick jabs and down goes Azula… Those are a few (omg,hell na) moments that makes it so awesome and enjoyable to watch. Its that right there that made me a huge fan; I don’t recall seeing a cartoon have such depth and such surprising moments like that in it.
    So thanks for creating such a powerful, Imaginative show that has such great writing and also such great animation (sweet!)
    You guys made watching this show such a pleasure.

    I wish Nickelodeon would have reconsider doing a few made for tv movies of all the comics that came out… I would have loved to seen the writing and animation for that. That woulda’ been kickass!

  18. Thank you for going into this detailed explanation. As a writer myself, I was very intrigued by how you and your team develop the story. I’ve never seen an explanation like this before!

    I look forward to your next blog entry; all your previous have been fantastic. And I’m loving Book Change so far!! I deeply wonder what creative works you and Bryan might decide to do once Book 4 has been released, whether together or separately.

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