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