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!