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 ideal 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

The Science of Story

I came across this video from the World Science Festival called, Why We Tell Stories: Science of Narrative. In searching the web for books and articles about stories and storytelling from a scientific angle, I’ve found a handful of accessible books about the subject, the best so far being The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, which I’ve mentioned before. I’m sure there are other, more academic style books on the subject, but I am far from an academic, so those types of books don’t resonate with me.

But as the panelists discuss, the scientific study into narrative is relatively new field. Philosophers and writers have pondered the question for centuries, but only in the last 15 years or so has it been studied with any scientific rigor. Which makes sense why it’s been hard to come by a lot of information on the topic.

The video is definitely worth watching. (The panel starts about 15 minutes in.)

The panel didn’t come to any definitive conclusions, but I came away with a lot of great insights.

–Research suggests that story has the ability to change us. This is a powerful idea which we can see play out in places like advertising and politics. We can be swayed to buy a particular product or vote for a particular person based on the story the advertiser or politician tells us.

–Fiction helps us to create better mental models of each other. This helps us empathize with others more easily. Researchers discovered that parts of the brain that are activated for understanding someone are also activated by story. With fiction, unlike in real life, we can understand why a character behaves a certain way (even if we don’t condone it) because we are aware of his or her inner thoughts and deepest secrets.

–Humans are designed to find meaning. Stories can help us find meaning in what seems at times to be a meaningless world.

–Stories are the social glue that hold a tribe or society together.

–Stories are simulations of the social world. Keith Oatley describes stories like they are flight simulators or virtual realities, where we can test out different social situations without the social risks.

All these ideas have me really excited for the possibility of story and what they are capable of. They truly have the ability to make us the best versions of ourselves and to inspire us to be a positive influence on the world. For me, after reading a great book or watching a great movie, I’m inspired to create. And I’ve heard from a lot of Avatar fans who have told me some amazing and heartwarming tales of how the series and characters have touched people and inspired them to study art, or deal with illness, or deal with the loss of a loved one. Your stories inspire me to keep telling more.

I love that scientists are studying story, but I wonder if treating story like it’s bacteria in a petri dish will take away some of its magic. Will there be a point where we understand its effects on the human brain so well that people can tailor stories to resonate with people? I suppose, but this would be the same as propaganda.

I recently heard a definition of art that I really liked – it must be both novel and useful. And I think that can apply to story as well. Science can probably help us make it more useful, but I don’t know that it can ever explain why some stories become great and others don’t. There are so many factors that go into telling a story, that you can have all the ingredients right, and still come out with a half-baked product.

At the end of the talk, the moderator asked what the future of story will look like. And although stories might take different forms or be consumed in different ways, the kinds of stories we tell won’t change all that much, according to Gottschall. I agree. Old stories like The Iliad and Hercules are still being retold, just in modern media. But the essence of these stories still reflect the values we find important, like courage, overcoming fear, love, and justice.

Do you think scientific study of story will have useful results? Have there been any stories that have changed you?

Why Story Matters: The Journey Begins…

For the past ten years, most of my creative energy has been devoted to co-creating the world, characters, and stories for the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. And during that time, I’ve been on a quest to figure out how to tell stories more effectively and learning about what kind of stories I want to tell.

From the start, Bryan Konietzko and I wanted our show to transcend the mold of what people expected from a U.S. Action/adventure animated series. We told a continuous story, had a hero who was a reincarnated being, and explored the spiritual side of life. All this, and it was an entertaining, action-packed cartoon. We mixed drama, action, and comedy and both shows have resonated with audiences around the globe.

At the end of 2005, I read an article in the New Yorker about Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Speaking in a Carnegie Medal acceptance speech, he said: “We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them. We all need stories, but children are more frank about it.”

This quote has stuck with me for years. And the article is one of the few I’ve ever photocopied and saved in a binder. Like a fine wine, that article has aged, the pages yellowed around the edge now. But the wisdom in it still holds true, and today I’m using it as the starting point for a larger journey I’m on.

Why is it that we are willing to read bad books, sit through bad movies, or watch bad TV shows? Do we really have that much time on our hands? Are we really that bored? I don’t think so. It’s because we need those stories. We need them as much as we need food or air or water. In some primeval way, we’ve been hardwired for stories. They help us understand the world around us, help guide us how to live, and show us the potential of what we can become. And today, there are billions and billions of stories in the world, not just in entertainment, but in politics, advertising, and religion. Add to that all of our own personal stories. The ones we tell ourselves about why we are the way we are.

Stories are everywhere.

It’s my intention with this blog to explore stories of every kind, wherever and whenever they appear. From the latest movies and books, to ancient myths and everything in between. I want to find out why it is we need those stories as much as we do and what we can do as consumers and creators of stories to seek out and tell better ones. We need stories that matter. Stories that help us and the world evolve.

Let’s throw out the bad books and start reading the good ones.

I’ve been wanting to start a blog like this for a while, but I told myself a host of familiar excuses why I shouldn’t:

“I’m too busy.”

“I’m not a good writer.”

“No one wants to hear what I have to say.”

The excuses are over. The fear is still there, but I’m writing anyway. I want to tell myself a different story, with chapters like:

“I have plenty of time.”

“I love writing and I’m good at it.”

“People want to hear what I have to say.” Okay, maybe not everyone, but I think at least a few people out there will be interested. Maybe you’re one of them.