Sunday, April 22, 2012


"Story Basics," via President Emeritus Sito, from story artist Emma Coats:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different. ...

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there. ...

I've always thought that stories were organic rather than mechanistic. Emma's right. You have to work your way through the tale, write it to the end, to see what you've got. And what works and doesn't work.

Laying stories out on paper changes them. You discover that things you thought were terrific at initial creation don't fit, and that you have to kill some sweet, lovable ideas because the road you ended up traveling didn't allow them to live.

Everybody gets the "beginning, middle, end" thing. Everybody understands "rising action" and "character arcs" and making lead characters active rather than passive. (As we say, "acting" instead of "acted upon.") But there are no rigid rules for good stories. They grow naturally, a little bit at a time. Kind of like life.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Steve. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Too bad you and so many other writers did not follow these points.

Anonymous said...

Animation Writers Story Baysicks:

1) When in doubt, write in a crowd scene, musical number or both. Repeat.

2) If the shows deadline is tight, be sure to have lots of chase scenes and action sequences.

3) Make sure to write five pages of script for every one minute of animation required.

4) If you are told to shorten the script, widen your margins.

5) Get all ideas from current tv shows and movies (bonus tip: execs always get a huge laugh when the title of the cartoon parodies the title of their favorite show!).

6) Be topical! Hinge your stories on things that will likely be irrelevent or dated in a month or less.

7) Ignore any and all input from the director.

8) Take credit for gags you had nothing to do with.

9) Pound out scripts in less than an hour - spend the rest of your day working on that 'Whitney' spec so you can get the hell out of animation.

10) Be the worst creative element on the show, then await your inevitable development deal for your own show!

Anonymous said...

^Oh, so you've worked with Butch Hartman, have you? ;)

Anonymous said...

11) Open your residual checks in front of the crew!

Anonymous said...

Ho, I'd like to smack #19 upside the head... there are coincidences, and then there's stuff you're throwing in for cheap drama.

I'm surprised there wasn't a #23 "Make a list of absolutely everything that can go wrong and force every damn one of them into the story."

Steve Hulett said...

Too bad you and so many other writers did not follow these points.

Too bad you don't know what you're talking about.

Steve Hulett said...


I think, after this snotting fest, where anonymous unpleasant people slag parts of the animation community, that a couple of things will soon happen.

We're gonna start monitoring posts. And we're gonna require names.

hoopcooper said...

These are some good rules.

I would add...if you want to read the best book on this stuff that's not a dumb formula to follow...check out Backwards and Forwards by David Ball. It's a dynamite little book for actors that works really well for writing as well.

other rules,
1) just because you worked on a sit-com doesn't mean you can write a cartoon (except maybe family guy)

2) and just because you can draw doesn't mean you can tell a story.

3) Every single thing every one of us does is hard.

just a suggestion.

hoopcooper said...

also, rule 12 is the most important in the group...because even if your story is perfect, you're going to hand it to an executive who says... "Kids don't like space." Or "Nobody cares about an iguana." and then you're going to have to come up with a new idea. you have to have enough fixes and good ideas that when you actually find them in a charitable mood you've got something in your hand to sell.

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