Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Writing For Animation - 22

The Story Bible – Storylines

Any story bible will include some suggestions for storylines, and, ideally, a couple of existing scripts.  It should also include some indication of suitable subject matter for the scripts.

Every animated series is to some extent formulaic, though some are much more formulaic than others.  Scooby Doo, for instance, seems to re-hash the same plot over and over again.  The Simpsons will take you to places you don’t expect, but rarely, if ever, outside the confines of a family sitcom, though not a very traditional one.   Often a series will have a recurring event that scriptwriters are obliged to include.  In Fireman Sam, for example, every episode had to include a callout scene.  The fire engine had to be seen driving out of the station, bells and sirens blaring.  In the first few series of South Park, Kenny has to die.  I am currently writing scripts for a series about a young Viking who must have a moment of revelation in every episode.  The scene where he rubs his nose and sparks fly is an obligatory element of every script.

Quite often, the type of storyline will be obvious from the premise of the series.  In our series, Hana’s Helpline, each story had to involve a character asking Hana for help.  There were no directions about how this was done, or by whom, but it had to be about a problem the target audience, young children, would understand.  Each episode of our series, Igam Ogam, revolves around a simple phrase, or word, that is repeated in different situations, and with different expression.  Words like Sorry or Again form the basis for a story built around conflicts that arise from the relationships between the characters.

As we have already discussed, conflict is the motor behind all stories.  I intend to explore ways of creating conflict at a later date, but suffice to say that the story bible needs to be clear about where the conflicts lie.  Many series are based on one central conflict, e.g. a single adversary who always needs to be overcome. I once was the story editor for a long running series about football, called The Hurricanes. In every episode, the Hurricanes had to thwart the attempts of their unscrupulous rivals, The Gorgons, to get the better of them on and off the pitch.  Each episode ended with highlights of a game between the teams, which the Hurricanes inevitably won.

This involved all sorts of other conflicts.  Against the elements, when the Gorgons contrived to strand their opponents’ coach in the middle of the jungle, or to challenge them to a game played aboard a ship.  Moral conflicts, as players had to choose between loyalty to their team and personal relationships and obligations.  Physical conflicts, as the Gorgons used strong arm tactics to get their way.  There were sometimes conflicts that involved a player, as he suffered a lack of form, a lack of confidence, a blackmail threat, etc., and at other times conflicts that involved the group, as their kit was destroyed, they came down with a mystery illness, or ended up playing for their lives in the Ball Game of the Toltecs.

Writers will have their own preferences about the sort of story they like to write, and, if the series is to remain fresh and interesting, it is essential that a range of different writers are used, and that they are given the opportunity to bring their own personality to the series.  Some writers relished the possibilities for action in a story about a physical contact with the elements, or the other team.  Others were more at home dealing with the personal conflicts of an individual.   For this reason, there need to be as many opportunities for conflict as possible, without undermining the integrity of the series.  The conflicts, like everything else, are subject to the parameters that have already been established in the section describing the world of the series.  The Hurricanes never travelled in time, or in space.  If their exploits were sometimes incredible, it was because no team could ever win that number of games.

It is quite usual for a story bible to list the different types of story conflict.  The Bible of the series I am currently writing for has a list of potential starting points for adventures, as well as ideas for how the problems might be resolved.  It insists that one of the main characters is emotionally involved in the problem.  This has to be an essential part of all storytelling.  There has to be something at stake, and we have to care about our characters.  This Bible also insists on a three act structure, something that other bibles might take for granted.

Some bibles list suggestions for which characters drive which type of story, as well a visual gags that are permissible, or the type of misunderstanding that drives the humour of the series.  It is good to have lots of information and suggestions, but, sometimes, too many examples can be constrictive.  Every writer will want to come up with his own ideas, rather than use those of the bible.

In practice, writers soon build up an understanding of what works for any series, and specific notes from story editors or executive producers will be an important factor in the way that scripts evolve.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told I know that was in the Bible, but we’ve changed it.

Next week:  The role of the story editor.

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