As I have already explained, I do not intend to talk about the fundamentals of scriptwriting in this blog. I am not going to expound on three act structure, character arcs, scene beats, etc., though these things are as relevant to animation as they are to any script. Other people have written at length about this subject, and with more clarity and authority than I could muster.
I simply want to share my observations as a story editor and producer of animated series. Inexperienced writers of animation series tend to make the same mistakes, and I want flag them up here for the benefit of animation writers who are still finding their feet. Please forgive me if you think that many of them are obvious, or if I am repeating things I have mentioned before. I hope you might still find them useful.
Not reading the Bible.
Animated series may bear some resemblance to soaps. They usually have a small group of characters with whom it is easy to become emotionally involved. They have a large number of episodes. They can be addictive.
That’s about as far as the similarities go. Animated series are almost invariably made as stand alone episodes, that can be transmitted in any order. This is partly to do with the vagaries of programming. It is always a frustration for me when broadcast of an episode of one of our series is dropped to accommodate a live sporting or ceremonial event. This happens less often in the digital age. Some broadcasters broadcast an episode a week, and for this reason animated series are usually made in multiples of 13, one for every week of a quarter. Others strip the series, i.e. show an episode a day, and may have an episode or two that doesn’t fit, and which might need to be delayed or repeated. Other broadcaster will drop an episode for cultural reasons. Al Jazeera, which buys most of our series, will not broadcast Christmas episodes, for obvious reasons. All this means that you cannot be sure in which order the episodes will be shown, or rely on their being shown continuously.
This means that, unlike in soaps, relationships cannot develop. Characters cannot easily be written out, or miraculously revived from the dead. In South Park, Kenny has to die and be revived in every episode. There is no actual development.
I habitually watch a soap. I won’t tell you which one, only that it is one of the worst. It holds a morbid fascination for me. Relationships do develop, fall apart, etc. What is most clear is that the players in the drama fall in and out of character to suit the plot. A character with a wooden leg will limp in one episode, but be very sprightly in another. Another will get pregnant with a surrogate baby well into her fifties, having suddenly recovered from a seemingly terminal illness. Malicious, selfish characters suddenly become tender and loving.
We go along with this because we are carried along by the stories, however ridiculous they might be. We understand the conventions of the genre.
In animated series relationships cannot develop. Characters cannot change their personality simply because the story demands it. Character arcs can only occur within an episode, and, unlike in most drama, must restore the status quo. In our series, Hilltop Hospital, we had a love triangle. Kitty, the cat nurse, was in love with Dr Matthews, the dog doctor. He, in turn, was in love with the hippo surgeon, Sally. This relationship was doomed to get nowhere. Over 52 episodes, their love was never requited. The challenge for the writers was to see how much fun they could get out of it.
It is very tempting for writers who have a brilliant idea for a storyline to create new personality traits for the characters to advance the narrative, or to give it emotional power. This is a common mistake. The players in an animated series need to stay in character throughout the series, or the audience will get confused when shows are played out of order.
Animated characters tend to be almost one dimensional. They tend to be dominated by one characteristic. One might be a bully. Another dreamy and sentimental. Another full of nervous energy. You might write a story in which the bully reveals a soft interior, but, at the end of the episode, it must be clear that he is still a bully. The sentimental dreamer might have to come to terms with gritty reality in one episode, but the experience must not be allowed to change his basic nature.
This means that writers need to pay attention to the bible, and, in particular, the description of characters.
Next: More common mistakes