Sunday, 21 December 2014

Five Steps to Write a Great Story

Titles to Love Me Love Me Love Me by Richard Williams
How do you write a great story? You can't make a great film without one, and yet one of the most common mistakes made by rookie film-makers is to start making the film before the story is figured out.

In fact, it's not just novices who fall into this trap - Hollywood does it all the time. But with a little forethought and planning, you can start off your project with a great story. After all, story is the most important part of any film. As Pixar's John Lasseter put, "the three most important ingredients in a Pixar film are: 1. Story, 2. Story, and 3. Story". So, how do you make sure you get it right?

Write it down! Photo: Wikipedia
Step 1 - Write Down Your Idea

First of all, scribble down the idea on a piece of paper (or a napkin - great ideas often happen over food and wine) what your story is about. Just a couple of lines that express the nature of the story; try to distill the very essence of it into one paragraph.

So, when someone in the pub says "So what's your film about?" you can tell them, in a few concise words. The idea is to make your summary brief, clear, and intriguing. Leave the listener (or reader) wanting to know more.

Step 2 - write an outline

An outline is a short document, ideally one page (but maybe two or three), that tells your story in brief. Your outline will have a beginning, a middle and an end. This document is vital because it forces you to set out the whole story in brief. It's at this stage that you usually figure out what the major problems are, and whether or not you really have a story at all. Outlines are generally kicked around and changed a lot before the project is done. Don't worry if this happens - it's completely normal. The most important thing about the outline is that it should be fun and easy to read. The reader should want to turn the page.

Celtx. Like Final Draft, but free.

Step 3 - write your script

Once your outline is working and agreed upon, write your script. Scripts are written in a standard format. The font is always Courier, and they always look the same. Download a copy of a sample script and follow the format exactly - professional screenwriters all use the exact same format - for good reasons.

Don't try to re-invent the wheel. To get started, use CELTX, free software which will automatically format your script for you. Or, use Trelby, which is also free.
ToonBoom StoryBoard Pro

Step 4 - draw your story board

Start storyboarding. Your storyboard will start off as word-for-word drawn version of your script. However, animation is a visual medium, and you will likely find that things will change a bit as you start to board. Don't worry - this is quite normal. The script is not the holy grail - you can and will adjust it as create your storyboard. But your first pass should stick pretty close to the script. If it starts to head in a different direction altogether, go back to the script stage and re-write.

Traditionally, storyboards were done on paper, and then scanned and edited together. Nowadays most pro's use digital software like ToonBoom StoryBoard Pro - mainly because it's faster.

Premiere Pro - not free, but essential for editing
Step 5 - Film your animatic

Film your story board animatic. Cut your scanned storyboard panels together with sound effects, music, dialogue. and narration.  This is done in the editing suite (that's you and a copy of Premiere Pro, or Final Cut if you are using a Mac) and is where your film really takes shape.

At this point, you will likely find that your story will need adjusting and changing, to get the flow and the rhythm working. You may well need extra story panels; others will get cut. Again, it's quite normal - all part of the story process.


To find out more about Animation Apprentice, click here for a link to Frequently Asked Questions. To sign up for our next classroom at Animation Apprentice, follow this link. For more information on finding work and surviving in the animation and visual effects business, read our post on how to find a job in the animation industry, and check out our post about what not to do at a job interview. Also see our post on starting your own small animation business, learn how to create an invoice, and see how we are helping our students find work through our film co-operative Nano Films.  Download the free Escape Studios Careers in VFX Handbook. Take a look at how can help you find a job, and read our piece about how to survive as a freelance animator. Also, find out what Cinesite look for in a student's demo reel, and read our post on setting up your own animation business. Also see our post about freelancers and taxes

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