About a decade ago, I had the good fortune to read a screenwriting book called How to Write for Animation by Jeffrey Scott. Unlike most screenwriting books, Scott hardly mentions story theory; instead, he focuses on teaching a very practical writing process. I applied his methods in my own work, and was amazed at how helpful they were. In fact, Scott’s book turned out to be one of the three most helpful professional books I’ve read.
Here’s the twist though: I wasn’t using it for writing at all! I was an animator—and as it turns out, with just a few minor adjustment Scott’s creative process tips work very well in animation, too.
Does that surprise you? To me, it was a revelation. A book about writing helped me become a better animator; what did that mean? Maybe that creative minds of different art forms have more in common than we usually tend to think. Maybe it means we should all get used to looking beyond the boundaries of our own medium.
What Writers Can Learn from Animators
In this post, I’ll try to go back and suggest three practical writing tips taken straight from the world of animation. I hope to also share with you the sense of wonder that comes from watching two seemingly unrelated things suddenly connect.
1. Act it out
Animators don’t just sit on their little chairs moving drawings or digital puppets around. To really understand their characters, animators act out every scene many times over. They make videos of themselves and study them carefully, looking for small unconscious gestures that reveal mood and personality in an interesting way. They can then weave some of these fine details into their work, adding believability and texture.
Your writing tip: don’t just sit there trying to conjure up interesting actions and dialogues out of thin air. Get up and act out your scenes!
You don’t need to be a great actor; just try to become the character for a little while, and let physical reactions and dialogue happen naturally.
Make a video of yourself doing it, and draw on what you see and hear to create a unique voice and fine texture for your character.
2. Brainstorm key moments with quick snippets
Before starting to animate, animators typically draw multiple thumbnail sketches. These are small, very rough suggestions done in just a few seconds. It allows them to quickly try out many different ideas, then select the ones that have the most appeal or that make the most interesting structure. Here’s an example:
Some of my thumbnail sketches for Asterix and the Vikings
Your writing tip: Instead of writing your outline chronologically, try to identify key moments in the scene and write them as short, quick snippets of action and dialogue. Try out different ways of doing the same thing. Don’t mind the order of things—just write your ideas as they come. Often one key moment would suggest another one—follow the thread and try it out!
Allow yourself to be surprised. Remember that the key is to be QUICK about it. Don’t refine, don’t elaborate, and don’t linger. Try using basic or abbreviated grammar (e.g. “boy opens door—lingers—sigh: not again!”)
Once you feel you have a good overview of the different angles and possibilities the scene has to offer, select a succession of key moments that have the most appeal and the most interesting structure, and use it as a strong starting point for an outline.
3. Let your writing flow through your outline
In animation, “Straight Ahead” is the right-brain process of animating chronologically, one frame after another, no plan – just a pure creative flow. “Pose to Pose” it the left-brain process of drawing the most important poses first, and then connecting them with more drawings.
Sometime in the early 1930’s, Disney animators came up with the method of “animating through poses”. The idea was to plan poses first, then work “Straight Ahead”, gravitating towards the planned poses but not necessarily hitting them exactly. This method is still used by animators to combine left-brain logic with right-brain expressiveness and flow.
Your writing tip: once you have your outline ready, start at the beginning and write “straight ahead” style, letting your right brain lead the way while keeping in mind roughly where you’re headed. Try not to control it too much, just “nudge” it towards the next outline point.
Don’t worry if you’re not writing exactly what the outline indicates; respect the natural flow of your writing, and let happy accidents happen! If the underlying outline is good, it will hold.
Do you have any writing process habits imported from a different discipline?
Spend ten minutes writing abbreviated “thumbnails” for a short story. Build an outline, then write “straight ahead” through your outline for another ten minutes.
Post your thumbnails and the resulting story in the comments below, and don’t forget to leave some feedback for your fellow writers!