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Story Skills for Animation 3


Previous Tutorial: Story Skills for Animation 2

The story so far; Historically storyboarding is the way to take animated projects forward and it may also be the best. Putting drawings on the wall, narrating them to others and feeling how your film takes shape by actually performing it is a very powerful tool for this very visual medium.

But this is a world where the people who may give you money need things they can read on the train, so it’s not very practical handing them a wall. It’s therefore very likely that you will have to sit down at a keyboard and type a formal script, but I’d still recommend you try some live storytelling first.

Getting up and pitching your project to people (any people ) is the best way of taking a tale forward that I know. As you tell it you’ll embroider it. You’ll feel the limp bits sound.. well, limp, and make a mental note to improve them later. You’ll hear your story thrive or die as you try to keep your audience wanting to know more.

Animators are performers with a pencil so getting up and becoming your film is a brilliant way to feel it’s rhythms and get an objective view of your work. But, there will come a time when you have to nail your thoughts to paper and that’s when things can go astray. So you have to work at…

Making music

It has been said by a great many people who draw far better than me that animation and music have much in common. Both are paced by beats and rhythms, although only one is good to dance to. Well, screenwriting is a lot like music too. A fully formed script is full of beats and rhythms that your audience will unconsciously tap their feet along to IF you get them right.

Not all good films are tightly structured, but it sure helps. In animation a fresh style or a stunning technique can be very exciting to watch – for a while – until the viewer gets used to it and boredom sets in. The tough truth is that if you want to make movies that people will want to watch to the end you have to win, hold and deserve their attention.

Whether you’re making an episode of ‘She-Man and The Masters Of Tranvesticism’ or a film for the Prague Festival Of Animation Made With Rotting Dolls And Rusty Scissors, your holy creative duties are the same.

  • To intrigue your audience
  • To take them on a journey that exceeds their expectations.
  • To leave them somewhere that made their trip worthwhile.

You have to make music.

A lot of filmmakers, especially those who hate the idea of screenwriting ‘rule’s’ have found this music making analogy useful. Of course you can be John Cage. You can make your name through eight minutes of cacophony or silence which make us reconsider the act of listening. But be prepared to play to much smaller audiences.

Mostly people prefer a good tune.

A good tune is a journey. It sweeps us up and it transports us. It carries us away, but It doesn’t disorientate. There are riffs and rhythms and a deeper theme that make us feel we are being guided by a composer who knows what they are doing, rather than a kid banging on saucepans with a spoon. We feel that our ride through music is going to worthwhile and that we may even want to repeat it again.

How do we structure that journey so there are twists and turns, not one verse and no chorus or middle eight? Well, most widely used and popular way to do that is to plan ahead using..

Classic Three Act Structure

There are many ways to hold an audience, but the oldest and most well known is to ensure that you have three acts.

Think of a joke. Any joke. It has three sections.

  • Situation
  • Complication
  • Resolution

And if you complicate that a little bit more you get 75% of mainstream Hollywood movies.


Welcome to my almost familiar world. Here’s my lead character and I’m going to make you identify with them a little – then make you wonder what will happen to them next after…. OH WOW!


I bet you didn’t see that coming! Our lead character has been sent on an unexpected journey to places unknown. Anything might happen.

With them we explore this new world, perhaps chasing some kind of prize (a girl, a Lost Ark Of The Covenant, a return trip to Kansas) and maybe meet a bad guy along the way. Then things get worse for them in a way we couldn’t imagine. OH SHIT!


I bet you didn’t see that coming either. They’ll never get out of this.

But they do. HALLALUIAH!  Though it ain’t easy.

We didn’t expect them to end up where they do but it makes perfect sense really. They win their struggle and prize. Though maybe not the one they/we were expecting at the start of the story. Their personal and geographical journey is done.

  • Oh Wow
  • Oh Shit
  • Halleluiah!

Secrets of screen writing two. The note most given to writers is ‘You’ve only written a two act story.’ Don’t let that be you.

Why does the three act structure work so well, and has done since the beginnings of drama ( it goes back a long way.) Because it plays with the human attention span. It feeds us new information on a regular basis to keep us interested.

Imagine you’re making an animated short. After a few minutes of screen time the audience have usually got the point you are making. They’re not thick. If your theme is ‘War is wrong’ they’ll have noticed by now and their attention will be flagging. They need something to refresh them. That refreshment is your second idea – your third act.

I work stories out like this….

Alan Gilbey Notes

Many scripts go wrong because they only have two acts; the initial idea and it’s development. Reaching for the third act – the surprising – the less obvious – the place we didn’t expect to go – is what will make your film unique. So…

  • Draw a flowchart of your film – with three boxes.(1)
  • Then scribble out your story so it divides into them.
  • If the divisions feel slight or forced, do more thinking. Is there more that could happen? Is the story really over or is there somewhere else you could go that would bring fresh perspectives to your theme?

Make sure each box is a clearly divided stage in a journey, with a final destination you could not see from the point of departure.

Every scene and every event should push us towards what comes next.

Homework. Go back to You Tube again. Watch ‘Bad Luck Blackie’ and draw a chart of what you perceive as its structure. Does it fit the above or am I talking bollocks? Now think of Tex’s wonderful toon as a song. If the verses are the basic three act story. What would be the chorus? Can you find any riffs or refrains?

Next Tutorial; a series of disconnected extra bits like I didn’t plan this or something.

1. As above, act two is always the longest. It’s where the meat of your sandwich is (if I was using sandwiches as a metaphor and not songs).

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