This blog entry is about making an independent animated film and losing my sanity along the way. And what I learned.
So how do you start writing a story from scratch? How do you find the right story? What should it be about? Do you make the plot structure first, or does story come from some god-gifted talent?
It is one thing to start writing from any idea that pops up and just go with the flow, but it’s another thing to actually create a story structure out of nothing. I struggled with this. Somehow, I had these (naive) notions that this is what good writers do:
- Have an idea
- Start writing, a structured story appears if you’re a talented or a good writer.
- Refine the story, work on the structure.
- Finish the story.
If the writer is good, the story will be good. If the writer is bad, the story will suck.
Before starting out, I considered myself an able writer, so naturally, the resulting story would come out decently. I started many story ideas, but slowly a realization creeped on me. I had a tough time creating a good story structure from unstructured writing. Maybe I wasn’t a good writer! Something wasn’t working.
I was honest enough to figure that I didn’t know much about story structure and especially screenwriting. About how you’re supposed to write a story for the screen that has dramatic structure. What the hell is dramatic structure anyway and how do you create it? So I started reading great books on drama, screenwriting and dramatic structure. These books got me started:
- Story, by Robert McKee.
A great and very accessible book on screenwriting and story structure.
- The illusion of life, by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.
If you want to do anything related to animation film, read this first. It has great parts on developing story and character.
- Poetics, by Aristotle.
Rightfully a classic, and very concise. It explains how tragedy and great drama works (tragically, the part on comedy got lost to history).
- The writer’s journey, by Christopher Vogler.
The book reveals mythic story structure and archetypes. Based on the works of Joseph Campbell.
- Which got me into reading The hero with a thousand faces, by Joseph Campbell.
One of my favorite books ever. Powerful and almost on a religious level. This book discusses his theory of the mythological structure of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world myths.
These books gave me a lot of ideas, a decent framework for my story structure problems and above all, insight on how a story actually works. I was finally on firm ground. But I still didn’t have a story.
Around the same time, I felt I had to constrain my future story around a few ingredients, if I had any chance of actually making a film:
- The main characters should be technically “uncomplicated” to do in CGI. No fur, no feathers, no humans. I wanted to be able to do it myself on a computer.
- Preferably, the setting of the story should be limited to one simple location. Something manageable in CGI and visually interesting.
And then I saw an image in a magazine like this and I was startled.
I had it! My story was going to be about weather cocks!
I quickly embarked on exploring the possibilities this concept offered me. I figured weather cocks are pretty lonely and must lack love. So it would be quite difficult for them to form meaningful relationships. Actually finding a mate and getting there would be an adventure in itself. And then, it all had to be dramatic too. Being fully into the Aristotle tragedy stuff, I got myself into the drama-zone while writing, playing a lot of Wagner music. I felt it. It was heart-wrenching. It was dramatic. My story finally had a lot of structure! “A lonely weather cock embarks on a quest to a nearby church, through the fields, barely escaping the gun of a hunter. Once there, he is smitten by the church’s weather hen, climbs the tower and declares his love for her. But the hunter, having trailed him, shoots her. The lonely weather cock remains on the church tower, having lost the love of his life.”
Very dramatic and tragic, right?
A good friend of mine, the talented director – and storytelling natural – Toon Aerts, was the first assigned volunteer to read my script. He was aware I was writing something and was somewhat curious. And that was fortunate, since by that time, I had exhausted the goodwill of my girlfriend’s spontaneous reading motivation.
Toon read the story as I watched him. He turned the last page and swallowed. I knew he was feeling it when he quietly said, “Dude…”
The dramatic structure had worked and had him by the throat! I had nailed it.
He continued, “Dude… you actually wrote a silly love story…” And he swallowed again, this time looking more like he was swallowing a turd.
It is no fun having someone whose opinion you value, declaring your work to be pretty shit. But he was being a good friend. He politely advised me to ditch the story and do something else. But, we discussed this failure and he did tell me there was something interesting about the setting and the weather cock stuff. And even though my ego suffered that night, this was one golden experience.
- Writing is a lot of work. It’s good to read books about story if you you’re stuck, but never get caught up in writing a formula.
- Step out of the zone where you are the only one feeling it, and be brave to show a work in progress to someone who’s truly honest. And kind.
- Allow yourself to write badly. There might still be something of value in the rubble of a disaster.
- Don’t take failure personally.
It was back to where I started. How do I write a good story? And what kind of story can I tell about a weather cock? Obviously not a phoney love story where I was pushing heart-wrenching high feelings and tragedy. That was fake. I did some self-research and wondered what kind of stories I really enjoy myself. What kind of genres do I naturally gravitate to?
The answer was I had always liked scary stories… Horror, thriller, suspense!