“Animated Screenwriting”

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(Part 2 of 3 in Series of Articles on “Adventures in Writing Animation”)

Active ImageThe art of screenwriting is a thesis best covered in a semester long class, an intensive workshop or full length book, but in approximately two thousand words we will cover the basics to give you the fundamentals of writing animation scripts.  Last month’s article on story covered principal ideas in character development and dramatically stating your plot.  Now we will concentrate on the overall script structure, the elements of films and then the details of screenplay format.

The structure of animation stories are generally the same whether you are writing shorts, serials or features.  The main difference is in the amount of time used to develop each part of the script.  Story construction stated simply is:  setup, confrontation, and resolution.  (See graphic.)  In the setup you establish your characters, their dramatic needs and the obstacles that launch your plot.  The body of the script is the confrontation where your protagonist struggles towards their goal consistently facing seemingly insurmountable stumbling blocks.  The resolution sees the action come to a climatic finish and the hero of your story overcoming the final impediment before reaching their objective.


Active ImageIn feature films this three act structure finds its main divisions at the major “plot points” at the conclusions of Act One and Act Two.  Plot points are essential twists that send the action of the script off into a new and hopefully unexpected manner.  In “Shrek” plot point one is Shrek surrounded by Farquad’s men and forced on a unwanted quest.  Plot point two is Shrek falling in love with Fiona which turn us toward the climax and final resolution.  There are minor plot points throughout a film, but this structure will help you concentrate on moving your story from beginning, through the body to the end.


Of course there are experimental forms of animation that resist any rules or format.  In the past several years there has been a renaissance, especially in Europe, for telling complex stories in animation.  Still, new scriptwriters would do well to concentrate on the fundamentals of storytelling.  Keep notes on your rule breaking ideas, but learn and practice this simple script construction as it will aid you later when you are trying to do something radically different.   

In a one minute short film the setup may take only a few seconds, while the first twenty-five percent of a feature is usually used for carefully orchestrating characters and plot.  For me the key concept for building every part of a script is to “get in late and out early.”  This means you jump into each scene as late as you can and still tell your story and then get out before you have over stayed your welcome.  


For example in the opening minutes of “Finding Nemo” the script is perfectly written setting up all elements without giving us anything unnecessary.  They could have shown Marlin searching for just the right place to live, competing with other Clownfish for that particular anemone.  They could have gone all the way back to Coral and Marlin’s romance.  Instead all of these are told visually or through action.  The amazing location of their new abode, their love, Marlin’s adventurousness, his pride in his accomplishment are all quickly shown.


After the barracuda attacks the writers might have wanted to show Marlin’s grief, the aftermath or even how he takes care of the egg, but instead we see the embryonic Nemo visually communicating the emotions that Marlin and we in the audience are feeling.  CUT TO:  Titles and were off into the heart of the story about Marlin’s fears and how he has to overcome them to save his son.  Getting in late and out early applies to all the building blocks of filmmaking. 

Those building blocks are shots, scenes and sequences.  Using these to think visually will help you write your story in exciting ways, building the peaks and valleys of the action.  A shot is a single roll of film (or animation).  A scene is a series of shots in a one location and time making up a dramatic unit.  A sequence is a series of shots making up a larger dramatic unit.  

Taking “Shrek” as an example we can see these three entities in the “Off on a Quest” sequence.  When Shrek and Donkey first leave Duloc the first shot is a field of sunflowers with the two characters cutting a path through them.  The shot immediately sets up location, movement and the starts the scene which is essentially about why Shrek is on the quest to find the princess.  The scene continues against the backdrop of sunflowers as Shrek explains how “Ogres have layers.”  The beauty of the dialogue is that we are learning more about our hero without him “telling” us what he is really feeling, which is that he’s sad and disappointed that he is judged simple by appearances.  Finally the scene cuts to a montage of shots/scenes that make up the rest of the sequence until the characters arrive at the castle and the next sequence; “Saving Princess Fiona” begins. 

Filmmaking is visual storytelling.  It is about showing, not telling.  When I see a film with voiceover narration, characters that talk to the audience or expository dialogue I usually find myself wondering how the script writer could have found a way to show us the story, rather than tell us what they think we need to know.  If you find yourself with this problem consider what your characters can do or say that will move the plot forward without explanation. 

As you begin to place your story into screenplay format I give you this warning:  Screenwriters Beware!  Do not step on the toes of others.  I have learned a lot about screenwriting as a director and producer because understanding the various roles in a production allows the writer to concentrate on their specific task without trying to do the work of others.  The writer creates the story, developing characters and plot.  The director decides on the look of the production and performances by actors/characters.  The producer oversees all aspects of the production.  Actors interpret the script with the director’s advice.  Animators model, texture, rig, animate, light, etc.  It is not the writer’s job to suggest specific camera angles, shot composition, music and the like unless it is fundamental to the story.  Resist the temptation. 

In Hollywood, and most of the world, screenplay format is well defined in the same way that architectural blueprints have been standardized for comprehension between professionals.  I have been told that there is more flexibility here in India, but highly recommend using the rules below for consistent look and easy accessibility when hopefully your project goes international.  

The good news is that the difficult task of screenplay formatting is now easily handled by specialized word processing software.  There a many packages to choose from though the best in my opinion are Final Draft, Movie Magic’s Screenplay and Scriptware.  These can be expensive.  If you do not want to break any licensing agreements the best alternatives are special macros for Microsoft Word some of which are available as free downloads off the internet. 

Even though there are tools for script formatting it is still important to understand all the different elements used in the form.  Let us start by defining the elements in a script, and then specifically deal with how they are laid out on the page so you can follow the format with any typewriter or word processor.. 

A script begins with FADE IN: and ends with FADE OUT.  In between is a fairly complex set of elements that help you tell your story.  There are abbreviations (See box), page numbers, scene numbers and other complicated details which are beyond the scope of this article, but if you concentrate on the key elements below you will soon be writing professional looking scripts.


Active ImageThe Elements (See Sample)       

1.    Sluglines:  start of each new scene defining place and time.  They are ALL CAPS with two  

       spaces after INT./EXT. then  a hyphen after the location.       

       Here is a sample Slugline – INT. MARLIN’S ANENOME – DAY 

The elements in a Slugline are:  


a.     INT. (Interior) or EXT. (Exterior) key for establishing place, as well as look and feel, lighting, sound, etc. 

b.     Location, i.e. where specifically the scene set.  Note that you must be precise.  Efficient production centers around gathering elements so that there is no duplication of effort.  If you write EXT. OCEAN – DAY it is too general, but if it is INT. SUNKEN PIRATE SHIP – DAY then all scenes in that specific location and associated assets can be worked on economically.

c.     Time which is usually just DAY or NIGHT, but if the scene requires something mores specific like SUNSET or 7:15 pm because is integral to the action then go ahead and state it. 

2.     Action:  describes the scene and characters caught up in it.  Action is written in standard sentence format looking like this: 

Duniya tricks Ping by pointing at something in the distance over Ping’s shoulder and when he turns around she hides behind his back moving with him as he looks for her. 

3.     Character Name:  appears ALL IN CAPS above any Dialogue telling which character is speaking.  Small roles can have generic names like POLICEMAN or ROBOT #1, but be careful with significant parts making sure that your character names do not lead to undue confusion. 

4.     Parenthetical Comments:  tells us what the character is doing or how they are speaking. 

5.     Dialogue:  what your characters say.  Here is an example of Name, Parenthetical and Dialogue…



Well, ahhh, here’s Kitty.  He’s a singer,  a dancer, ummmm, a mimic…

(pulls a face at Kitty)and an impersonator.  He’s very old.

6.     Transitions:  mark the end of a scene.  CUT TO:  is generally sufficient, though DISSOLVE TO: may be used to indicate a passage of time.

The Page Layout (see Page Sample): 

1.     Font: simple body text font usually Courier, Arial or Times New Roman, Size 10.  Do NOT use anything fancy it will easily mark you as a beginner.

2.     Page Number:  Top right corner of page at 7 ½ inches from left, ½ inch from top. 

3.     Margins:  Left – 1 ½  inches, Right – 1 inch, Top – 1 inch, Bottom – 1 inch. 

4.     Slugline and Action:  across the full page with one blank line before and after. 

5.     Dialogue: left justified at 2 ½ inches and 3 ¼ inches wide.  Within a block of dialogue the text is single spaced. 

6.     Parenthetical Comments:  inside parenthesis at 3 inches with single spacing.

7.     Character’s Name:  at 3 ½ inches directly above dialogue or parenthetical comment if used. 

8.     Transitions:  6 inches from the left. 

Active ImageGet Writing


Screenwriting is both an art form and a type of technical writing.  Knowing the fundamentals and mastering the format will make it easier for you as an artist to express yourself.  Keeping in mind that filmmaking is a collaborative art will help you concentrate on your role as a screenwriter.  Do not let the complex rules of layout scare you.  You can always find assistance in polishing the look of your screenplay.  Just make sure you do that before sending the scripts to actors or production companies.

The beginning, middle and end of writing animated scripts are:  story, story, and story.  As a screenwriter you are a storyteller.  Comb your imagination looking for those unique and beautiful ways to tell your tale.  Study, practice and attempting script after script will help build your skills.  Somewhere, deep in a closet in my house, is a box of old screenplays that I would be embarrassed to show anyone.  Yet in that box is the foundation that taught me to write tightly constructed stories full wonderful characters and plots that can make audiences laugh and cry. 

So get writing!  Next month in the final installment of “Adventures in Writing Animation” we will cover the business of writing animation. 

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