Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Story Process Step by Step


This is very important. Know their personalities and how to draw them.
The stories and gags you come up with should take advantage of their specific personalities and quirks. Not every gag works for every character.


This is the starting point for a story; just come up with an idea. If it sparks many more gags it's worth developing further.

This is just to keep track of the idea. If we were doing the show for TV, we would usually send the premise to the network execs so they could gleefully reject it or "give notes". Do they go to college to get a degree in "giving notes"? I've always wondered where this talent comes from.


Get a couple more funny artists together and toss ideas around based on the situation you've come up with. Everyone will draw quick sketches to show the visual potential of the gags.

It helps to eat bacon or Montreal smoked meat.

Someone should keep track of all the gags and furiously write them down so you don't forget the good stuff.


Then one story person should collect all the gags from the session and type them up in a list -with no particular order.

I use Microsoft Word because they have an "Outline Mode" which makes it easy to rearrange the ideas in a better order.

You want the gags to build in a logical progressive story order so after you have made the list of all the gags, now rearrange them according to the best order to tell a story.

I usually group them into 3 sections:

1) Setup -

this should be short but should clearly establish what the story is about and titillate the audience's curiosity. It should be entertaining and make the audience really want to see what happens next.

2) Middle

This is the longest part of the story

You develop the situation further and build the gags in a progressive order. Each gag should develop the original premise and situation. Avid going off on a tangent with another storyline that has nothing to do with the original idea. When this starts to happen, just save the gags for another story and get back to developing THIS ONE.

Build the gags and situation to a climax - don't start the middle with your best craziest gag and wind down.

3) Conclusion

This is usually short and sweet too.

Think of the ending to Stimpy's Invention. I had so many gags and so much intense emotional conflict going on in the middle that I was running out of time to have an easy wind-down. Because the cartoon had to fit into the 11 minute TV slot, I would have had to cut gags out of the exciting part (the middle) to make room for a comfortable easy wind-down. So instead I just ended immediately after the climax and rolled over and had a cigarette.

Here's another sample outline - with pictures:


and fill out the details.

The outline is basically your map so that you can keep track of the structure and flow of the story.

It lists all the major plot points, situations and gags and presents them in a logical order.

With this guide you can now concentrate on drawing the details. Since it often takes more than one storyboard artist to draw out the story, then the guide becomes even more important.

I don't know exactly how to teach storyboarding except to say:

Draw funny.

Draw in character.

Act everything out.

People make fun of me when I draw because I hunch over into weird positions and make odd faces. I don't do it on purpose. I am getting into the story and characters. I don't want to draw by formula or by storyboard theories - I just want to get in and draw a story as close to real time as I can hastily draw.

When I draw rough and fast I tend to get a lot more life into the drawings.

My poses and expressions are more custom (less reliant on model sheets) and a lot of lucky accidents occur.

In fact, I would not have any model sheets around while storyboarding. If you have to keep stopping the flow of drawing a story by turning and analyzing model sheets, then you are going to have a jerky unnatural cold story.

The process at this point should be mostly feeling and emotions. Get all sensitive like a 70s pop singer. Get into the harts and souls of the characters. You are performing with a pencil.

The hardest thing for me to convey to artists who have spent too much time in studios that have a zillion rules and are model sheet crazy is how to connect your pencil to your feelings

instead of having your pencil just obey a bunch or predesigned expressions and poses.

I see a ton of modern cartoons where all the characters make the same expressions, hold the same poses and move the same way as each other. I've seen really funny cartoonists who in real life have their own unique expressions, gestures and quirky movements - who when having to draw a story, immediately resort to standard stock "animation expressions" and "animation gestures".

They aren't letting their pencils reflect their own personalities and world views.

The best storyboard artists have pencils that are connected directly to the artists' unique personalities and outlooks - without being filtered by trends and stock style formula.

In fact I would say the same thing about layout artists, animators and every other creative person.

more to come...


Anonymous said...

Great summary at how real cartoon stories are created! Maybe if you keep the blog up for a few more years, more story-driven cartoons with specific poses will crop up.

Michael said...

My Aunt Jo is 89 and she has this big collection of mass cards from all our dead relatives. I laid them out on the rug and said, "Wow, you could play Solitare with all these cards!" We both busted up laughing. Funny and poignant, don't you think?

Sven Hoek said...

Yeah, people out there who want to draw for a living! Listen up to the Master..John K!

Use the force, kids. Reach out with your feelings. Your pencil is your lightsaber. Get in touch with all those gooey feelings you have inside of you. Find your characters emotions at that point in the story and feel those feelings yourself, and then draw. Emote through your hand and the pencil and see yourself reflecting back through the drawing.

Thank you, Master.

Joshua Marchant (Scrawnycartoons) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elana Pritchard said...

More "Out In the Woods"

Scott Cardona said...

Awesome. I've been wondering how you dissect your storyboards/script

It would be cool if you did some live streams while you work in toonboom. Learn some john k secrets!

Also what personal settings do you have your drawing bursh set too?

THANKS JOHN! keep the help coming IM STUDYING THIS to the TEET

Paul B said...


Jeremy said...

I recently finished storyboards to a project I've been working on for a year.

If it's okay with you, Mr. K, would be open to looking at the storyboards and offer some cartooning criticism?

If you want more info on what my project is me at

Zoran Taylor said...

I think you should also have the voice artists in the room during the gag session to parrot things back - Saves the poor writers from embarrassing themselves trying to do the voices, and you can hear what a line will really sound like as fast as you can come up with it. The voice people should add their own stuff, too. They know the characters as well as the artists, don't they? Look at how many of them use their bodies like crazy when they do readings! All the more reason to make them a part of the writing process.

Michael said...

Notes on the book "Imagine: How Creativity Works" by Jonah Lehrer ©2011

Video of author presenting concepts for the book:
"The Science of Insight Creation" Duration 39:38

Neuroscientists can predict 8 seconds in advance that you will have an epiphany.
Get your alpha waves going.

MDS: I can't get my alpha waves going at on-site freelance places because my tools are not at hand. I often need a distraction free environment because my type of work is a very unique personal interpretation. These approaches require alpha waves.

Brainstorming doesn't work

MDS: All my best pieces are usually my ideas or in a one or two person team. Three people total.

Working by yourself works better than in a group.

The Dissent Condition, brutal critique does work. Seven times more ideas.

MDS: I was called the Russian judge at one place I worked - like the Russian judges in the Olympics that would always give low scores to the Americans. Now from this book I have been vindicated. : )

Pixar crits... the shredding process.

MDS: My notes from the 2009 lecture at Princeton by Bill Buxton also support this.


Notes from Bill Buxton lecture at Princeton 2009

Buxton talks about how the art school system and "crits" need to be employed in the engineering and development of software. He's now at Microsoft trying to clean up their plethoria of poor application designs. There is a slow but steady recognition of artists taking more project management responsibility. The whole field of User Experience Design is booming and within are artists getting more project management responsibility. The MBA's are seeing true artist-managers like Steve Jobs continually surpass Microsoft, Sony and the like. He also talked about designing not just the beginning and end state of an interaction but the movement in between. Apple and Schematic do very cinematic things in this area that enhance the tools. It's like trying to do an animation with only the beginning and end storyboard. It's possible but the in between boards need to be designed to communicate as well.

He talked about designing not just beginning and end state of a software interaction but also the traveling state in between. He used the example of how he goes to and from work. In SF BART allows you to take your bike on the train. So he takes the train to work in the morning because he has a need for speed. Then he rides his bike home because he has a need to unwind, get exercise, relax and daydream about new ideas. Software interaction pacing and focus needs to take larger ideas and actions into account.


Going from suck to non-suck is being honest and open about what does suck and what doesn't suck.

Do not let criticism spiral out of control. "Plussing". But it can't really be made nice. It's the nature of the business.


MDS: Jonah Lehrer does say that most tasks are not creative enough to require getting our alpha waves going so we just have to knuckle under and work it through. But then...

Go into the arts. I'm not kidding.
The arts are not a way to make a living.
They are a very human way of making life more bearable.
Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly,
is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake.
Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories.
Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem.
Do it as well as you possibly can.
You will get an enormous reward.
You will have created something.
-Kurt Vonnegut

Anonymous said...

Hey John, Bob Camp is planning on another Ren And Stimpy revival. Only problem is it'll be by Games Animation, and Billy West will be voicing Ren again. I don't want Billy voicing Ren, and I don't want Games making Ren And Stimpy again either. I want you to voice Ren, and for the second revival to be made by Carbunkle Cartoons.

Anonymous said...

Hey John, Bob Camp is planning on reviving Ren And Stimpy a second time. With Games Animation and Billy West voicing Ren again. I don't want Games making Ren And Stimpy again, or Billy voicing Ren again. I want you to voice Ren, and for Carbunkle Cartoons to make Ren And Stimpy. Could you talk to Bob about it?