Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Writing for Cartoons 5 - Humor, Structure: Nurse Stimpy Outline

You should be funny if you are going to write cartoons. I have yet to meet a cartoon writer (who isn't also an artist) who cracks up all the other folks at the studio every day with his funny stories and acting.

Once I have an idea for a cartoon, let's say...Ren gets sick and Stimpy decides to nurse him back to health and his caregiving is worse than the illness. There's the premise to the cartoon. I have a purpose and a goal for the cartoon entertainment to achieve.

Then I have a "gag session" with the funniest artists in the studio-my "writers". I tell them the premise and everyone starts tossing out gags. I'll take any gags as long as they fit the purpose of the premise.

Someone will take notes and then we produce a list of the gags from the session in no particular order.

Of course just having a bunch of gags in no particular order doesn't make a story. The gags then need to be organized in a logical building sequence.

No matter how funny you are, you need to have an understanding of structure to most effectively present your ideas. Stucture is not that hard to learn, but it is essential and it gives you control over your ideas and story elements.

Even if you are naturally funny and have ideas and a point of view, you still need to learn some skills.

All art needs structure.

Structure helps you put your ideas in an effective order.

It gives you a hierarchy: Your story needs a main purpose, and all the gags and bits in the story should fit basically into the story. Your details should hang neatly on the major points and help emphasize them.

You don't want to get lost in tangents that confuse the audience.

You don't want to have your best ideas and jokes in the first 2 minutes and then have the rest of the cartoon be an anticlimax. (This happened in my cartoon "Black Hole". It had funny ideas and gags, but the structure was faulty and didn't live up to its setup.)

With the aid of logical structure you can have your cartoon build and move inexorably forward and keep your audience on the edge of their seats.

The stucture in a cartoon is worked out in an "outline."

An outline is a list of the story elements and main events of the story - IN ORDER. It doesn't need to have every detail worked out and it shouldn't. You want to leave room to add gags, acting, personality and visual ideas for the storyboard stage.

The best form for an outline again is a list. Simple sentences that just tell the next guy what happens, so he can start boarding it.
It should be easy to read, like this.

The way cartoon scriptwriters write is torture to read. It is very hard to muddle though the bad prose and thick dialogue and awkward descriptions of action that non-visual people "write". Scripts are intended to impress and dumbfound executives. An outline is a working tool and is much easier to work from.

look how awkward this is to read:
You can see why artists go nuts reading this stuff. You muddle through the page, try to figure out even what the hell is going on and if you do manage to figure it out, it doesn't add up to any humor or entertainment. So what do we need this process for? It's just a huge waste of money that kills the morale of the talent and makes us not care about doing a good job on the cartoons.

compare it to this:
Now when we write this stuff, we have already done a lot of sketches, so we don't need to spell out the details. We know the drawings are going to make every line and description funnier. This outline is the working tool for the artists, not the final entertainment product for the public. The public will get the cartoon.

Wow, look at how many revisions they makes us go through!