What makes a great story for animation?

As an avid reader and movie watcher I cannot resist the lure of a good story, even if the acting is appalling and the script a little ropey. If the story grips me, I’ll forgive a whole host of other idiosyncrasies in pursuit of knowing what happens at the end.

For hundreds of years the boy meets girl story has been told, and is still being illustrated in new ways that prove compelling to audiences. As long as the basics of storytelling are adhered to, a story, no matter how cliched, should work. And there is actually a recipe for doing this.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a fan of content being interesting and engaging – which of course takes effort. You need a great idea, a great copy/script writer, great creative and even better direction. Animation for technology companies is a recognised form of engagement, but it doesn’t always tick off those items that can make it more effective. In fact, that recipe is a little more complex, even with all those things in place.

Yes, if you’re already clear about what you want, you may sit through a boring animation that ticks off functionality and only sits one notch above death by powerpoint. But if you want to be inspired, and want to really engage with a company that shares the same values and beliefs that you do because you know you’ll work better as a result, then you want to see something that inspires an emotion.

A while ago I discovered this website (http://jamesharris.design/periodic/) which has created a periodic table of storytelling – and I love it! It’s a great reminder of the core elements, that you can mix and match (into story molecules) to create stories that work.

For example, Star Wars has the following elements: The Empire, The Dragon and The You Have Failed me as Villains. Conversely, the Hero element is The Chosen One and The Five Man Band. The overall structure is Conflict.

If you then look at something contrasting such as My Little Pony, you have 4 heroes (Badass Bookworm, Action Girl, The Determinator and Guile hero) combined with Character Modifiers Woobie and Cloud Cuckoolander, and a Plot Setting of Aesop.

So, if we go through each category in turn, you need to select:

Structure: Could be a 3 act structure, a romance arc, a backstory, love triangle, hilarity ensues…amongst others. So let’s pick Backstory.

Settings, Laws, Plots: This section features choices such as Aesop, Status Quo, Redemption, Hero’s journey, X meets Y  – it’s a long list. We’ll choose Aesop for now.

You don’t need something from every category in the table, so let’s skip ahead and choose a Plot Device called Sealed Evil in a Can.

Next, we need a Hero, so I’m going to go with the Chosen One. (A secret dream, I may as well confess).Animation Superhero

Every hero should really have a Villain, so let’s pick The Virus, and a Metatrope called Rule of Cool.

Still with me?

So, that story could read:

Will (The Chosen One) had a traumatic childhood where he was unloved but remained kind and unflappable as he’d seen real trauma and wasn’t phased by day to day stresses (backstory). One day he was challenged by a friend to fix a technical problem that many others had tried to fix before him. The friend however had an ulterior motive, as he believed he could fix the problem faster, and just wanted to look better than Will (Aesop).

The friend gave Will an overview of the technical problem, but left out one important detail, which would make the problem impossible to solve and would cause a blow up when least expected (Sealed Evil in a Can). This would trigger a series of events, seemingly out of Will’s control (The Virus).

But our kind and unflappable hero, rather than getting stressed and visibly failing, kept calm, methodically dealt with events as they occurred, and used his secret weapon (Google – just thought I’d throw that in there) to research what to do (as does any good techie worth their salt). He discovered a really great blog that gave him step by step instructions (do you see what I did there?) and fixed the problem with no need for his friend to step in and show him up (The rule of cool).

Perhaps not an Oscar contender, but you get the point hopefully.

Next time you’re planning an animation, a case study, or a video, include some of these elements, I promise they’ll make it far more interesting. You can see some examples here (especially the Kareinn one).





About the Author

Charlotte Graham-Cumming

Director, Ice Blue Sky Ltd

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