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Writing cartoon animation scripts and stories


Photo and book by Anne Hart


How to Write Life Stories as Animated Cartoon Scripts 


Techniques of writing scripts for cartoon animation also work well when writing life story or personal history scripts. The practice writing springboards, premises, and several drafts polishes your ability to present the highlights of a life story with cartoon animated characters in your computer or online, on disk, or on video. All you have to do is substitute the real person or real personality for the cartoon character, avatar, or robot online, on video, and on disk.

Toy ads on the Saturday Morning Cartoons can be used to sell your life story to the media or to the publishing world. Currently, many animated cartoons are designed overseas, but someone somewhere still has to write the scripts.

Here's how to begin


Currently, many animated cartoons are designed overseas, but someone somewhere still has to write the scripts. You can choose to write your life story or personal history as an animated cartoon, design animated computer games, including writing the scripts, or think creatively outside the box. Back in the nineties, writing a life story sometimes featured avatars or computer-generated personal robots online. You also may wish to see my book, Problem-Solving and Cat Tales for the Holidays: Historical--Time-Travel--Adventure, by Anne Hart, published August 1, 2004, paperback (pages 472-474).


Hypertext fiction and life stories flummoxed many in the mid-nineties, but opened new channels of creative expression online. What other media can you use for your life story time capsules? You may choose to feature the highlights of significant events in your own life or rites of passage. Keepsakes include your personal journal, video clips and photos, along with DNA-driven genealogy- for-ancestry reports.


How to Write Life Stories as "Saturday-Morning-Type" Cartoons & How to Write Cartoon Animation Scripts for Multimedia Markets


 "You're way over age 73 and counting, but you watch cartoons all morning six days a week?" The audience waited to hear my answer to that person's question. The last time I sniffed salty mouths yawning that wide, they swayed on node hooks at Fisherman's wharf.


That's how people react to the notion that I spent my silver sentinel years writing scripts for animation...life story animation...personal history themes. What does age have to do with it? Nothing, unless you're writing animation scripts for four-year olds or for grown-ups, or writing personal history and life stories as an animation script or illustrated novel.


Writing animation is tougher than writing live-action or dialogue in first person diary novels. You want to put stretch marks on your wallet? Then call every shot in an animation script. You have up to two lines of dialogue before you have to change the shot, the frame, that is. Shot changed already? Then start describing the scene all over again along with what action is happening.


There's no director in animation who will put in the camera angles on your script or other directions. No one will stage your action other than you. Here's your chance to play master of your universe and do everything as the writer in 37-59 pages for a half-hour script that actually runs only 22 minutes.


An animation script takes twice as much writing as a live action screen play. You write two pages of animation for each screen minute. Saturday morning cartoons are the ultimate in teaching tools when transferred to personal history or life stories and to other educational and training materials. Many writers in animation entered the field decades ago by first writing half-hour television commercials for toys and related educational devices.


Record Cartoons for Study and Analysis


Instead of merely watching cartoons on your TV, record them to tape or DVD. If you're working with tape, stop your VCR machine and freeze a frame. Now write down all the action occurring in that freeze-frame. It should have a beginning, middle, and end--same as in a short story.


Put in one line of dialogue. Practice until you become familiar with finding the beginning, middle, and end--the "short story" theme in each freeze-frame. Do you understand what you're looking for--the story line, the action in each frame of animation?


Watch tapes as often as three times a day until the action in each frame becomes familiar as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. There is gold in animation festivals, whether you're writing animation to entertain or writing personal histories in animation format as a way to use your creative expression or as the cliché "think outside the box."


Cartoon writers of the eighties and nineties lived in a hypercubed universe where thinking was done in three dimensions. Today it's action, effects, and visual writing. Only it goes beyond thinking in three dimensions. You have to think inside out. Write in sound effects and write visually. Animation writing is an exercise in highly technical visual thinking. You form a team with the skilled computer artist-animator-designer and the computer engineer.


     Learn from TV Toy Ads


Saturday morning cartoons are there to sell toys to children (and parents) who must be persuaded either by their children or by the cartoon ad itself. Watch for the commercials. Sponsors pay for them. Writers can work at the educational materials end of the animation market, write ad copy and dialogue with action for the sponsors, or write the animation for entertainment.


There's another inroad--writing personal life stories and histories, even corporate histories, as animation scripts and illustrated novels. On video or DVD, the animation action and script work together to showcase the highlights of a person's life at any age....or a company's success stories. It all can be a cartoon either for the story itself or to sell as an advertisement, educational materials or a product.


     Foreign Animation


In the eighties, when animation began to be sent overseas to be designed, script writers often turned to computer game design and computer game script writing as one alternative. Today many universities have impacted graphic design majors in schools of new media.


Computer animation in a variety of countries is shown on TV everywhere. Have you seen the last computer animation from Japan, for example? What about the 'anime' field and independent producers of animation stories? You could offer animation online and on disk portraying children's life stories for birthday gifts and rites of passage ceremonies. There are so many applications to writing life stories as animation scripts. Only you need a computer animator to be on your team, someone to design the animation art and do the computer editing.


To study animation script writing, hunt for the old cartoon scripts of the thirties and forties. They're rare vintages. Keep a tape or DVD library of dozens of old-time radio programs. Join old-time radio and video clubs online where you can exchange or rent these old cartoons on DVDs or CDs.


Listen to old-time radio shows such as Captain Midnight and The Shadow. Can  you write a radio play of someone's life story or personal history in that format--old time radio with special sound effects? If so, put it on a DVD or CD and up on a streaming Web site. That's one way to create a time capsule, keepsake album, or personal and corporate history.


Watch cartoon animation from other lands. Look at the World War II cartoons shown in local theaters in the forties. They are now on DVDs and on VHS tapes. When the tapes deteriorate with time, they are transferred to higher quality DVDs and whatever comes next. Look at the WW 2 themes in the cartoon animation, such as Donald Duck fighting Nazis.


For a personal historian, looking at cartoons from other countries at different times can help you learn how propaganda cartoons were used because people thought them to be patriotic. At different periods in history, foreign governments paid for propaganda cartoons that often turn up in archives and libraries. Look at your own country's cartoons from years ago. Was the theme patriotic? In what

ways? What did the themes emphasize here, teamwork, for example.


You can make a hobby or research project out of studying the world of animation script writing during various wars, in time, or in geographic space around the world. The themes go beyond the design of animation or the script writing. There are patterns and values in some of these cartoons.


What stories do they tell? What values and virtues? Do they have a purpose, mission, crusade, slogan, proverb, or other message? How do the cartoons impact people, and how do people impact cartoon animation and script writing?


     How to Enter the Field of Cartoon Animation Script Writing or Animation of Life Stories and Personal Histories


You can start by either researching the needs of animation design companies or advertising agencies that sponsor the Saturday morning cartoons. Many writers were spiraled into animation script writing from spin-offs of advertising agency electronic ad copywriting and/or graphic illustration jobs.


Some entered animation script writing as former comic-book artists or writers. Others were live-action scriptwriters. Some also are computer game designers. You have the animation artist-designer who turns to script writing. And you have the computer engineer interested in game design.


The animation script writer needs the soul of an illustrator even if you don't do visual art work. You can paint pictures with visual writing. The pictures would emphasize action and dialogue. The best way to train is to study paintings in art galleries and museums and watch cartoon animation for exercising the visual side.


On the writing side, you look at cartoon animation scripts and analyze them for story, length, action, dialogue, and appeal to the audience and age level. You also find out whether the script will sell toys or other educational materials and products advertised between the cartoons.


     Toy Marketing


Life stories and corporate histories can be marketed as toys, board games, or computer games. Know what age level you'll be targeting. You can even write story books using the lives of your clients who could be children if the parents give information and specify what kind of life story book or cartoon they want with the 'avatar' or "robot image" or photograph of their child.


You work out with the parent what kind of educational life story approach you want to take with animation and script with the family. It makes a fascinating birthday party presentation and gift. From lives to grand openings of stores, you are marketing a toy or a life story with animation script and design.


Between 1984 and 1986 a flood of animation began being turned out for syndication. Through the advertising agency route, animation writers trained on the job to sell toys and women's products. They wrote copy for advertisements and animation scripts. Animation writers marketed toys to children and skin care products primarily to women. The animated script had to sell shampoo, detergents, and bake mixes.


Artists became writers, and writers trained in animation design. Add that group of creative people to a farrago of Hollywood script writers seeking more work or alternatives. Many script writers with degrees in screenwriting turned to the Saturday morning cartoons to make a living. College campuses began to offer courses in animation and later, new media animation such as desktop video animation and new media writing.


     The Boom and the Bust


A tremendous amount of animation flooded the markets around 1986. By 1987, the boom turned to bust, leaving many writers by 1988 vying for what assignments and contracts came their way by the time the Internet brought new hope to the nineties and beyond.


The good news is that those who had been writing animation scripts leaped into writing live-action screen plays or went into multimedia educational design and writing. Others went into Web design and online digital journalism. Still others sought out print-on-demand publishing venues.


Breaking into cartoon animation can take one to five years. Collaboration is common. Often you find work through the multimedia and other computer-related markets. I found work as an independent contractor writing success stories and case histories for a software manufacturer at the end of the nineties. There is a bright side.


    Animation Writing Agents


Since writing animation pays no residuals, newcomers are given a second chance if they get the go-ahead to write a sample script. Prime-time TV won't touch you without an agent. So without an agent, you need to pitch a few seconds in writing to a story editor at your chosen animation studio.


You first phone the various studios and independent producers and ask for the name of the story editor. Then you talk to the story editor or pitch in writing. It's the story editor who has the power to work with you and is your first link to the industry. First you have to pitch a story, and most often the story line is related to the cartoon show's 'bible.' The 'bible' is a reference and resource book of what the characters are like and what they do in a particular cartoon show on TV.


If you live out of town from where the studio is located, tell the story editor that you have a computer and can send the script electronically. It can go by email. Most studios have bulletin boards to which you can download or upload all types of pitches, springboards, treatments, stories, and scripts.




The computer bulletin board for animation writers in the 1980s was called "The Algonquin Board." It's private number and mailing address appealed to members because the only way to become a member was to have someone in the industry recommend you. You were in a position that sometimes the only way in was to accept an assignment on speculation and then ask your story editor to recommend you as a member. Otherwise, you were left to introduce yourself at professional meetings by volunteering for such types of organizations.


You may wish to can check out the many associations and unions for animation writers that are listed online. Network with the many associations listed as links at: The Towson University - Electronic Media & Film Department, Towson, MD.


What you want to look for on bulletin and message boards or email lists of related associations are job information, marketing ideas, and professional resources. Join associations and volunteer to interview people. Write articles for the association's newsletter or other publications.


Mailing lists and bulletin boards online may have job information and valuable resources. Meet people and find out whether they want to spread the news about what they are doing in the field. Write success stories.


Meet other writers and story editors at trade and professional associations in the field of writing for animation. Back in the eighties, there was a bulletin board that served live-action screenwriters called the Wicked Scherzo Board, but back then, the only way to get phone numbers of members was to ask a member in the industry to recommend you.


You need not have sold a script at that time. Today, most networking is done in various universities departments of electronic media and film with industry internships and professional associations as members volunteer to work on newsletters and at conventions and conferences to 'network.'


Instead of meeting only writers, try to network with musicians, artists, engineers, special effects designers, and technicians who work in the computer animation industry. It's all about teamwork, and every artist needs a script to animate. Check out the advertising agencies, educational publishers and producers, trainers, corporate industrial film producers, and comic book publishers for their writing needs.


Then there are the radio scripts for Internet broadcast or multicast. Elementary school teachers can use plays for puppet shows as well as the producers of the puppet shows for schools. Everyone works with some kind of script presenting to students or at weddings and other celebrations, and scripts have themes or niche markets. Also try the ethnic and religious markets.


Working With Nets


One way to meet people in the animation and script writing industries is to join the International Animated Film Association (ASIFA). There are national and international chapters. You may wish to check out the site, "Welcome to ASIFA-Hollywood." Or see, "ASIFA, San Franciso | The Bay Area's Animation Community." Or on the East Coast, you may wish to see, "ASIFA-East: Animation Community for New York and the East Coast." Or in the south, check out, "ASIFA-ATLANTA." There's also "ASIFA Central | Midwest USA Chapter" and "ASIFA Portland."


The Los Angeles headquarters of ASIFA can help ou reach people employed at the various studios in the vicinity of Hollywood. Call the studios directly and speak to the story editors. Check the Encyclopedia of Associations in your public library for a long list of animation associations worldwide or look on the web for more associations. Some offer workshops with networking. Stay in communication with the various studios in Los Angeles.


You may wish to call the story editors each month, and ask them to send you animation scripts. You can write to them and enclose self-addressed stamped envelopes. Never pester them or call too frequently. Bring to the story editors your related stories and your unique scripts. To prepare, read the animation scripts. Analyze the scripts.


Study the scripts to see what was emphasized and find out why those scripts were accepted and satisfactory. Those topics give you factual material to discuss with the story editors.


 As story editors to send you the 'bibles' of various animation characters you select. This 'bible' is a book several inches thick that tells everything you need to know about the cartoon character. If you write life stories as cartoon animation, then you'll need to make such a 'scrap book' or 'bible' on the person about whose life you are writing.


Learn all you can about the cartoon character and his henchmen from the cartoon bible.  Make yourself valuable to studio officials. Ask them what already has been pitched. Ask what titles have sold the quickest.


Ask kids what makes them laugh. Ask older adults what makes them laugh. Ask kids what they want to see on television cartoons. Ask people of all ages what they would like to see of their own life stories on TV cartoons, even if the TV set is from their own DVD disk of their life story or other significant event.


Ask the story editor what are the taboos. The bible and sample scripts will let you know in general, but if you miss a point, ask. There are several types of cartoon shows on TV, the hard and the soft.


Hard and Soft TV Animation Shows


There are soft and hard cartoon animation shows on TV. Soft shows don't have too much action adventure. Write sample scripts of each type. The hard shows have the "hit 'em hard" characters that enjoy things that people can't do legally.


Do you really enjoy your characters torching toy stores as in the cartoon, Robocop? Or would you prefer to go inward into your imagination and write a zoo story? Look at scripts from the soft animation shows produced during the eighties such as Jim Henson's Muppet Babies.


You might want to watch the old cartoons and compare the action on screen with the written script. The scripts often are available from the story editors, animation writers' associations, and also from stores in Hollywood that sell old scripts. In the eighties when I was writing sample animation scripts, the story editors from the various studios sent me their 'bible' and sample scripts for various shows.


Chances are no one will buy your sample scripts. You might want to focus writing life story scripts to be later put into computer animation with a variety of animation software. Sample scripts for particular shows that no one buys are not a total waste. They are used as part of your resume.


You show a story editor your sample script along with your resume. These samples show the story editors that you know the format. You learn to format a story, and you learn to structure a story. It's one way to showcase your 'handle' on credible cartoon dialogue.




Introduce yourself by phone to the story editor. Find out whether they also  take email queries. It's more personal by phone if not in person. Tell the story editor that you have a sample script to send. Give your verbal pitch in 20 seconds. Then tell the story editor that you'll send the required written pitch. Find out whether they want the pitch emailed or sent by regular mail.


The story editor will probably say your idea has been pitched. However, if your story line has a fresh angle, you'll me asked to mail it in. Here's your chance to be creative and still stick to the 'bible' or script requirements for a particular show.




You first send the story editor a half-page, double-spaced bare-bones summary called a springboard. Every story can be pared to a half-page bare bones summary. Look at it as if it were the marketing material that goes on the back cover of your story.


Think of the springboard as the back-cover marketing description of your novel designed to hook the reader. It is there to make the story editor want to open your book or actually read more of your script. You will not be paid to write a springboard.


After you have written this half-page double-spaced springboard containing the bare bones of your script or story, you will be asked to write a premise. So, if the editor likes your springboard and assigns you a premise to write, you will be paid for the premise.




A premise is a two-page, double-spaced, expanded springboard.  Make your premise a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Every frame and sequence of your story needs a beginning, middle, and end. Your premise needs to contain the hook that the story editor will use to sell your idea to the networks or to clients. Cartoons have paid advertising sponsors. They are aired to sell the sponsor's toys. The most important point that can sell your episode for a Saturday morning cartoon is its title.


Work on your title to make it salable. If you're writing a life story as an animation script for use on DVDs or computers, keep the title pertinent and short. Often familiar titles sells. Titles that resemble popular, ageless songs also sell. Talk to your story editor about what is expected or taboo in the title. Look at the best hundred titles that have sold cartoons. What does the story editor or clients like about those titles?




Once the network or client approves your premise, you will be paid to write an outline. Be specific. Break the action down frame by frame and scene by scene. Use hardly any dialogue at all. Your outline runs between eight and 12 pages in length if you are writing for a half-hour show which is actually only 22 minutes of screen time.


First Draft


When the story editor approves your outline, you move to the first draft of your script. There's always the first draft followed by the revisions. There may be one or two writers assigned to the script. One writer may be credited with the story and one or two more with the script.


Bumped Off


Before you agree to write any material for pay, you'll be handed a "work for hire" agreement to sign. At any stage, you may be "bumped off." That means being cut off with no more pay or credits. Once you are cut off by the studio it can give your premise or outline to any other writer or shelve your work permanently. You could be paid for your premise and then cut off. Or this could happen as you hand in your outline, in which case you'll be paid for the outline.


How Much?


     Payments vary with each studio. Some pay 40 percent of the script fee if you're cut off at outline. The minimum fee for a half-hour script at several studies started at slightly more than $3,000. For network shows, payment could range from $4,000 to $6,000 or more, depending upon your experience.


What Are You Worth?


Make yourself valuable to studio officials. Ask them what has been pitched in the past. Ask what titles sold the quickest. Talk to children. Ask kids what makes them laugh. Send studios a collection or database of children's reactions to cartoons when you are asking for work. A child's creativity has not been discouraged by rejection. Children don't have writer's block. Comic strip writers, filmmakers, teachers, and anthropologists also can be resources.


Research Comic Books


Many former writers of comic book stories and similar novels have become animation script writers. Talk to the people who write and draw the comic books and their publishers and editors. Many cartoon shows are based on comic-book or comic-strip heroes and heroines.


Some scripts are spin-offs of live-action TV programs. The eighties saw Robocop and Star Trek take off in a variety of media from novels to cartoons. Animation writing is a collaborative effort. Firms that publish comic books also may have animation studios on the opposite coast.


Animation Scripts Use Comic-Book Style Dialogue and Descriptive Language


The same descriptive language used in comic strips is written into animation scripts. For example, you'll see the heavy use of sound effects (SFX) in most lines of description and dialogue in adventure-action cartoons. Animation scripting is mostly description of action and hardly any dialogue at all.


Comic Conventions


Attend the comic conventions in your sit, and sit on the "writing for animation" panel. Create your own panel at conferences and conventions for people in similar industries. Phone and write to experts you will be researching or interviewing for articles you may write in a newsletter of one of the trade or professional associations. Ask the experts to come and join you on a panel at a convention or conference or a class or group meeting. An example would be a writer's club or a film society. The topic could be on how to write for the animation industry.


Comic Books


Life stories can be presented as comic books. That's one alternative. Another is writing for the animation industry or speaking about that industry by researching comic books. Talk to people who work at home with computer and Internet connection writing cartoon scripts. Ask these experts to be on your panel at conferences such as comic book publishers' conventions or seminars on writing for the new media.


Timing Is Important


Most cartoon shows are picked up by studios in February. Call various studios during the month when they are pitching network shows. Exceptions to the February pickup rule included the old 1980s shows such as The Smurfs (Hanna-Barbera) and Fraggle Rock or the Muppet Babies (Marvel) which had early pick-ups. Alf was produced at Disney Studios in Burbank, California. There were a wide variety of shows such as Pee Wee's Playhouse.


 The person in charge of development as well as the producers are listed in the credits that roll at the end of each cartoon show. Record the cartoons for your personal research and find out who is the appropriate person to query regarding writing springboards or other materials. Sometimes a producer needs public relations material written. That's another side door into the industry, through public relations work on the cartoon shows or with the sponsors. Multimedia animation studies is another door that may offer internships.


The mid-eighties was one of the "golden ages" of Saturday morning cartoon shows on TV when freelance script writers had the chance to walk in and present their writing to story editors or to telephone from anywhere. You didn't necessarily have had to live in Los Angeles to be a cartoon script writer.

 Today with Internet multimedia, you can produce life stories or corporate histories yourself and present them as animated cartoon shows or other types of multimedia presentations such as time capsules.


What you need to search for is the 'downtime' at the studios of your choice. That downtime is a good time to talk to story editors about writing sample scripts, obtaining 'bibles' and other materials you'll need to begin your springboard for a particular show. Your one best sample script can be used to sell many shows at several studios.