Takeaways from Hollywood writer Nayna Agrawal’s masterclass on the art of animation writing: KAM Summit 2022

The KAM Summit is about all things animation. And well, what is a good animated story without a well-written script? One of the interesting sessions from the summit was a masterclass on the art of writing by independent Hollywood writer Nayna Agrawal who has worked for Disney, DreamWorks, ABC, Mattel, Netflix and all the animation biggies. Her recent credits include ABC’s The Baker and The Beauty, Disney’s Encanto, and an upcoming Disney film that is slated to release in 2025.

Starting with how she got into the profession, Agrawal mentioned that she was a part of one of the diverse scholarship programs called the Sesame Street Writer’s Program in New York. They shortlisted her from around 500-1000 applicants and asked her to work on an original idea. All major networks in the US, for instance HBO, were a part of it as well. The process is simple – if they like your idea, they might want to work with you and develop on the idea. She happily recalled how through the 10-week program, they chose her and she later got paid to develop on her idea further. This opened doors for her to freelance and write for Netflix, Disney, and DreamWorks shows. 

From her experience of working in the industry, Agrawal quickly explained the hierarchical structure that is specific to the animation writing ladder. She said, “Every room has its own makeup and composition. In the kids animation space there are a lot of freelancers. In the adult animation space there are mostly 10 titles – staff writer, story editor, executive story editor, showrunner, supervising producer, co-producer and the like.”

If you think writing for live-action and animation would be the same, here’s what the expert had to say about the difference between the two: “The difference between live-action and animation, especially animation for kids, is that the setup and the room is very different. There’s also a lot depending on whether you are a freelancer or staff writer. As a staff writer, you have to be more involved in the everyday processes. The budgets are grander in live-action.” 

Nayna Agrawal

It is crucial to justify why a certain project needs to be animated and not live-action. She said when one thinks of an animated idea, you really ask yourself how this is different from live-action. Why can’t this be live-action? Well, the world of animation is magical, elevated from reality, and hyperbolic. So, if the story is not rooted to reality and you would want to give it wings of imagination, that’s where you’d know animation would help. Especially when it comes to kids’ content, since they usually have larger than life experiences and look at the world with brand new eyes, animation is just the perfect medium to give them what they want to see.

The animation writing tips that Agrawal would like to give all budding artists is to always be ready to learn, always be curious, think about – what you are excited to share, what is the story you want to tell, what is the message you want to give, and what resonates with you. She added, “Find what makes you stand out, what gives you joy, what gives you traction. There is no one right answer, which can be frustrating and scary for many of us, but it can also be very rewarding. The writing journey for each one of us is very personal and very subjective.”

Her masterclass included the 22 rules of storytelling by Pixar. As much as these rules apply to any field of writing, these particularly fit well when it comes to animation writing. Here are the rules:

1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.

3. Trying for a theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

12. Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third, fourth, fifth – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Agrawal also mentioned how striking a chord with the target audience is imperial. She explained, “When you write something, you want to keep your audience in mind. You must know their language, the level of maturity, and their experiences. You must constantly gauge these things to build a relationship with the readers and viewers to ensure feeling connected. We wouldn’t want to manipulate them, but earn them. Everything should be organic and not forced.”

What does Nayna think of the Indian storytelling scene? Well, she said, “India’s storytelling is poetic,” and we cannot agree more. To conclude, she voiced that no work is ever wasted and that we must never stop taking chances because even if we fail, at least we tried.

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