Writing Screenplays for Blockbuster eLearning Animations

Posted by Jake Barnell on Jan 21, 2022 10:13:50 AM

Marmite has become synonymous with liking or disliking something. You either love it or hate it, right? Well, writing screenplays for our animated content (or as we call them director’s notes) seems to be the Marmite job on our production line. Many of our script writers find them hard going. It’s not their favourite job.

I love writing them, though. Which is lucky because I write and review a lot of them.

So, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Or in this case, deliciously dark and salty, savoury spread.

But why? What’s the process? And why is it so difficult to take a bunch of words and turn them into broadcast-quality animations that blow your socks clean off?

Stay tuned, you’re about to find out...

Don’t let good ideas get in the way of great eLearning

Where do I start? Each screenplay is different. Sometimes I can just sit down and write them from beginning to end and come up with a belter. Other times I have to look for a visual to start me off or fill in parts that are really straightforward, then go back and fill in the gaps to connect the action. Whichever way I go, it all starts with the script.

After a good read, the narrative, or story, and the concept, or theme, can be obvious. But sometimes they’re open to interpretation and occasionally you get a blank canvas. Most importantly, you have to be careful that the narrative and the concept support the learning and don’t interfere with it. That can be tricky. 

Screenshot 2022-01-21 at 09.58.02

One of the biggest mistakes inexperienced screenplay writers make here, is to try and shoehorn scenes in to support a narrative idea. When that happens, the learning moves aside as the writer pursues their ideal path to a resolution that satisfies their inner Shakespeare, rather than always putting the learning first.

The same can be said for the concept. It can be great to have an instantly recognisable pop culture figure to help the learner relate. But if that reference starts to take over, the poor old learning takes a back seat yet again. The moral of the story is to let the learning take centre stage and do its thing, then use all the tools at your disposal, like concept and narrative, to help it shine.

Once you’ve got the learning front and centre, there are a few tricks and techniques you can use to really show it off. One of the easiest to implement is repeating for recall

A good script should include several references to the most important points in your learning. So, repeating, or partially repeating the visual at those points helps learners remember the previous instances in the course. Doing this can help make the learning easier to understand and can help reinforce it, too. 

OST, or on-screen text, can also be useful in a similar way. You just need to be careful not to use too much of it, or your animation can end up looking like a PowerPoint presentation and we don’t want that now, do we?

Finally, the camera can help punctuate the action and work with the voice-over to draw the learner’s attention to important points. For instance, using fast zooms and camera tilts on the main character to create drama when something important is said.

Devil, detail, concept, and narrative - story-driven eLearning content 

Once you know where you’re going with the narrative, it’s a great idea to research your concept ideas. Little things like famous lines from a film, or props, that can immediately identify a well-known character can be invaluable. That extra level of detail will add that additional layer of quality to the piece that’ll separate it from the crowd, too.

Ever heard of a MacGuffin? It’s usually a prop or event that, in itself, is unimportant. But in the context of the screenplay, it motivates the characters and is essential to the plot. Like the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings, or the Philosopher’s Stone in Harry Potter.

If we’re talking about a real-world style business so learners can relate and really get something from the course, the business’s product is pretty likely to be the MacGuffin. 

It isn’t just a device that helps develop the plot and characters, though. It can get you out of a writing hole as well. There’ll always come a moment when you get stuck. The plot peters out. The main character, or MC, is at a dead end. Maybe you have a gap in a sequence of shots that you just can’t fill. More often the MacGuffin can offer a solution and keep the ball rolling. Like the light bikes in our Staying Safe Online course. iAM clearly wants to ride one - who wouldn’t? But they do help carry the story and bridge the tenuous link between the film Tron and the dangers lurking in our online world. If you haven’t seen it already, check out the trailer below.

Screenwriting in eLearning - Staying Safe Online Trailer

What are the challenges of eLearning screenwriting?

Our own learning scripts are a mixture of animated video and interactive sections that require the learner to get involved. So, that’s problem number one. We don’t just need to provide a video timeline, we have to provide descriptions for the mechanics and the artwork for the interactive sections, too. That can be tricky, as the interaction in some courses can be quite complex. Often these more complex interactions will need to be planned meticulously with a learning designer beforehand, then explained simply and effectively in the screenplay so that the artist and the build team can work from those notes to get the job done.

Screenshot 2022-01-21 at 10.00.02

It’s not just the writing you need to think about when you’re creating a screenplay. You need to collate assets like sets, characters, and props. If they’re not available for recycling from your current library, then they’ll need to be drawn. When considering the artwork, you need to strike a balance between variety and recall. Some variety is good, as set changes and visual interest will help keep the learner engaged, but you don’t want so much it distracts the learner. 

It’s also good to repeat, especially when you’re recalling previous instances of the same, or similar learning. Characters need the same kind of consideration. Too many characters and the learner will get lost just trying to keep up. But just using one or two may not be enough to carry the narrative and could even be a little boring. They need to be memorable, too.

Once you have everything you need, you can start thinking about camera direction. Most artists and animators we use have enough experience to get all the basics right without too much direction. But there’ll be moments when I have a specific shot, or sequence of shots, in mind and I’ll need to be very precise about what I want. 

Occasionally, there’ll be moments when I need to be really brave… and do nothing at all. Yep, you read that right. Sometimes doing nothing can be really effective. Sometimes you don’t need any action. Sometimes a simple slow zoom can be more effective than 10 to 20 seconds of complex action and camera movements. It can take bravery to try it, but it can be absolutely necessary.

I can’t get no satisfaction… from my eLearning content

There’s nothing worse than a rubbish ending, it clouds your opinion of the entire story overall. 

You want a good and proper resolution to wrap things up, right? If you don’t, it can leave the learner feeling unsatisfied. Even if the narrative isn’t the most important aspect of the course. 

Any dissatisfaction felt will detract from the learning experience. So, it’s important to keep your learner happy and give them what they want. 

When it comes to screenplay writing, there are lots of other things I could probably add.  But maybe I’ll save those for part two - who doesn’t love a sequel after all?

Write a great eLearning script - 4 key considerations

Writing screenplays for eLearning animations is a complex process but by considering all of the above points, you’ll be well on your way to creating engaging and exciting learning content. 

Here’s a reminder of our four most important tips when drafting your screenplay:

  • Make sure the learning always remains the focus of the screenplay and use techniques such as repetition, on-screen text, and visual effects to reinforce the content.
  • Using a conceptual narrative with familiar storytelling techniques can keep your learners interested and help your content stand out from the crowd.
  • Work closely with your instructional designers and animators to make sure your idea is brought to life clearly and effectively.
  • Make sure there is a resolution to your story to keep your learners satisfied.

And there you have it - the secret to becoming the next blockbuster screenwriter. 

If you’d like to learn more about using storytelling in your learning strategy or are looking for some great new content to keep your learners engaged, get in touch with the team to learn more about how iAM can help.


Topics: Learning Design