These are notes pertaining specifically to the Ngee Ann Polytechnic Digital Visual Effects Module titled “Storytelling and Storyboarding”. This is a FORMATTED VERSION of the notes I took while in class.

Weekly lessons are separated by bold text, while weekly lesson sections are separated by italicised text.

WEEK ONE – 17 April 2008 Thursday

In the Storytelling half-module, which lasts for six weeks, class assignments will use the present tense (e.g. “James pushes Dan out of the airplane.”); the third-person perspective (e.g. “She was about to draw her sword when she felt someone place a hand on her left shoulder.”), and visual voice (e.g. “Daisy storms out of the office.”

The Third-person Perspective

In the third-person perspective, a character narrates the story as it happens. An example is as follows:
“Mark picks up the gun and holds it in his hand. It begins to tremble, as if alive.”

Proper usage of the third-person perspective generally presents a more immediate and urgent feel to the material as compared to, say, a passive sentence such as “Mark picked up the gun and held it in his hand. It began to tremble, as if alive.”

The third-person perspective is commonly used in screenplay or thriller or suspense genres as it represents a more urgent and immediate feel to the story.

Passive Voice vs. “Active Voice”

An example of a sentence in passive voice goes like this:
“He is running across the field.”

The passive voice utilises weak verbs. It tells what is happening in the character’s head and distances us, the readers, from the story.

On the other hand, the same sentence above written in so-called “active voice” may sound like this:
“He runs across the field.”

The “active voice” uses strong verbs and shows the action done at that moment in time. It also uses immediate sentence structure and conveys the story in a livelier manner than if the story was written in passive voice.

Writing Tips

Procrastination is a scary thing when you take a good look at it. For one, all of us, you and me, have absolutely no problems coming up with a list of excuses for procrastination.

When it comes to writing, the biggest problem of all is getting started. Even if you do manage to start, the idea of stopping for a bit and resuming later is a tempting one, much more so if it is late into the night and you have a mattress less than five feet away from you.

So, for those of you who have problems with curbing procrastination, here are a few pointers:

  • If you have work in progress, never stop for the night if you’re stuck.
  • Solve it and keep going until it is solved, or solved to the extent of it no longer being an urgent issue. Regardless of what others (including your parents) might say, it is always better to sleep well than to sleep on problems.
  • If you can’t get started, start anyway. To do this, get some words to type.
  • It doesn’t matter what you write as you will soon begin to think and move at your own rhythm/pace.

Exercise 1A: Openers

The following is a person-specific opener I did in exactly seven minutes.

‘Hannah walks into the library wearing a wetsuit and a clown nose. As she enters, the lady at the counter looks at her and asks, “Excuse me, but are you the new mascot?”
Hannah walks over to the counters and says, “Yes, I am.”
“Can I see your ID please?” the lady asks.
“Uh…erm…” Hannah stammers. “I…lost mine, or I think I left at home or something.”
“Never mind,” the lady says. “You can bring it next time.”‘

Try writing down an opener yourself, using the first sentence as a guide, in exactly seven minutes. When you are done, note down questions you were asking yourself as you wrote it. Regardless of what you were thinking as you did so, you will always be asking yourself:

  • “Whose story am I telling?”
  • “What is the point of this story?”
  • “How can I engage the attention of the audience?”


To conclude the lesson for this week, here are the assignment(s) which need to be completed by 24 April 2008 Thursday.

  1. Create at least twelve openers in your new blog under a Page titled “Openers”. An example is: “Sally keeps glancing at her watch.”

Exercise 1B: Openers

I’ve done up a small paragraph with an opener from another site.

“The explorer pressed on, as the chilling breeze of the arctic continued to blow. The odds were against him, and he knew this. With the closest base more than fifty kilometres away and his food supplies running low, he knew that there was almost no hope that he could survive in the vast expanse of snow and ice. He had to rely on his skill as an explorer and his wits if he were to see the light of day.”

WEEK 2 – 24 April 2008 Thursday

Elements of Dialogue

Dialogue is important as it reveals character. A character will talk about himself and other people will talk about him. It also establishes relationships between characters. Once you have established your main character’s POV, you can use dialogue with other characters to show that they have other attitudes, creating opposite/alternate POVs. This helps to create and sustain the element of conflict between characters. Good , effective dialogue will move the story forward.

Dialogue also communicates faces and information to the audience. It conveys essential exposition (e.g. two characters saying “Hi” to each other, followed by the name of the other person). Characters will talk about what happened, establishing the storyline.

Furthermore, dialogue comments on the action and ties the script together. It is one of the devices that a writer can use to expand and enlarge characters.

Good quote: “If you can see it or hear it, don’t write it.” – Neville Smith

Dialogue should be used sparingly. Do not tell the audience what they can see for themselves. It is not a substitute for action.

A common mistake: Students sometimes never achieve a level of competence as they tend to reproduce conventional spoken language, long statements of “real talking” and defend their decision by stating that that is how the character speaks.

Good dialogue is not somebody’s ability to write authentic speech as heard in real life. If that was all there is to it, you could collect an Oscar by recording your voice on a tape recorder. Good dialogue is the illusion of reality. You need to know how to edit what people say without losing any of the spirit.

Another common mistake: Students tend to create radio shows with images.

Film is a visual medium. A screenplay, however, is a story told in pictures, not words.

Exercise: Writing Dialogue

Consider the following scenario:

  1. Middle-aged man returns home from work.
  2. He stops for a few drinks with his friends and forgot to phone his wife to tell her he’ll be late.
  3. Dinner is ruined.
  4. Write a short scene composed of dialogue between husband and wife.
  5. Write a second dialogue based off your parents.

Here’s the first one I made…
Husband: Honey, I’m home.
Wife: You didn’t tell me that you were coming home late!
Husband: Sorry, it slipped my mind.
Wife: What should I do with the extra food now? It’s gone cold!
Husband: Keep it in the fridge and I’ll have it for breakfast tomorrow.
Wife: I can’t do that! The food will spoil! Why must you come home late?
Husband: Throw it away then.

Here’s the second one, which is based off how my parents would handle a scenario like this. They usually speak in Cantonese.
Husband: Honey, I’m home.
Wife: Why didn’t you tell me that you were coming back late?
Husband: Don’t worry, I ate dinner outside. I’m not hungry.
Wife: You missed the point! I spent five hours to cook dinner for you, and then you come back late!
Husband: Ayah, just keep it for tomorrow lah!
Wife: The food won’t taste good if I re-cook it!
Husband: Never mind, at least it isn’t spoiled. I’m going to use the bathroom.

The purpose of this exercise is to show that we write best what we know well.

Storytelling Tool 1: Observation

Observation is a very useful tool and is needed in good storytelling. When you observe other people or things, always:

  • adopt a keen eye;
  • develop a natural sense of curiosity; and
  • set up a sequence of possibilities that will develop into a story worth telling. An observed client, when subjected to simple questions, can do as such.

The following are some simple questions worth asking…

  • Whom am I writing about?
  • Who is my character?
  • How is he/she/it like?
  • What does he/she/it do?
  • What happens to him/her/it in the story?


People rarely observe familiar people or things closely. In fact, most people pass through the day with 20% to 30% awareness. Observe in a conscious way and develop the ability to see and record people. their movements, physical characteristics and the setting/places they’re in.

Assignment: People-watch

  • Walk into the canteen/library/etc. and watch people pass by.
  • Eventually, one will catch your attention.
  • Write as many details as possible about this person through observation.
  • Repeat the above steps for a second character.
  • Transcribe all these details into a new “People-Watch” Page on your blog.

Review Exercise 2: People-Watch

  1. Take out phone book.
  2. Point to name at random.
  3. Look at that name’s address.
  4. Attach name and address to a character you’ve watched.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 with second character.
  6. Ask yourself what one character would do to provoke the other character to an extreme action.

Click here to see what I got.


  1. Character 2 falls asleep onto Character 1.
  2. Character 1 is disrupted from his reading by this and tries to push Character 2 back to his seat.
  3. Character 2 does not respond.
  4. Character 1 gets angry and pushes him harder.
  5. Character 2 falls off his seat.
  6. Character 1 gets up from his seat and starts yelling his head off at Character 2.
  7. Character 2 finally wakes up, feeling disoriented.

WEEK THREE – 02 May 2008 Friday

Defining a Character

The character is the heart, soul, and nervous system of a story. It is through characters that the viewers experience emotions and are touched. Without a character, there is no action. Without action, there is no conflict. Without conflict, there is no story. Without a story, there is no screenplay.

Developing a Character

Ask yourself the following when you develop a character:

  • Who is your character?
  • What does he want?
  • What is his quest?
  • What drives him to the resolution of the story?

When establishing a main character, he should have a three-dimensional structure, consisting of physiology, sociology and psychology.

Physiology comprises of…

  • Sex;
  • Age;
  • Height;
  • Weight/Mass;
  • Hair colour;
  • Eye colour;
  • Skin colour;
  • Posture;
  • Appearance;
  • Defects/Abnormalities/Deformities/Birthmarks/Diseases; and
  • Heredity

Sociology comprises of…

  • Class (i.e. lower, middle, upper);
  • Occupation: type of work, hours of work, income, condition of work, attitude towards organisation, suitability for work;
  • Education: amount, kind of schools, marks, favourite subjects, poorest subjects, aptitudes;
  • Home Life: parents living, earning power, orphan, parents seperated/divorce, parents’ habits, parents’ mental development, parents’ vices (bad traits), neglect, character’s marital status;
  • Religion;
  • Race;
  • Nationality;
  • Place in the Community: leader among friends, clubs, sports;
  • Political Affiliations; and
  • Amusements: hobbies, books, newspapers, magazines he reads

Psychology comprises of…

  • Sex life;
  • Moral standards;
  • Personal premise;
  • Ambition;
  • Frustrations;
  • Chief Disappointments;
  • Temperament: choleric, easy-going, pessimistic, optimistic;
  • Attitude towards life: resigned, militant, defeatist;
  • Complexes: obsessions, inhibitions, superstitions, phobias;
  • Personality: extrovert, introvert;
  • Abilities: language, talents;
  • Qualities: imagination, judgement, taste, poise;
  • Intelligence quotient; and, most of all,
  • What is the deep and personal secret this character has which he is desperate to protect/hide?

Separate the components of his life into two basic components.

The interior life takes place from birth until the moment your story begins. It is a process that forms character. When you start formulating your character from birth, you see your character build in body and form. The following are some questions worth asking yourself when you create a character’s interior life:

  • How old is he when the story begins?
  • Where does he live?
  • Does he have siblings?
  • What kind of childhood did he have?
  • What was his relationship to his parents?
  • What kind of child was he?
  • Is he married, single, widowed, separated or divorced?

The exterior life takes place the moment your story begins to its conclusion. It is a process that reveals character. Some questions to ask:

  • Who are they and what do they do?
  • Are they sad or happy with their life?
  • Do they wish their life was different, or do they wish they had, say, another job or wife?

You must create your characters in relationship to other people or things.

All dramatic characters interact in three ways:

  1. They experience conflict in achieving their dramatic need (e.g. Need money? Rob a bank, store, person).
  2. They interact with other characters (either in an antagonistic, friendly or indifferent way).
  3. They interact with themselves (e.g. He overcame his fear of being caught by pulling off the robery successfully).

When creating characters, try to turn them upside down (e.g. A monk devoted to his religion but is a football fanatic, a serial killer whose obsession is to kill other serial killers, a common street rat who loves to eat and cook only fine food).

The Role of Conflict

Conflict is the central feature of the screenplay. It is either:

  • man against man;
  • man against environment; and/or
  • man against self

It varies in terms of sex, age, religion and culture which provide variety to the conflict.

Conflict = Change

Change can be more or less explained in four sentences:

  1. Change is common to everyone.
  2. Change is universal.
  3. As universal as it may seem, people often resist it for fear of the unknown.
  4. People must learn to cope with change if they want to survive.

The action in drama depends on conflict. The definition of conflict is the opposition of persons or forces. It is the interaction of opposing ideas, interests, or wills, and creates the plot. Plots cannot be constructed without conflict. As your characters attempt to reach their goals, they come into conflict with each other. The end of the story nears when the protagonist and antagonist approach their goals and the conflict rises to generate maximum suspense and excitement.

Creating Conflict

The protagonist and antagonist must be locked together with no possible compromise between them. This is done by having characters of strong conviction and purpose who will fight for what they want. The more evenly matched they are, the stronger the battle will be and the more suspense will be aroused.

Assignment: 50-Word Stories

  • Write a story of exactly fifty words.
  • Post five such stories into a new Page titled “50-Word Stories on your blog.

The purpose of this assignment is to break down the myth of handling one idea at a time. It also encourages precise, concise writing, and teaches base script editing skills to focus & reveal the essential elements.

WEEK FOUR – 09 May 2008 Friday

Plot and Story

A plot is a plan for the final idea. In the plot, it is possible to conceive numerous ideas which may start at different points or diverge during the course of the idea. However, they should converge to the same ending.

A story, on the other hand, is the final idea in action.

Dynamic Action

A story is action. Action encompasses any kid of movement between activity and interaction between the characters and also between the characters and their surroundings. Talking about how one feels is not as powerful as illustrating why one feels the way they do through action.

FIlm is behaviour, and action is a manifestation of behaviour. The complexity of human psyche and interaction is better understood when it is possible to watch the actions, nuances and reactions of the characters.

Dynamic action has the potential to enrich the experience of the audience by heightening the stakes and increasing the tension.

Moving Pictures

The power of any story llies in the narrator’s ability to project a mental picture for the audience. Newbies usually encounter problems converying any sense of inner conflict or emotion visually.

Interactive Action

A location is a physical location where events occur and characters interact.

An interactive location, on the other hand, is a physical setting and surrouding that interacts with the characters of the film by positively heightening their action. It can also heighten the impact of the action and the stakes. For example, a high rise building invokes more suspense than a low-rise building if a character is afraid of heights and has to leap between two buildings.


Your memory is a wonderful cabinet of past incidents which you have experienced or been told. These memories are points of reference to your own past existence. Write what you do not know because you will find some part of you that does know. There is always room for personal discovery.

Assignment: Letter to Someone From The Past

  • Write a letter of undetermined length to someone from the past.
  • This must be a person to whom you can no longer speak to.
  • It could also be someone you completely lost touch with.
  • It could even be a deceased person.
  • You should describe yourself exactly as you are in present time and then try and contrast that image with how you were earlier, when you and the recipient were together.
  • Post this entry under a new Page titled “Letter to the Past” in your blog. This Page may be password-protected, but must be known to the lecturer.

The letter is a practical, personal example of how you, as a character, undergo the inevitable process of change. The process of change is an essential ingredient of any effective story, and in dramatic writing, the very essence is character change.

WEEK FIVE – 15 May 2008 Thursday

Storytelling Tool 3: Experience

A storyteller should be concerned with the potential of every experience. Everything about you – where you were born, what food you eat, the bump on your forehead – is unique and irreplaceable. Despite this, many of your experiences are universal and translatable and can be used in any location.

Here are some tips on using experience as a storytelling tool:

  1. If you don’t know what to do with a character, make him yourself for a while.
  2. See how he relates to the world he has been thrown into.
  3. Plunder your own personal background.

The things that happen to you as you grow up and the things that are currently happening to you make terrific story sources.

Exercise 5: True and False Stories

  • Write two stories.
  • One of them is true, and one of them is false. Only the author knows which is which.
  • What are the details that convinced us of its truth

“My sister had finished viewing her junior college and was ready to leave, so the three of us – my mum, my sister, and myself – took Bus Service 812 back to Yishun MRT Station. As we sat on the bus and looked out of the window, we saw a cyclist fall over for no apparent reason. My mum was shocked, but my sister and I gave little notice. All I was concerned about was the smell of nausea in the bus itself, which seemed to come from nowhere.”

“I decided to stop writing for a bit and take a break by staring out of the window. As I did, I saw a girl walking across the road. She looked unusually familiar, and as she walked and I stared at her, I realised that that was one of my former classmates. What was she doing in my estate when I knew full well that she stayed nowhere near me? Why was she dressed as if she’s attending some sort of formal occasion?”

The first story was true, while the second one is false. While many of my peers – and even my lecturer – originally thought that the second story was true, it was only after I told them which was which that they began to change their minds, as the details in the first story are far too great for it to be passed off as a fabrication.

The purpose of this exercise is to show that a true story is not necessarily a good story. Good stories have to be worked and re-worked. True life stories do not offer neat and relevant endings, because life is unpredictable. However, we can and must control the events and sequences in a story so that it gives the appearance of being like life.


Week 1

  • Writing in third person;
  • Writing in present tense;
  • Writing in visual voice

Week 2

  • The role of conflict/creating conflict;
  • Elements of dialogue;
  • Storytelling Tool 1: Observation

Week 3

  • Characterisation: defining the character;
  • Developing characters

Week 4

  • Dynamic action
  • Story is action = film is behaviour
  • Interactive location
  • Storytelling Schematised
  • Storytelling Tool 2: Memory

Week 5

  • Storytelling Tool 3: Experience
  • Summary of the three storytelling tools


Revision and Rewriting

Rewriting is not just about rewriting. It is also about rethinking, reconceptualising and approaching new things.
As a general rule, everyone should try and rewrite their story at least five times. You will never find out what is really in you until you write and rewrite. This does not mean polishing phrases only.
A tip: Study your story, see it with a new vision and change values. Write it afresh, maybe scrap it, and start all over again. Don’t be afraid to do this.
After this, you can begin “polishing”. Find expressions with character and dialogue that has rhythm. It may take 2 or more versions to bring out the full colour of the characters or yourself.
To quote, “The inclination of the egoist is to get as much as he can, but at the same time not to change.”


1 Comment

  1. Ex Boyfriend said,

    10 April 2009 Friday at 4:35 PM

    Hey, nice tips. Perhaps I’ll buy a bottle of beer to that man from that forum who told me to go to your blog 🙂

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