The writing of "The Six Tasks of Snowman Hank"

by Diane Duane

So here’s where we talk a little about the process of planning and writing the outline for The Six Tasks of Snowman Hank, from the point of view of someone who’s done a fair amount of animation work.

Why did I do it? Partly for the challenge. Even well-established writers ought to be stretching themselves every chance they get: part of the job, as I conceive it, is to try not only things that others have never tried before, but things that you’ve never tried. The more I thought about Snowman Hank and his six tasks, the more this piece of potential storytelling struck me as being like a writer’s version of the very ancient game show “Name That Tune”. “I can name that tune in… three notes!” “I can make an outline for a Christmas special out of… a minute and a half of video and six or seven lines of dialogue!”

Some challenges are just too good to pass up on. But once the challenge is accepted, the real work begins. Having decided to do something like this, it must be done as well as if there was real-world money and a real-world production team involved. What’s the point otherwise?

So. When you’re about to start playing in someone else’s universe — a subject on which I’m fairly expert — the first thing you do is take some time to carefully examine the canonical material so that you don’t get carried away, or plunge off in the wrong direction, with whatever you’re developing. This particular piece of work illustrates the need for such care more clearly than a lot of pieces of work I’ve been involved with, specifically because there’s so little to work with.

…Or at least it seems like that at first glance. When you play back the YouTube of A Very Possible Christmas, there’s no getting around the fact that there is barely a minute and a half of material that actually shows Snowman Hank. The rest of the material dealing with Hank and his canceled special comes up in dialogue: mostly from Ron, though a little from Dr. Drakken. Nonetheless, if you’re trying to back-engineer the story itself, you’re given a fair amount of useful material to work with.

Just glance at the initial scene where Ron is watching the Snowman Hank promo. You discover the following:

(a) The overall “western” feel of the milieu. Hank has a corral. (Though there’s no sign of any horses or cattle, so this is an issue that’s going to have to be dealt with. Yes, there are horseshoes on the trees around the corral… which aren’t likely to be real horseshoes: you try decorating a Christmas tree with one-pound lumps of metal and see what happens.)

(b) The extra characters who appear in the promo are all western. A tortoise, a snowshoe hare (in fact a number of them, later on): a coyote (too small for a wolf, and also seen hugging the snowshoe hare as they “embrace their fellow man”, coyotes and hares/jackrabbits often appear together in western lore): a prairie dog, and a rattlesnake in a Stetson. (It doesn’t get much more Western than that.)

(c) The fact that Snowman Hank’s “special” has been around for twenty years. This by itself raises a couple of questions: (a) is it a Christmas episode of a series, or is it a stand-alone special like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman, both of which it pretty obviously recalls?

…And there’s something else that comes up while we’re examining this footage. If you look at the jolly sun that’s seen hanging around in both the initial sequence and the “fantasy” closing sequence of the episode, you’ll see that it is literally hanging from a wire. Just what gives with this?

Your first impression might understandably be that Snowman Hank’s special, possibly like the show from which it was descended, was originally live-action, and shot on a small TV soundstage rather than being stop-motion or animation in its original incarnation. It would therefore have been like some of the live children’s TV shows of the ’50s and 60s such as the Soupy Sales Show or even Howdy Doody.You could even make a case that the Snowman Hank Show started as live-action, was canceled, and then was resurrected in an animated form (re-animated?) later on.

Given the presence of the wire together with the fact that Ron lets us off the hook by referring unambiguously to “my favorite cartoon snowman”, let’s for the time being assume that this was what happened, and move on. (Who knows, maybe the KP producers originally thought of the Snowman Hank series as live action and then changed their minds, and somebody forgot to tell the storyboard artist to get that wire off the sun, and the thing got past in storyboard-checking because everybody was busy with something else. God knows this kind of hiccup happened sometimes on Dinosaucers, when half the time there were storyboards stacked up on your desk ten episodes high like a heap of phone books, and you weren’t always sure whether you were supposed to check episode 31 or whether your co-story editor had done it already.)

Anyway, for the time being let’s pretend that this is an animated show from the start. And whether or not there was a series first, when you’re doing a special you’re still going to have to introduce all the characters to a new and larger audience. On the other hand, if this is an original special, written from scratch, you can tell Hank’s six tasks as an origin story. In fact, you could even do that if it was a series: see above. So that’s the way I chose to do it. (Especially since none of us know who these characters are anyway, and all of them need explaining.)

Ron helps us out again by succinctly telling us what the show’s about, when Kim offers him his Hanukkah present to try to make him feel better after the news that this year’s airing has been canceled in favor of “XXTreme Xmas”.  Ron’s response:

[scrippet]
RON STOPPABLE
Is it a cartoon snowman who teaches kids the power of family, friends, and turning the bad guys good?
[/scrippet]

(This also being a theme that underpins a fair number of episodes of Kim Possible; but that fact should surprise no one.) …The narrator of the trailer also helps us by describing the story as “heartwarming”, which in its way tells you something about what the action, and character interactions, are going to be like. This is not going to be a gigantic special-effects fest that ranges across the globe, but something relatively intimate and character-driven. The invocation of friends and family tells us that these institutions are going to be threatened and then saved, in the persons of some of the characters, during the course of the story.

And another limiting factor is going to affect the story that can be told here. How long should we assume the Snowman Hank Special to have been?  Most animated Christmas specials have run only half an hour. If “now” for KP is assumed to be around 2000, then “twenty years ago” was 1980, and full animation was still expensive and time-consuming to produce.  No one was going to take a flyer on a one-hour special unless the original material was a runaway hit.  However, there have been exceptions: and also, if Snowman Hank was a series previously, it has some status as a pre-sold property. So what I’ve outlined here is a one-hour special, broken into four acts as was more normal in the 80’s before the structure (and permitted number) of commercial breaks changed. The object thus becomes creating a story that will comfortably fill that space without feeling either too stretched (sometimes a problem when adapting a literary property, for example: only the genius of Chuck Jones could make the brief Grinch story fit perfectly into half an hour) or too hectic and rushed to be properly heartwarming.

So having settled all that, now we come to the story itself and the titular Tasks. Ron implies that there is a Bad Guy to be defeated — or, more difficult, turned — so the threat to friends and family has to come from, or via, the Bad Guy. Since we have all these ancillary characters — the animals, and usefully, those two human children — it makes some sense to use them and their attitudes and actions to point the way to the Bad Guy and the problem he/she poses.

The writer on “A Very Possible Christmas” was plainly well grounded in previous TV holiday traditions, and there are references to other Christmas specials liberally sprinkled throughout the episode. Probably my favorite is when Dr. Drakken starts gloating about Christmas being the perfect time to do dastardly things —

[scrippet]
DR. DRAKKEN
Because it is Christmas! The one time of the year when she is off duty. Busy with her twinkle lights, and mistletoe, and carols, and roast beast, and fram-franglers, and zoob-zooblers —

Shego grabs hold of Drakken’s shoulders and shakes him.

SHEGO
Whoa, whoa, whoa, Dr. D!

DR. DRAKKEN
What??

SHEGO
You’ve stopped using words.
[/scrippet]

Though of course he hasn’t: the language comes more or less straight from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. And there are also a lot of other sly Christmas-cultural references scattered through the episode — Drakken’s remark about everybody having “a blue Christmas” this year, taken together with the Elvis Santa on the Possibles’ mantelpiece: a very cranky bear possibly stranded in the episode from a Coke advertising campaign: various other bits and pieces. It’s fun to try to catch them all.

In any case, after digesting as much as possible of the episode’s context, and sitting and thinking about it while suitable mood music plays (what I used, you can get from Amazon below: some of the nicest renditions of Christmas music around, easy on the ear and not overly intrusive. Beegie Adair is terrific), there still remains the biggest challenge: trying to write an outline for something that might conceivably become a much-loved special that has been shown and reshown for “more than twenty years”. Yeah, let’s just sit down and attempt to commit a classic, shall we? says the back of the writer’s brain in a skeptical tone.

Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained; and though there’s no way to tell in the real world what will turn anything into a classic, all you can do is your best with whatever raw materials are presented to you. And beyond that, one accessory that a working writer quickly grows as his or her career develops is an unusually high level of certainty that if he or she really puts her/his mind to something, it can be successully pulled off. Sure, doubts creep in while you’re in the middle of a project: but you learn to override them — or at least to judge them critically to see whether they’re just nerves or genuine signals from your writer’s-brain that something needs to be fixed. Later on there can be notes. (In fact, later on, there will be notes. There’s no avoiding it. But you strive for a situation that causes you as few notes as possible.)

Anyway, there it is: the first-draft outline for The Six Tasks of Snowman Hank. It’s not at all perfect. I can already see things that need fixing, characters who need beefing up, and various structural tweaks that would need seeing to in any further stage of development. But that’s always the way it is, starting about five minutes after you turn in any first draft of anything. …Is it anything like what the KP production staff would have come up with? Almost certainly not. Though that writing team had a particular cast of mind which I really like, we’re all different writers,usually coming from very dissimilar places both physically and creatively. Give this assignment to a Paul Dini, or a Christy Marx, and you would get something entirely different. This is just my take on the concept. Maybe someone else will come up with something better. (It wouldn’t be the first time.)

At any rate, I hope you enjoy it! It was fun to do. (And now I have another Christmas story to work on. I leave it to the Young Wizards fans reading this to consider (with an eye to Wizard’s Holiday) the possible ramifications of a story with the title “How Lovely Are Thy Branches.”)

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