This time next week, I’ll be at the Children’s Media Conference. One of the things I love about the CMC is the wide scope of the M: media. It is not the Children’s TV Conference, App Conference or Book Conference. It is a place where people delivering good content to children in any form can come together in a relaxed setting and just learn from each other.
A couple of years back, I posted about a CMC talk from Ian Livingstone on gaming. It got me thinking about my views on narrative and just how that works for children. I come from a television background and, personally, I love narrative. I love telling stories and children love hearing, watching or experiencing stories. But it is not the be all and end all of children’s content. Not by a long shot.
Toca Boca, Sago Sago and more show that you can give children a toy and let them construct their own narrative through play. Any experience can be a narrative. A town built in Minecraft may carry a fictional narrative in the head of the builder or it can simply be that the trials of building that town is a narrative in itself, with its own challenges, failures and successes. This isn’t new. Lego of old didn’t come with a backstory. A Fisher Price garage didn’t need an accompanying comic to make clear who the characters were.
When it comes to imagination, kids simply don’t need our help.
But they still love a good story, which opens the door to merging these approaches: narrative-driven interactive content. We have been making faux-interactive entertainment for many decades in children’s television and the next natural step is of course genuine interactivity. A child still experiencing a story, a constructed narrative, but being part of it through the characters or getting to take part in activities or games. As both a content creator and as someone who just loves gaming, I find this mix incredibly inspiring. And now I have something fun in the works that will be revealed very soon – a partnership with leading children’s app publisher Storytoys, who have made the merging of storytelling and interactivity their specialty. More on that another time but, for now, Storytoys have released this teaser image:
So this year, I attend the CMC with the buzz of some exciting Mooshku projects, as script editor on wonderful TV shows, this new dino-filled collaboration coming soon and, most importantly, with a far wider picture of the M across all of that. And this is what I love about what we can do for kids. We can sit them down and tell them a story or we can throw them some blocks and see what they come up with themselves. Or we can do anything in between. If you’re attending this year, I hope you pick up some fascinating insight and maybe I’ll see you there.
Development is easily one of the most crucial stages in any project. This is when you take an idea and turn it into something much, much greater than an idea. You make it real. Development leads to a sense of the finished product, it defines so much of the stages that will come later and, importantly, it gives you something you can sell. And if this stage does not get the care and attention it deserves, it is also where you unintentionally build in problems that may only become apparent down the line.
During development you look to change, to improve. You pull apart your concepts and try them in different ways. You try different characters and then change each and every one of those characters until the balance feels just right. You examine designs and styles. What if we try it this way? For development to truly work, you have to be completely open to change.
The hope is that through this process you will arrive at something much greater than the initial iteration.
But if there’s one lesson Gmail, Twitter etc. constantly remind me of, it is this: sometimes it was better the way you had it before.
The truth is, your work can get worse as well as better. It does happen sometimes that the initial instincts in certain areas were spot-on. When each new change brings a whole new set of problems to solve, it can be time to look back and ask, did we have this right before?
So be open to rewinding and taking your idea back to where you started. Keep in mind that this does not in any way mean the development process was a waste – you have to challenge these concepts and explore all other options to truly know it was right to begin with. Remember that if you go in deciding that you had it right the first time, then you’re not really open to change. Others will challenge your choices so be sure you challenge them first.
Push your development. Try different and make it better. Look for any direction you haven’t yet tried and apply it. Does it make the project better? Or worse? Development is one of the most crucial stages of any project so give it everything you’ve got.
Anyone who actually manages to make things happen will face resistance. It comes with the territory. We push past the doubters, the negativity, we persuade the gatekeepers, we build a strong case for each and every choice we make and we don’t take no for an answer. The ability to do this and continue doing it is essential to making awesome stuff happen.
But here is what is so often missed: the knowledge when to stop doing it is often just as essential.
Getting so used to having to push hard can lead to pushing out of habit. Someone questions your idea? You push harder. But hang on, what if they have hit upon something important? What if they are right? Even if you face very little resistance, is it possible you are just doing something under the pressure of your own momentum rather than because it is the right thing to do?
When pushing any idea through, it is so important to ask yourself: does this actually serve my core aims?
I was writing a story for Planet Cosmo which aimed to introduce children to planet Uranus. Uranus is pretty amazing because its rotation is at a whole different angle to the other planets, like it is tipped up on its side. Always looking for the character angle in the story, I ended up with Cosmo looking after a dog. Cosmo wanted to play planets by spinning around but this dog just liked to roll. Eventually Cosmo sees Uranus rolling and realises that the dog wasn’t getting it entirely wrong after all.
We wanted a lot of comedy in the show and this dog had so much potential for humour. One of the core rules with a dog is picking up its business, if you get my meaning. Dog poo. And Cosmo’s Dad not wanting to pick up dog poo and then having to do it led to a couple of very funny scenes in the early drafts. We knew kids would find it hilarious. Not all broadcasters would find it quite as funny. It could be dealbreaker for some of them.
And so there was resistance.
The question became: do we push this through or not? When pushing becomes second nature through necessity, the first reaction to resistance is usually to push harder. Think about the laughs we’ll lose. We should be going for edgy. Come on, it’s just dog poo. All dogs do it.
All these thoughts went through my head very quickly. I wrote an email to my script editor, Hilary, asking for advice on it. About a minute later, I wrote her another mail telling her to ignore the first email. In those 60 seconds, I had decided the dog poo was out. Why? Because it didn’t serve the core aim which, if you remember, was to introduce children to planet Uranus. It was as simple as that. If anything, the problems it would cause could reduce the chances of some children seeing the episode which would go completely against that aim.
If I had firmly believed that it would benefit children to see those dog poo gags, I would have pushed. But the truth is, to push here would have been pushing out of habit. Pushing for no other reason than I was facing resistance and I’m used to having to push in that situation.
As it happens, that poo-free dog story is still probably the funniest of the bunch.
Having the determination and the stamina to push ideas through is essential. But try not to push just for the sake of pushing. Always ask yourself: does this actually serve my core aims? If the answer is no, let it go.
Show, don’t tell – a storytelling guideline so often repeated. Rather than have someone tell us what a character is like, for example, show us a situation that illustrates that. Let the audience put it together themselves from the story you give them. It is an important guideline because, for good storytelling, it’s often right.
But is it right for young children? Not quite.
To be sure important information is coming across, you’ve really got to tell. State that important line, that key plot point, that crucial lesson. Research into educational media and children found very early on that young children will often miss inferences or more abstract thought processes required to put pieces together if the lesson is not directly stated. It has shown that you have to be far more explicit about your educational material to be sure children take it in. And if it works for educational material, it works for plot points, character traits and so on – it just happens that people have far more reason to study this in an educational context.
In short, the research says: tell.
From my own experience, it seems the difficulty is not that children don’t take in more subtle information or that they can’t put two and two together. It is that they are taking in so much information that we as content creators lose control over just exactly what parts they are retaining and processing. I have long maintained that everything a young child sees or hears goes towards forming their world view. The difficulty is that different children in different situations are taking in different things and applying them in different ways. So to control that, to make that key information clear, we must follow the guideline offered by the research: tell.
The ideal is to achieve both. Show first. This establishes context, which is so important for understanding. It allows for the possibility of some children putting the information together themselves. Then tell. Hit the information home by telling, as clearly as possible. Those children who were a step ahead of you will feel really good about that (give them a chance to get there first) and it will solidify the information for them. Those kids who weren’t quite there yet will already have the context so that, when you state the information, it makes perfect sense and falls into place instantly.
This way you are now in control of the information, be it an educational lesson or a key plot point. So show… but also tell.