Yesterday I saw this article about how children often miss the moral of a story. The article is true whether we’re talking preschool children or whether we’re talking kids in the 6-10 age group. Time after time, children walk away from a story having completely missed the message. Or worse, having badly misinterpreted the message.
The reasons for this are numerous. As the article points out, understanding the outcome requires stages of judgement throughout the story as cause and effect is revealed. As we approach stories as writers, we often work under the assumption that children know why characters are doing certain things whereas it is common that the audience hasn’t looked for a why. The why can be integral to understanding the final message.
Then there is that issue itself – that the moral or main message usually comes at the end. Your one-line sum up about how great it is to be yourself is simply not as likely to stick as the lead-up where each character wants to be just like the other kids and we get a song about trying not to stand out. In providing the negative example to lead to your wonderful positive message about life, chances are you may be planting that negative as the key takeaway of your story.
And then there is the fact that, as covered here recently, kids often miss bits. They’re busy, busy little people and they may not get a key line required for that “aha!” moment.
So what do we do? Well the one place I disagree with that article is the idea that we can’t predict whether a message will stick. I think it’s more likely that people just don’t ask the question. If we accept that getting the point across is difficult, we can do many things to ensure the success of that message. Many are already covered on this blog already so here are just some key suggestions:
- Make sure the message is itself simple and easily illustrated.
- Ensure that your moral/message realisation is as big and exciting as any negative parts.
- Really take the time to celebrate that message.
- Have your message run through the entire story, not just the end. Make it a running theme.
- State any key message clearly without surrounding clutter. Leave no ambiguity.
- Find a way of asking the audience to pay attention. It’s a simple trick but it works.
Do these things and the chances of your core message sticking will increase dramatically. And at that part of the process, there is one great way to know whether it is working: try it out on children and talk to them about your story.
Last week, I was in Edinburgh to take part in a panel discussion on gamification, organised by IPA Scotland and Creative Edinburgh. Thanks so much to all involved for the invitation, the conversation and the hospitality. We had a very broad mix of interesting panellists all doing different things and each offering something unique. Being in children’s media with a background in television, I questioned initially just how close I actually am to gamification. But in reality, we use the principals in preschool media all the time and I could of course see that directly when I took some of those principals and applied them to Dino Dog, a digging game for children.
We offer rewards. We often do this as stories unfold but where you’ll see it much more blatantly is in our faux interactive television with our “can you find…?” and “you did it!” and then in apps, patting our audience on the back to keep them going or to nurture that word people love in preschool media: empowerment. Gamification isn’t a million miles away from the James Earl Jones effect, which I have written about here before.
But is it a good thing?
I think it can be a great way to engage children in good media and that is something that can be taken much further in interactive forms such as apps. We can use basic gamification to help children learn to read or count or learn about the world. So yes, it can be a very good thing when used well. But I wonder sometimes about the more long term effects, specifically how we create an expectation for reward or praise for very basic tasks. Isn’t reading its own reward? Isn’t learning to count awesome in itself?
And then what about later in life? There is a little moment of selfishness in my life that stayed with me. It’s not a pretty moment but I’m going to tell you about it right now. I made my first 40 episodes of Fluffy Gardens, my first show. I wrote it and directed and anyone in the business will know the workload that entails. We finally wrapped the series and I thanked each person involved because the show simply would never have been as good without them. It wouldn’t have happened without our producer. There were so many people to thank. And I remember in a quiet moment wondering: who thanks me?
At that point, I had to sit myself down and give myself a stern lecture about this being entirely the wrong question. When you hit a certain point in your career, you become the one who thanks others. And if you’re doing this to be thanked, to seek out that warm sense of validation, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Now at certain points people will come back to you and thank you (parents who can see what you’re giving their kids, for example) but you shouldn’t expect it. You should do it because it’s right and because it’s good and because you can make something that you can give to others.
If you have trained yourself in your life to expect that gamified reward, that achievement unlock sound, that warm thanks, that street parade thrown for you, then two things will happen for sure. One – you will be constantly disappointed in your life. Two – you will give up long before you have a chance to do something truly fantastic.
Life is not a well-structured progression of rewards like Link’s Awakening. And Dora won’t always be around to tell us we did it. Gamification can be a great tool to engage people but let’s just be careful about how much or how strongly we use it.
And now with this post written, I’ll get that completion buzz by crossing ‘write site post’ off my to-do list and then watch obsessively how many people share this post on Twitter or Facebook and feel good or bad depending on those numbers…
Young children, especially early preschoolers, don’t always retain the key pieces of information your stories depend on. No, it’s not because they don’t take in information. Quite the opposite. They soak up information like sponges. The challenge for them is the sheer amount of information they are taking in while their filters and memories are developing.
So when writing, directing or creating for preschool, you can’t take it for granted that the most important line of your script was not overwritten by a child hearing a bird outside and filing that away as what bird calls sound like. You can’t assume they weren’t in the halfway point in the changeover between watching upside down and watching with their face buried in a bag of popcorn when you showed your key visual. Even if they took in the information, it leaves too much to chance to hope that it wasn’t nudged out by them wondering why the car had four wheels in one scene but they could only see two in the next.
Children are always busy.
So if your story depends on key points (and most do), remind them. Have a recap. Have several recaps. It ensures the essential points are remembered. If they missed a point completely the first time around, it gives them a chance to pick it up. Don’t fear the repetition – young kids love repetition. Just recap. The now-classic Cbeebies show Ballamory uses this perfectly, offering well-timed recaps that fit into the flow of the episode so it’s well worth studying that show if you get a chance.
One more little reminder just for you: while we’re often trained in a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach in media, for preschool children it is important you tell.
So remember to remind. Your story will thank you for it.
In the first Friday the 13th, Jason kills Kevin Bacon’s character by sticking an arrow through his neck. In the second one, he manages to impale two people together on a bed, using a spear to make a sort of human kebab. In Jason X, he picks up one girl in a sleeping bag and uses her to beat another girl to death. It goes on with death after death. The Friday the 13th films are rated 18 (or R in the US) and, whatever about kids in their mid to late teens, I imagine we wouldn’t find too many people happy to show them to kids under 10. At the very least they could inspire some severe nightmares. Of course it is important to keep in mind that those scenes are designed to make you uncomfortable, to make you wince. These scenes usually aren’t thrown out there casually. They’re set pieces in horror movies. And we wouldn’t show them to young kids.
But what about other movies?
One of the movies I enjoyed the most in 2014 was Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s rated 12 but I was watching it again (3rd time) over the break and wondering what age I would show this to my girls. I mean, it’s a huge amount of fun and adventure, has lots of laughs and I actually think Daisy would love most of this. I’d love to watch it with her. Maybe even now at age 7 she’d be fine with it?
As I was wondering about this, Groot impales two enemies through the abdomen, picks them up and uses their dying bodies to beat other people to death. Kind of reminded me of a cross between the Friday the 13th double spear kill and the sleeping bag one. Then Groot gives us a big smile and on with the show. What struck me as odd is that I have seen the movie twice before and barely noticed the level of violence in that shot. Because, contrary to how it would have been handled in a Friday movie, it is thrown out there so casually and ends with a laugh. But it’s actually pretty horrific if you think about it and it’s hardly an isolated incident in the movie.
I suddenly had a flashback to Flash Gordon movie from 1980. A character (I won’t spoil it) dies by being impaled. The movie is a fun, silly adventure romp but I saw that as a kid and what stuck with me is that one character being impaled. It burned into my mind. And now I wonder if the grown-ups even noticed.
So this all left me with some thoughts…
Firstly, most movies have their rating for a reason. Guardians is 12 and I’ll likely wait until my girls are that age to show it to them. By the way, I like Common Sense Media as a handy guide for media I haven’t seen or movies I can barely remember.
Secondly, we have this desire to share things we like and it seems like it’s about the other person but I’m not convinced it is. I have to acknowledge that a big part of that is wanting to be that person who introduces them to it for the first time, who gets to watch their reaction and gets to be the guy who is loved for showing them something awesome.
Last, and most important, is this: too easily we forget how desensitised we get to violence or anything else over the years. Think of the most basic example of seeing young kids being truly amazed by going to a train station or something like that. The sense of wonder as they look around and take everything in. But to us everything just becomes normal and boring over the decades to the point where we don’t even notice. And so it is with violence. Kids are not as desensitised as we are. Nor should they be. They might be fine with a lot of what we show them and we think we know our own kids but it is impossible to predict just what will haunt them, what will shake them inside and stay with them. And they may never tell us.
I guess it all comes back to a recurring theme on this blog: we always have to remember that we aren’t kids any more. Those extra decades count.