Many years ago I asked an author friend about his approach to writing. His advice: make each chapter better than the last. He makes it sound so simple!
As it happens, it is the perfect advice. If you consider a whole novel and the amount of content in that, it could soon be overwhelming. Keeping track of narrative over 85,000 words? Eighty-five THOUSAND? That’s a challenge. Character development, plot points, little seeds planted that you want to pick up later across something of that size is very daunting. And if someone suggests a pretty big change smack bang in the middle of all that and it’s a really good suggestion? You could have a domino chain of fixes running the entire way through that in both directions. That is a terrifying prospect for the human mind.
And that is why many of us will start a book and never ever finish it.
But breaking it down chapter by chapter and focussing on the chapter at hand? That’s manageable. Approaching each one with the aim of making that chapter entertaining all by itself? Sure, we can do that. Giving each chapter a little conclusion, whether a high or a low? Yep, that sounds good. Very soon, you build chapters that have their own twists and turns and if you keep that up you could soon have a book.
So much of what I have written in my career have been short episodes. 7 minutes mostly, some 13 minutes. While telling a story in that space of time is a challenge all of its own, the huge benefit is that there isn’t all that much to keep track of. There is a limit to the fallout that can happen when you change something. You can try things and, if they don’t work, you can try something else. No problem.
This month, I delivered a children’s feature script that is due to shoot next month. I’m currently on another one. While not quite a novel, that feeling of moving from a 7 minute episode to an 80 minute movie sent me into a little bit of a panic at first. Not just making it fun but doing so with movie structure stuff and acts and what have you. And if something doesn’t work and I have to pull it apart, that’s a lot more pages to deal with.
So I started to think of it like chapters in a book. And I made my aim to make each chapter better than the last. Yes, it is one overall story just like a novel is. But approaching it in smaller chunks made it manageable and I could keep track of everything much easier. As I aimed for highs and lows within those chapters and tried to end with something that would have the reader desperately want to start the next chapter, I soon found what I had was a story that worked.
All I had to do was actually write it.
As it turned out, that was simply a case of writing all the fun parts first and then filling in the gaps. If there are very few gaps to fill, that is a sign you could have something good.
Every character in a show or individual episode must have a purpose. They have to be there for a reason and they should offer something that no other main character can.
They should contribute in a way that furthers the story somehow, filling a role: mentor, ally etc. Or in a way that can complement or oppose in personality to enhance the group dynamic. Preferably both.
If you are ever in any doubt about just what that character is doing there, remove them. Better to have too few characters than too many.
Character descriptions are incredibly important in nailing down just what kind of person each character is. They should tell us how we will relate to that character. They should let us know why we might care about that character. And they should make clear why each character is different and has earned their role in a show or film. Often, character descriptions can bloat with back story, complex explanations of relationships with each and every other character and lots of tiny details.
Sometimes that stuff is useful. It might spark a story.
More often than not, however, it gets in the way. One thing I do when I am writing is to create my own little reminders of the core character traits at the top of my document or script. So a character description in a show bible might be a few paragraphs but, for me, it would become something like: Very young. Wants to be liked. Things must be fair.
Three sentences. And not even full sentences. Sometimes it might just be one word. If one of those sentences is simply ‘ordered’ that tells me a lot about how that character will react in situations.
What I have found over the years is that the characters that work best are the ones that can be narrowed down to three sentences easiest. If it’s a struggle to find the core traits that sum up that character or if they require lots of ‘ands’ and ‘buts’, it can be an indicator that the character isn’t quite nailed down yet. Or if you find two characters come down to the same basic traits, that too can be an indicator of a problem. So the three sentences can be a good test of how a character is working.
But does such simplicity do a character a disservice? Surely we can’t all be reduced to three sentences? We are more complicated than that, yes? We are, of course. But you still need that clarity to begin with. And you will find that three sentences per character applied to a whole range of situations will still result in a huge amount of variations in action and reactions. Because the aim then is to write them as living beings, not just robots carrying out their three traits like that’s all they are capable of. For example, we won’t write down ‘hungry’ as one of our traits unless constant hunger is a defining quality. And yet our characters will still get hungry. But how they deal with that will change depending on their three main sentences.
So give it a try – reduce your characters to three core sentences and see what you end up with.
I tweeted about this a couple of days ago and then thought it worthy of a post in case it helps anyone. Back almost ten years ago I had to come up with 40 characters and 40 stories to go with them for Fluffy Gardens. It was an evolving world and I didn’t yet know everything about it. What I did know is that I had to write these stories while also directing the show. I didn’t have time to mess about. Some stories came very easily. Others didn’t.
I needed inspiration for those tougher stories. So I created a cheat sheet.
In a simple document, I wrote lists. Everyday events in a child’s life, including mealtimes, washing up, going shopping and so on. Special events, including parties, going to the doctor, a trip to the zoo and things like that. It contains a list of locations: library, shoe shop, waterfall etc. A list of things: crayons, lederhosen, tuba etc. And (very important) a list of character traits: generous, analytical, boisterous etc.
Many of these are broken into smaller parts. For example, here is the listing for Concert:
Concert Dressing up. Getting tickets. Going to see a live performance. Listening to music. Orchestra. Band. Noisy. Getting restless. Loving the music. Singing along. Trying to play the songs afterwards.
Whenever I got stuck for a story, or I had a part of one but I wasn’t sure what to do with it, I would spend some time browsing the list. I would almost never find a ready-made story on it but it would inspire thoughts, scenes, ideas and ‘what if’ scenarios. Before long, a few words on that page would lead me off somewhere else and I would find what I had was a story. An actual story.
I have updated this list a few times over the years but the guts of it have remained the same. And it has remained just as useful since I wrote it all those years ago. So if you ever find yourself stuck for a story, consider making lists and creating your own cheat sheet.
Anyone who likes sci-fi will be familiar with council scenes. In these scenes, we take a well-earned break from the interesting stuff to watch a group of stuffy old people spout exposition and debate ethics while sitting or standing very still. The Phantom Menace had them. A bunch of Star Treks had them. Those Matrix sequels probably had them, I can’t quite remember. Jim from Neighbours has made a career out of them.
But they’re boring.
They are really, really, really boring.
They are so easy to spot in sci-fi but, once you develop a distaste for them, you’ll start to see them everywhere. It could characters spouting exposition and debating in a kitchen. Or a sitting room. Or somewhere else. The main hallmarks are that the characters aren’t going anywhere, don’t have much actual purpose other than to fill in story gaps, the scenes are about as static as can be without being labelled a photograph and often the characters involved don’t even have a role in the rest of the story. Boring, boring, boring.
And you know what? I just spotted one beginning to form in a thing I’m writing. Not a total council scene but close enough. I feel shame and alarm and I have cut the scene completely but I have no excuse for it.
I won’t let this travesty pass without some good coming from it. So now I use my now-deleted half-written scene of boringness as a lesson: avoid the council scenes. Just get rid of them. Look out for them and cut them. They’re boring. They’re boring for everyone but especially in kids’ media. Even your quirky designs won’t prevent the energy grinding to a halt when they happen. So just don’t let them happen. Say NO to council scenes.