Is your character lacking something? As long as the answer isn’t along the lines of ‘enough development’ then this is a GOOD thing! Characters who are too perfect make storytelling way harder than it needs to be. They have nowhere to go and nothing to learn.
Watching a character who has all the answers is like staring at someone following a strict set of clear instructions when it is much more fun to watch an artist create spontaneously. Why? Because it can go wrong. We have something to lose. There is room for surprises, the unexpected actions. A character needs that. A story needs it.
In young children’s media, we’re often pushed to make our characters nicer, smarter, better. We like them aspirational – kids should want to be like them. We like them to model good behaviour. I can assure you as a parent that there are good reasons for that. We (me included) often portray characters in young children’s media how we would like kids to be rather than how they are. Sometimes that’s okay to an extent but it can make a character deadly dull and make good stories very difficult to tell. Then there is also the issue of that question I like to ask: what does this say about a child’s life as it is right now?
I like aspirational characters. But children grow and, I feel, so should characters. And for that to happen, they must start with a need. With something lacking. Something that someone might perceive as a flaw (whether it is or not is up to your story) or something within them that actually works against them. I think we’ve all probably got some trait like that even if we’re slow to admit it.
So allow your character to lack something. To need something. Give them somewhere to go. And then, in your story, take them there.
When you’re in the midst of a production, or probably life in general, things come at you all the time. There is a never-ending stream of things to do. We might need to get something important done, like this little doodle illustrates below. Easy, right? We go over and we do it.
But in reality, all these other tasks pop up along the way. Looking a little like this…
And there can be a temptation to handle them like this…
This is not the way to do it. Why? Because tasks are like fractals. I’m showing those big tasks that pop up to get in the way of achieving your main goal. But if I went deeper and zoomed into that image, you would see a whole bunch more little tasks and, each time you go to tackle one, you’ll likely see more things that need doing. And your original goal gets further and further and further away. The person tackling things in this order is a very busy person but they aren’t always making the best use of their time.
The thing is, not all of these tasks are equal. They may all need doing but they don’t all need doing NOW. You have to focus. You have to prioritise and use your time as best you can. Instead of being busy, you have to be productive in a very clean way. You go for your core task and you do that knowing that, if it is truly important, other tasks will either depend on it or be made easier by its achievement.
So really how you should approach the task is like this…
Focus on your core task. Get it done. Then evaluate those other tasks, prioritising them, delegating what you can and even making a conscious decision to ignore some – not everything is crucial and some schedules simply don’t allow for every little thing to get done. Focus on what will count when the end product is delivered and do so in a very clear order of importance. Go straight to your main task. That’s how to get stuff done.
When you’re making a series, you have to think long term. Are you making 26 episodes? 52? Double that? Where are all those stories coming from?
When the stories come in, there is one consideration often missed: is this going to affect other stories? Does it blow an idea without making real use of it?
Sometimes small details can have an effect on a later story and we usually encounter these after it has happened. A writer might have a great story idea about the main character not wanting to eat vegetables and then coming to love them. Until you realise that the last four episodes showed that character munching into vegetables. You might plan an episode about the first experience on a skateboard only to remember that there was a skateboard scene in a montage in a previous episode. A story might have your character bitterly disappointed that the boating trip they have been looking forward to all year has been cancelled but kids know that your character goes boating every second episode and it is no big deal to wait for the next trip.
Stories affect other stories. So when stories come in, or you’re the one writing them, you have to consider the series as a whole and you’re better looking for these things in advance. It is important to ask yourself: does this rule out anything in a future episode or use up a great idea that could be a whole story in itself?
Sometimes that will be hard to spot. No reason generally to avoid a character eating vegetables, for example. So you just deal with that new story suggestion when it comes in. But you can definitely look for a story point that might be blowing an entire future episode. If you see a beach story coming in that has a brief throwaway surfing moment, for example, it would be worth considering saving that idea for a whole story around surfing. Or you might suggest an amendment – if the surfing moment has everyone surfing really well, maybe it would be an idea to restrict it to just a couple of characters so you can do a story later about how one of the other characters has trouble learning to surf. If you show everyone surfing well in one shot, you’re establishing a default that is hard to go back on.
When making a whole series, you need stories. You’re going to need lots of them. So keep a lookout for the needs of stories yet to come and avoid breaking them or blowing them too early. Your future self will thank you.
Ah, notes. We all love notes, right? I know the first reaction to notes is usually negative (that’s normal) but it’s important once we get past that to see how they can help and how best to tackle them. Different people give different notes. Some are consistently great and helpful and others might not always seem useful initially. You have to get to know the notes you’re dealing with and the person you are getting them from and so each project often requires a different approach when it comes to notes.
But here’s something that is useful no matter what kind of notes you’re getting: look beyond the notes themselves. Look for the intention behind the notes.
Almost every note has a problem to solve or a question to answer. But sometimes the problem listed in the notes is not actually the real problem. It might be a symptom of something else that has been missed or has become unclear. It might even be about something outside of the work that you’ve made so far – a request that has come in from someone else that is now being applied in the form of a note passed on to you. Sometimes acting on a note immediately as described can actually cause more problems than it solves if you don’t know the intention behind it.
This will be especially relevant if specific suggestions are given. When people give notes, I love when they give suggestions on how to fix things. Firstly, it shows they really want to contribute positively and, secondly, it gives a really great starting point for the fix. But it is just a starting point. The solution offered may not be the fix. And your reaction to it might be “that won’t work” and you might even be right. But look for the intention behind it. What is it trying to solve?
Look beyond the note itself and try to find the intention behind it and you’ll then understand what you need to achieve and, more often than not, the real solution will become clear.
And if you’re reading this and you’re someone who gives notes, here’s a tip: you can help people get to the best fix by making clear why something is a problem or why you’re asking for something. No matter what side of the notes you’re on, knowing the intention always helps.
Just a quick note this morning to let you know that, for the next month or more, I’ll be posting on Thursdays instead of Wednesdays due to a licensing dispute with the copyright holders of Wednesday (that part isn’t true). So there will be a new post here in the morning!
In the meantime, how about browsing through the archives? Or telling your children’s media friends about this little blog? Or just go for a walk and see if you can find some dogs to greet.
I read Seveneves by Neal Stephenson and it frustrated me. It has some wonderful sci-fi concepts and, sure, what Stephenson is doing seems to work for his audience. There is a very good chance, however, that it won’t work for yours, especially if you’re in children’s media. Here is how an average person might describe an office worker throwing some paper into a bin:
“Barry tossed the crumpled page into the bin.”
Here is how Stephenson might do it:
“Bins had been a regular feature in the office since the late 1970s, beginning first with little wicker constructions before moving to metal wire bins. Mary, a manager in the 1980s who subsequently left the company and so will never be mentioned in this story again, replaced them with plastic but didn’t line them with bags so they tended to get rather disgusting on the inside. Later, bags were placed in the bin. Barry (remember him?) threw his crumpled page. It could have landed to the side but didn’t. On another occasion, it might have hit the rim of the bin and bounced back, landing on the polished floor which had replaced the wooden floor that existed back when the company started. The wood had been supplied by a small company less than 40 miles away, but more than 20 and definitely more than 10 miles away. That company folded four years after the floor had been put down but the two events were unconnected…”
And so on.
Eventually we might come back to Barry and remember that he had thrown a piece of paper in the bin but not before we learn every system that led to that bin being there and throwing in some description of what had not, in fact, happened. Stephenson writes sci-fi and I can see how detail is important there. I don’t always need to know it, certainly not at the expense of characters, but it’s important.
For kids (and I think almost everyone else), focus is crucial. Simplicity is key. It is what will get you into the character stuff, the action. We like to follow characters doing things – that’s how simple it is. So if you want to describe an event and you’re NOT Neal Stephenson, here is what I would advise: write like an average person. Just say what happened as simply as you can. If you want to show Barry throwing a balled-up piece of paper into a bin, write: “Barry tossed the crumpled page into the bin.”
Anything more puts up a barrier between the reader/viewer and the story. And in children’s media, that barrier will cause you to lose your audience.
Production has to keep moving. That’s how it works. Scripts lead to boards which lead to animatics which lead to everything else. Every element in a production depends on the previous elements. And so a single jam in the system can cause no end of delays and put everyone in a situation in which they have no idea when there might actually be a show.
That’s why we have schedules. That’s why we have deadlines.
One of the hardest things new people coming into animation from college have to face is the pace of a fast moving production. Meeting deadlines is hard. And so, so crucial. If you’re new, meet your deadlines!
But it may not surprise everyone to know that this advice has to be given to people at all ends of the business and at all ranges of experience. Those of us in the midst of production, running shows and delivering shows must keep moving. That’s how it works. It is an age-old analogy but it applies: in each part of production, the train is leaving and you just have to get on.
I learned this very early on as a director. I have worked on many parts of production and I think the director has more decisions to make every day than anyone else. Every minute involves a decision that will affect the show. Many small, some huge. And you just have to make the decision. Hold something up and it will bite you in the rear end. Hold it up for long and it may bite so hard you might never quite recover. Production has to (say it with me)… keep moving.
So yes, this is advice to new people but it’s also a reminder to every other person involved in productions at all ends. The train is leaving the station. So get on!
We can get into habits in life. We can certainly get into habits as writers and storytellers and there hits a point where that bites us in the backside because it makes our stories incredibly predictable.
Eastenders used to be on in my house when I was younger. I must admit I haven’t seen it in years but, back that, that show was MISERABLE. It was basically just a grey account of things going wrong for people. And yet on rare occasions, something would go right for someone. Many things would go right for that person. Often in a Christmas episode or some event. All their problems would be solved at once. Isn’t that nice?
No, because by the end of that episode, that person would be dead or in prison or beaten up or whatever. It was a very obvious story flag. Things go right for someone, that person is about to have a horrible end. It makes sense from a story point of view – set up a huge crash and get the impact from that by preceding it with a big high. Give them further to fall. I can rationalise it as a writer.
But it became far too predictable. Even years before I was a ever a writer, I was seeing not the characters, but the writing happening in front of me. I was seeing formula. And that sucks all drama and all connection and all meaning from the events.
Therein lies the danger of formula, of being certain you know how stories should be told. Sometimes knowing how a story should be told is the very reason to tell it a different way. Because if you know it, if it has been identified to the point where it is all over books and has been for decades, maybe the audience sees it too. You can learn from books and structure and from other stories and other writers and you absolutely should… but watch out for formula. It will do your stories a disservice.
Telling a story is mostly about cause and effect. Something happens at the start of your story to trigger a change of action in the main character. A cause followed by an effect. From that point, you generally want each subsequent cause to be the actions and decisions of the main character and the effects to become the highs and lows of the story. Even the highs must bring more challenges to your character until the very end, where the cause is that final action which brings together everything the main character has learned or realised and the effect is total victory (or failure, if you’re going downbeat).
In each story beat, the cause and effect must be absolutely clear.
I recently play Obduction from the makers of Myst. A beautiful game with an incredible atmosphere and some great puzzles too. Puzzles, like stories, depend on cause and effect. You try something and watch for the effect. It’s like science. Each time you fail, you watch the effect and see if you can figure out what you can change to get you to a positive outcome.
Cause and effect in Obduction was not always clear. One part jumped out at me and got me thinking about story. There was a box with numbers and lights and characters on it. I played around with it and lit more lights but I didn’t know what the goal was. Later, I revisited the area and found that the box was somewhere else and was on its side. Why? I don’t know. At this point, I had a code and I was pretty sure I could input it on the box so I did. When I did, the box fell to a lower level. Why? I don’t know. Down at the lower level, I played with it but couldn’t seem to get it to do anything.
I couldn’t reconcile the cause and effect. Why had it moved in the first place? Why did it fall when I put in the code? What did that achieve? Once I had finished the game, I looked it up and it turns out that the answer is that it didn’t do anything for me. There was a lack of cause and effect in a game based around puzzles, which depend on a clarity in cause and effect. As it happens, the other area I felt the game fell down on was in the story resolution which was lacking clarity. That too was lacking a sense of cause and effect. It was at this point I felt that game devs could really do with a pass from a linear form script editor.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s a lovely game and you should give it a go, especially if you enjoyed any of the Myst games. But it helps illustrate an important story point.
When something happens in a story, especially when it’s an unexpected plot turn or twist, you have to have a clear sense of the cause and effect. This is how you give your plot weight. It’s not satisfying when a random element is thrown into your story or if the audience doesn’t understand why a particular thing happened. But if suddenly something strikes that makes life much harder for your main character and, as it does, the audience realises that this was a direct result of a choice the main character made, thinking it would make their life easier, then that has impact. That comes with a punch. That’s how you build the highs and the lows. Main character has a problem. They take action (cause) thinking they will get themselves out of that problem (Yay! A HIGH!) but then it makes their life SO MUCH WORSE (LOOOOOOW!).
That’s exciting. For it to work, the cause and the effect and how they are locked in to one another must be crystal clear.
One of the places you can fall down in your pitch is in the information dump. Too much information, to the point where it feels overwhelming or boring or just plain too long. More often than not, the more information you give the less clarity you’re offering. Same with show pitch bibles, which I’ve covered here before.
Short, simple, clear and to the point.
However, that does not mean that you don’t have to know all that other stuff. When you’re sitting in front of someone telling them about your concept, you need to know everything that you can. You need to be armed with the information. You need to be able to answer all the questions (again, in a short, clear way) and provide the extra information that you don’t cover in your distilled quick pitch, and you need to be able to do it in an enthusiastic way. You must know your concept inside and out.
And here’s the thing – if you do know your show and it’s a concept that is clear and developed and refined, even if you barely have to answer a single question on it, that knowledge will come through in your confidence and the language you use. One of the best ‘nailed it’ moments was after a presentation I gave when a major broadcaster told me that it was clear that we really know our show and our characters. That counts for a lot with anyone who will take an interest in your show because it’s like a safety net. They know you have a clear vision and you’ve really done the work.
So do the work. Know your show. Know every part of it. Don’t dump it out on to the table in your pitch. Keep it there so you have more to talk about when asked. But know it.