What’s your story about? No, not ‘what happens in your story?’ or ‘what does your character do?’. What is the story actually about? In children’s media, we often stick to very simple themes. This is great for story. So when asked this question, the answer might be: it’s about the value of teamwork. Yes, that’s a really obvious one but it’s a pretty good example.
It might be: it’s about why it’s okay to feel shy sometimes. It might be more practical: it’s about how to count to ten. As your stories go up in age group, you might go deeper: it’s about the safety that comes with a mother’s unconditional love.
Those aren’t the events that happen in the story. Those aren’t the characters. But what your episode is about should be seen through the characters and in every event in your story. Every single one of them. Depending on the form and length of your story, it might be that every element reinforces what the story is about or it might be that the events directly challenge what the story is about and then you prove it at the end of your story. As we get into longer form, that’s what we tend to do. It becomes like an argument in a way, told through story. In order to make the case for what your story is about, you push that alternative viewpoint in order to create a challenge. A challenge for your characters and for your story.
One very common problem I see in stories time and time again is that, somewhere along the line, the writer forgot what the story is about. Or never fully decided on it in the first place – I’ve been here, because sometimes the answer to that question changes. So when we get to the end of the story, what happens actually doesn’t back up or say anything about what that story was about. This will make the story feel much less satisfying.
So make sure you know what your story is about. If you have a clear vision for what that is, make that your goal. If you don’t yet, that’s okay but take a stab at it. Put something down on a post-it or the top of your document – just very briefly what that story is about. Never lose sight of that. If you find that your story takes you in another direction (that’s okay), then change those words. And then at some point, go through your story again and make sure that it all now says something about those new words.
What your story is about should be seen throughout, from the very start all the way to the end. It won’t always be in the audience’s face, but it should be ever-present. And you get to the end, you wrap that up and make it feel complete.
Some of us give feedback regularly as part of our jobs. I’ve done this as a director and, more recently, a script editor and I also consult on projects quite regularly and much of that involves highlighting problems or flaws in a concept.
Or, as I prefer to think of it, identifying the areas where we can make that project even stronger and build on the best ideas contained within it.
I’m effectively saying the same thing there but one comes with a positivity that the other doesn’t have. Because I have also been on the other side of feedback, I can tell you with certainty that the positivity matters. When you’re reviewing somebody’s scene, when you’re reading through their script or trying to break down their concept, you’ve been given a piece of work that comes from within that person. It’s personal. It is as personal as it gets.
Feedback needs to be useful and constructive. It needs to be honest but there is a very fine line between honesty and cruelty and I actually haven’t seen an instance in my entire career where that cruelty is warranted, as much as some people might think it’s fine on X-Factor or whatever. Honest feedback can be delivered positively and sensitively. It’s not really about sugar coating or just saying nice things for the sake of it. It’s actually about seeing those good things, which is just as important to the process as seeing problems or negatives. If you don’t have a good sense of the strengths, how can you make it even stronger?
So look for the strengths. That will help guide your feedback and, more than that, it will allow you to deliver that feedback in a positive way. Because as much as you may think it’s just your job or it’s business or whatever, when you are in a creative field and looking at works from creative people, it IS personal.
In children’s media, I like my characters to be simple and easy to grasp. It offers clarity in storytelling, it lets the kids know the characters quickly and it means things don’t get messy. But simple and clear doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a spark or depth beneath that clarity – that’s where genuine humanity comes into play. We all act differently under different circumstances, especially when under stress.
A very simple story example of this is in Indiana Jones. He’s brave and that’s a defining, clear trait. We know where we’re at with Indy’s bravery. But present him with some snakes and that changes. He acts differently. He’s not acting out of character because this is an established part of who he is – Indy is frightened of very little but he is scared of snakes.
This is a fantastic storytelling tool because it allows a writer to put Indiana Jones in a panic situation, something that would be very rare for him as a character.
Secondary traits and exceptions to the core traits are really important for this reason. One-note characters are nicely clear but can be deadly boring. On the other side of that, a character who isn’t pinned down and has no consistency will be a character we can never truly know or understand. But a clear, simple character with a set of exceptions allows an audience to quickly get on their side while also providing the storyteller with some tools to mix things up – to make the character uncomfortable and, at some points, even unpredictable.
In a way, this is really about knowing the limits of your character and how that works in their everyday life. They might be a generous character… until it comes to sharing a dessert. They might be a grumpy character… until presented with a puppy. They might be an energetic character… until they have bad night’s sleep. There is always an exception somewhere when it comes to people and how we act.
So use that. Use those exceptions. Do it clearly – know who your base character is and know why you’re going to change how they act and then make that clear to your audience. Don’t let them get muddled or feel like they are acting out of character. But use the exceptions to mix up your stories and add some twists and turns in there. Because acting differently under different circumstances is the human thing to do.
One thing I find about scripts is that, the longer they get, the harder it is to see the story. All the words get in the way. Descriptions, characters, dialogue, the little formatting quirks – they are all part of telling your story and yet, as you work, each one can be a hindrance when it comes to really seeing the story. Your nice location may prevent you from seeing the pacing problem. Your witty dialogue may obscure the basic character flaws. And when you get up to a certain number of pages, you can forget about seeing the whole story – you’re now into little bits of story. That’s all you can manage at a time.
So I find it crucial to have a distilled version of the story. We writers often work with story beats and I think that’s a great idea. Having a list of your beats, whether on cards, post-its or just in a document or notebook is a really good way of keeping track of the larger story. And yet at certain points in the process, I like to get even more distance from the details.
Instead of looking at beats, I start to lump them together and I write down the basic sections. In a movie script, there might just be around 8 or so but it varies depending on the needs of the movie. Do what you can to create a grouping. The early part is usually easy – that’s the Setup. So you can have Part 1, Setup and a one-line description of what happens. Then whatever event happens that kicks off your story might be Part 2. In the actual story, it will be ‘this happens, then this happens, and this other thing happens’ but the idea here is that, if they can possibly combine into a section, combine them and tell it in one line.
So when you have a line for each section and you’ve given each a heading and a space between each section, you should be able to see your entire story in less than half an A4 page. And I can assure you that, doing that, you will see things about your story that you would have been very difficult to spot just reading the script but also you’ll even see things that might have eluded you working with just the beats. Getting it down to a smaller and smaller form is like creating more and more distance between you and the story (yes, these are small, those cows are far away – it’s kind of like that).
Because all those words get in the way. They’re important, of course. Those will be your finished product. But you need to get them out of the way to really see your story.
There is another important reason to ask this question. It is this: your content can have a negative impact too. Wait, but it’s just a cartoon! It has characters being nice to each other! It teaches about family values! Okay but are you absolutely certain that, when a child applies the events in your content to their lives, they’ll take away the positive messages and not some other message?
Content counts. It can count in a positive way and it can count in a negative way.
If your content says something about the lives of the audience without you having planned that, kids can come away with a negative message. An example… your characters are magical elves who transform depending on their mood (great idea, right?). The evil elf is hideous and deformed and terrorises the good elves. We don’t want a message of violence so, instead, in our story this elf learns to be good and transforms into a beautiful creature. So a lovely message that our true worth comes from our actions… OR… if someone calls you ugly or rejects you, it is YOUR fault because YOU are a bad person.
Damaging message. Kids aren’t elves so, if you transplant the story to the life of a child (what does it say about their lives?), things get kind of nasty.
Messages are important. And they are there in every story you write or make, whether you intended it or not. For kids, everything is educational. So you really have to look at your story in every way possible and see how it could be reinterpreted when applied directly to your audience by your audience.
Take care with what you are saying to children. Always ask: what does this really say about their lives?