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.