Research is taken as a given in some types of stories. We wouldn’t write a novel about life in 15th century France without doing some reading into what life was like in 15th century France. We wouldn’t write a sci-fi story about the ISS without finding out what it looks like and what astronauts actually do up there. We wouldn’t write a show about lawyers without doing some research on the law and how that works, right?
Except that some people try exactly that. They see law shows on television and so assume that they know all they need to know to write a story about lawyers. It’s not really a true understanding, will likely lead to mistakes and lawyers who actually live that life will rightly tear your work to shreds when you make those mistakes. You’ve got to do your homework and look up the information.
Children’s media is different though. Especially in preschool. Stories can be about going to the supermarket and we all know what going to a supermarket is like. Or a story might be based around getting on a train. We know how trains work. They might just be about falling out with friends and that’s pretty easy because there isn’t even a picture we’d have to google for that one.
NO! This is wrong! Because what you know is what it is like to experience those things as an adult. The life of a child is VERY different. They will see things you don’t. What is mundane for you to the point where you don’t notice things is still new and exciting to children. How they react to their world and each other will be very different to you.
It can be incredibly beneficial to look stuff up that you take for granted. Firstly, knowing about kids is crucial. Those ‘Secret Life of 4 (and 5) Year Olds’ and similar shows are fantastic for getting a glimpse into how they interact. If you haven’t watched any, do so. But also look up what people are telling children about the mundane things you think you know everything about. What are educators telling kids about supermarkets? What things to their early reading books point out? A lot of these will have been refined over years with research and they might suggest something you never thought of. Look it up and see what you can find out.
And when you can, ask children. No matter how good you are at this, sometimes their answers are going to surprise you. They are the real experts in their own lives.
If you’re making content for children, one of the most basic requirements is that you know children. You have to know your audience. If you’re creating, writing, directing, animating child characters, you have to know what children are like at that age.
Kids and adults are not the same thing. Approach your audience like adults and you’ll get it wrong. Approach your characters like adults and, yep, you’ll get it wrong.
And be aware that children of different ages vary hugely. Sure, a 36 year old might be pretty much the same as a 39 year old. A 3 year old child is like an entirely different being to a 6 year old. They are not the same thing.
There are far too many things to cover in one post (and I shouldn’t – reading bullet points is not the same as knowing what kids are like) but you have to remember that young kids are SMALL. They are curious. They are explorers. They learn fast and soak up information. They often think in absolutes, not grey areas. They don’t do subtlety. They get REALLY excited about things. More excited than you ever get and often about things that you find utterly mundane. And they can go straight to REALLY upset in an instant. They can switch emotions with no transition. They are animated, expressive and, when young, usually have very few reservations or social barriers. They have challenges you never face. And they don’t let it hold them back. The smaller ones have to climb just to get up on a chair. You can be sure they’ll climb up on to the kitchen counter to get a glass. They have achievements every single day, often several a day. That means tying their laces or something else you take for granted. They will eat sweets until they are sick and then do it again the next day. They probably don’t care in the slightest about the pretty scenery out the window. They could well be picking their nose and eating it at this very moment. And they can do exactly what an adult just told them not to do and it doesn’t make them bad kids.
And most of all: they are all different.
But the one thing they aren’t is adult. You’ve got to know what kids are like. It’s so important.
Ever skip a paragraph in a book? Sure you have. Don’t deny it! Ever drift off in a movie? Start thinking about work or what you’re going to have to eat afterwards? Yep. I know you’ve done that. Kids do it too. Some people have this image of children locked to a screen like zombies but, actually, they usually get pretty busy when they watch TV or a movie. They move around a lot. Their attention might not go to you when you’re calling them for dinner but they might see a bird outside or see if they can put their toes in their mouth or whatever.
And the reality is that it’s not always as easy to engage a child meaningfully as some seem to think.
So think about when you drift off in media. There are many factors but there is one common problem I see crop up a lot and it also happens to be in a bunch of scripts that have passed by me in children’s media over the years: you’re just not getting to the story part.
We can call it a lot of different things and it ties into character agency but, really, it’s that simple. You have got to get to the story part. What is the story about? What’s the problem to solve or the challenge to overcome? Don’t get to it in the last 10% of your story. Get there as quick as you possibly can and let it drive every beat of that story. Is it happening too late? CUT ALL THE EARLIER STUFF! Just cut it. Get to the story. Can you do it on the first page? Give it a shot.
A lot of what we tend to write is fluff around the story that helps us as writers find that story and that depth and that world. But it’s not all story. Some of it is just help for us, part of our process. Like scaffolding around a building – you take the scaffolding off at the end so people can just go straight into the building. Get kids straight into your story. Remove the fluff. Get to the story parts.
Always imagine someone shouting in your ear as you edit and write those later drafts: “JUST GET TO THE STORY PARTS!”
I like my preschool funny and happy and silly and then maybe even more funny. Bright skies, big smiles, warm hugs. Kids are full of love and the world can be a wonderful place. Why would we have anything else?
But I remember years ago when my eldest was little, my motorbike was stolen. And she couldn’t understand why someone would do that. She had no frame of reference for that. The day it happened was the first day I talked to her about a specific TV character in a more serious way: Swiper the Fox. Yep, Swiper from Dora who steals things. At that moment, Dora the Explorer went from being a shouty show with Spanish words to a very useful parenting tool.
There have been some dark world events recently that can be difficult for kids who know about them and we’ve had one rather gruesome local event that had me struggling to talk to my kids about it, even now at the older ages they are. I have found myself wondering: what tools might have helped? What metaphors or characters or narratives might help guide a conversation? We have to be careful because a lot of events will completely pass young children by so no need to hit them with the hard stuff on television. But that doesn’t mean we ignore reality or shy away from prompting thought or discussion. Some of the best television for children challenges their audience. And when kids learn so fast, it seems like a good time to do it.
It’s not easy and you have to be careful but it’s something to consider. I guess it comes down to a question I find good to ask when making anything: how can I help? So maybe give that some thought when you’re creating.
As people who know me are familiar with, one of my mantras is: be good to the parents. If your show can be not just entertainment but actually useful at some point, you’re doing some real good and also generating goodwill that will come back to you. I guess hopefully taking all of us, children and adults alike, one step closer to that world of bright skies, big smiles and warm hugs.
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?
When you make children’s media of any sort, you become a part of a child’s life. What you create, what you are a part of, has access to them. It’s like walking into their houses and getting to sit them down for 7 minutes or 11 minutes or a few hours and just tell them stuff. If you’re a parent, how would you feel about someone you don’t know doing that? What would you want from them? What would you expect from them?
It is a huge responsibility. You must always remember who your audience is and understand that responsibility.
There are many reasons to make children’s media but, no matter what other reasons you have, giving something really good to kids should be VERY high up on that list. It is, right? Right? I’m sure you do want what’s best for kids – chances are you wouldn’t be at my blog if you didn’t because it’s a recurring theme here. But it’s no harm to have a reminder of why you’re really doing what you do.
And then, once you remember that, your career often comes down to questions: what good can I do for kids?
What can I create that might make their lives a little better right now? Or (and for me, this is often the more important question) what can I create that might make their lives and the lives of others better as they grow older? Where can I help? Where can I contribute? How can I be a positive force in their lives? And how can I do it in a way that works with parents, rather than trampling over that role?
What’s odd about that is that it really puts us in the role of assistant. It’s just ‘how can I help?’ Odd because, as we create, we become part of forming worlds, creating entire characters and little lives. We decide where they go and why. Or we manage teams to create whole shows. We get this feeling of being able to mould everything, to be in charge of everything, to decide who does what and why. And we can do all that. But ultimately we’re doing it to be an assistant. An assistant to parents, to society and, especially, to children themselves.
How can I help?
So I guess if you consider the responsibility of your content coming into a child’s life as if we’re walking into homes ourselves, maybe the best thing we can do is to stop talking for a moment and ask the parents and the children: how can I help?
Here’s a question to consider when coming up with your concept or story or even scene. It’s a simple question that isn’t always easy to answer. If the answer doesn’t come easily, that doesn’t mean you have a problem necessarily but it’s certainly something to consider because, when your story offers a clear answer to this question, it can really help engage your young audience.
Here it is: what does this say about the life of my audience?
Now many of us in the younger end of children’s entertainment, me included, often think about what we would like it to say to our audience. We think about the message and I think that’s important too. But that won’t answer this question. This question is about what your content says about the life of your viewer as it is right now.
What will they relate to? What will they see of themselves in your story? How does it reflect their life? And how might it make them feel about their life?
When you have your answer, challenge it. Is it saying more about your perception of a child’s life than about the reality? Will children themselves see what you see in it? Or is it just that you’d like to say these things to children, in which case we’re back to it being a message to kids. Be honest and challenge the relevance of your story. This will help you make it better. If your story connects directly to children and allows them to see their own life in it, it gives them something they can truly feel a part of. Something they feel a bond with. Something that is uniquely for them.
There are lots of ways to entertain, lots of ways to engage. Making stuff for kids, we tend to go the positive route. I like that. Sure, we can challenge children and present them with new ideas and get them thinking and I think that’s exactly what we should be doing. But when we do this right, we tend to wrap all that up in fun, laughter and a strong dose of heart.
But when we’re coming up with stories, it can be hard to know how to focus ourselves to achieve that or how to really pin down just what it is we’re doing. When we talk about story, we often split it into two completely different categories. One is a very structured, recipe-like approach, which is helpful but, if that’s all you’ve got, you’ll be leaving your audience cold. The other is where we get into flowery language and often what feels like very intangible stuff. Make it more dynamic. Capture the soul of the character. This is good but can you make it more reflective with a hint of longing and yet all wrapped up in joy?
What is it we really want?!
Well, here is one simple aim that I think can totally change how you think about your story: make your audience feel good. Make them feel good about themselves. Make them feel good about being part of the experience you’re giving them. Leave them feeling better than they did before they experienced your story.
It’s such a simple thing and it can lead to many different solutions and, really, you have probably been aiming for it anyway but actually exploring your story with this goal clearly in mind can have you looking at it in a whole different way. Does it make them feel good? Does it make them feel good about themselves? This is important for adults because it’s part of why we recommend shows or music or whatever. We feel good about being part of it. It’s much more than “you might like this”. It’s “I’m awesome because I found this for you and I’m now part of it”.
For kids, young kids, they don’t share the same way adults do but the same feeling applies in different ways. It can be “this made me feel good and I want more of it”. And really, that’s a very basic thing in entertainment and it’s odd how we don’t always think of aiming for that. We get so wrapped up in telling stories that we forget to think about what it’s like to hear them, to experience them. That’s audience awareness.
So when you’re having a hard time pinning down the intangible stuff, ask yourself this: what can I do in my story that will make my audience feel good?
Over the years, I have spent a long time trawling through whatever research I could find. Mainly so that I would be informed when I create, so that I might learn from those who have gone before and in the hope that I mind find the odd little gem or two (I did).
One quote that stayed with me is from T. Berry Brazelton, a member of the AAP Committee on Public Information. Following studies into children and media in the early ’70s, he wrote that “a child comes away from a television set believing that physical violence is a perfectly acceptable form of self-expression”. He wasn’t damning television, instead calling it a “valuable experience” but he recognised that television, like anything else around us, contributes to our world view.
I thought about that a lot, and not just about violence. Through stories (because I don’t believe this is limited to television), we can show children many ways of self-expression. In a sense, showing them: here is how you can be that person that you are, how you might present yourself to the world. And I thought, variety. Every child is different. We can show the best of everyone if we choose but not always in the same way, recognising that we’re all different and what feels right for one child might not feel right for another.
In our characters, we can embody different feelings, desires, fears and joys and we acknowledge those as real things, giving them the weight they deserve. And through the actions of those characters, we can show the many forms of self-expression. We can choose to make it a positive thing and show children that, yes, there is a place in the world for them. We might do this in an aspirational way, hoping for a better world, but I feel it is also done best while acknowledging the realities of who we all are right now.
For me, this gives us the best of preschool entertainment. But perhaps not just that. Maybe this has a place across all our entertainment.
We can deconstruct a script, point out the plot holes, wonder if the structure is really hitting the beats in the right place, explore the character dynamics, question the motivations, tut-tut at the typos, throw out the designs, play with the composition, alter the pacing, pull out the examples of what worked and what didn’t and suggest changes throughout hoping those examples apply in this case (they often don’t) and we can, bit by bit, torture over every element, large or small, in what we’re making. And we should. All those elements will help you as part of the process.
BUT the proof is in the reactions of your audience. The smiles, the laughter, the gasps, the cheers and the tears. When everything is finished, that is what counts.
At the weekend, I was at the premiere of the live-action children’s feature GRÅTASS GIR GASS in Stavanger, Norway. I wrote other films in the series but I didn’t write this one so I had a little more objectivity while watching the audience, taking in what hit and what really grabbed the children. The kids had been playing around the Gråtassland theme park all day and so I wondered if the energy would really be there. It was. And towards the end, there was (SPOILER) a chase sequence that revealed one of those crucial audience feedback moments we look for. The loud laughter and cheering from the kids was all the proof anyone would need on whether this movie hit or not.
They were invested. They were entertained. And yes, they laughed. The proof was in the laughter.
I’m sure many of you have seen articles attempting to knock Frozen through theory – how the villain comes out of nowhere, why story parts don’t work as they should and so on. All it takes is going to just ONE screening of that movie with a cinema full of kids to understand why that movie is a hit.
Sure, by all means question the details and try to learn from them. All those elements at the top of this post are important. But never lose sight of the fact that it is the audience reaction that counts. Arguing theory to a room full of cheering kids is a total, utter waste of your time. Listen to your audience. Learn from them. Know your audience and learn how to entertain them. That is paradoxically much more simple and far more complex than what you’ll generally read in a book about writing.
Listen to the laughter and aim to entertain.
Gråtass Gir Gass opens across Norway this Friday the 9th of September. If you’re there, bring your kids and listen for that laughter. Well done to all involved!