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 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.
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.
Even a plotter like me can find that the story we begin is not the story we finish. Stories wander. Characters take other directions. Some minor characters take over. The theme drifts as we find we don’t deliver on what we set up at all and yet we’re paying off some whole other idea.
None of this is a bad thing. This is all part of the story process and, actually, I find it is usually a very good thing. It means the story is taking on a life of its own. Whether it’s you as a writer or you have a writer working on it, there are new inspirations and ideas at work. All this will help the story fresh and exciting.
But at a certain point, the story has to be unified. You can’t let it stay one story at the beginning and another at the end. This is for many reasons but possibly the most important of all is that, for an ending to satisfy, the entire story needs to have been going there from the beginning, whether the audience realises it consciously or not.
So you have to go back and see your story parts for what they are. You have to look at your themes, how your characters are working. And then you have some serious decisions to make – is the story you’re telling at the end better than the one you started with? If so, you go back and replot that beginning, always keeping in mind where it now has to go. If not, you need to keep the opening stuff that you love and keep your story on track as you get to a new ending that really delivers. Or you may end up with somewhere in between (although mixing two good ideas does not always lead to a great idea). Whatever you choose, you have some work to do.
This is easy in a short children’s TV episode. One thing I love about kids’ TV work is that it really isn’t a big deal to throw out huge chunks of your story. The damage done and amount you need to fix is never so much that you can’t be brave about changing story direction. A feature film, on the other hand? That’s hard. And I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to fix a novel in this scenario. When you’re dealing with a long story, my advice is to make a new bullet point outline of your story. Lots of screenwriters do this on cards and that works well. Whatever breakdown you began with, dump that and make one based on what you now actually have.
When you have identified the parts you need to fix, get rid of them. Remove them from your outline completely. Why? Because if you leave them and try instead to just amend them, you’ll do this half-assed because every fibre of your being will want to keep the older stuff. Get rid of them completely. Now you know where your gaps are.
With your new aims very clearly marked out – I would always have them in front of me (theme, character arcs and so on) – retell your story. Work through it, filling in the gaps in your outline bit by bit. If all goes well, this should actually be easier than the first time you told your story because you’ll have those clear aims.
When you have a new start to finish story, go back to your draft and delete all the same parts you deleted in your outline. Completely. Gone. Replace those big chunks with the notes from your new story outline. And now just write! Fill in the gaps.
When you hit your final draft, the story you begin must be the story you finish.
We’ve all heard the stories of rejection. How many people rejected Harry Potter or Spongebob before someone finally said yes. I hear these stories in two forms. The first is really positive – as a reminder not to give up. If you truly believe in your work, push and keep pushing. This is a good message although it should probably be combined with messages about making sure your work is as great as it can be and also being open to feedback.
That is not what this post is about. This post is about the other form of that story that I hear every now and again. It goes a little like this: these people are idiots! They even rejected <insert success here> so that shows what they know! This is a dangerous way of thinking. For a start, it’s wrong. Harry Potter or Spongebob or whatever was never, ever a guaranteed success and the big successes are almost always long shots in some ways and that needs to be recognised – they come with risks. And not everyone could have made a success out of them. A publisher or broadcaster taking something that isn’t quite a fit for them could have led to those same concepts being unsuccessful. Saying no could have been the best thing for them and the creator.
For the most part, it’s all about taking a chance. And those people, the gatekeepers, are doing it by weighing up everything they know about their audience and their business and then trying to see if your concept might be a fit for them. Do they believe in it enough to take the chance? That’s what they’re really being asked to do. It is a risk for them. Often a high risk with lots of money involved.
If they say no, it’s not usually because they didn’t like your concept. Or didn’t like you. And it’s certainly not because they are idiots. It is because, knowing their audience and business, they didn’t quite think the risk for them was one they could justify. In that case, that’s the best decision for your project – when you eventually get that yes, you need it to be from someone who truly, truly believes in your concept.
It’s not just about getting a yes. It’s about getting the best yes from the right person.
The title of this post might not give you the correct impression of what this post is about, although having a dog is generally wonderful and I can recommend it to anyone. But really, this comes from something I thought to myself when I watched Guardians of the Galaxy for the first time. There is one shot where Rocket wakes up and the fur on one side of his face is all flat, just like a hairy dog’s face would be. It’s a really funny detail and I thought: whoever did that must own a dog.
Maybe they did. But it’s quite possible they didn’t. It could also be a result of research, doing their homework. They knew they were animating a furry animal and got all the research they could about furry animals, watched videos, talked to people who know about these things and then also put a lot of thought into each moment.
There is an old expression: write what you know. I don’t fully buy into it because it feels somewhat restrictive. Maybe it should be better expressed like this: get to know what you write. It’s not just writing either. Like the little animation touch above, it can run across the whole process. You’ll see this in something like Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A chimp person will tell you that the people making that movie knew their chimps. And similarly they would have rolled their eyes hard if it had all been based on pure speculation with no research behind it.
Even if you’re writing or making content on a subject you haven’t personally experienced, you can do the research. You can get to know it so that, when you create, it’s like you have that personal experience. It’s like you have that dog. Even if you don’t.
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.
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.