Notes, eh? They can frustrate. Just when you think you’re done, you get a new note and have to unravel what you’ve done. Maybe even come up with something else entirely. And can you do that in the time you have? Notes can throw spanners in all the works. But there is something to consider here:
Quite some time ago, we were trying to work out a character for a thing I was working on and we submitted some first options to see if we could get a steer. One of those options was approved instantly. No notes. No suggestions. No questions. An approval.
Cause for celebration? No. I wasn’t happy. That character wasn’t completely ready yet. It wasn’t as great as it could be. It was a first draft. And it could be made better but we didn’t get the opportunity. And this is exactly the thing to keep in mind: notes are an opportunity to make something even better.
Even if you don’t like the note, you now are given that chance: make it better. Take that opportunity. There are times in my career I did not agree with notes I was given and there were times we got too many notes with not enough time to carry them out and notes have to be managed on all sides because they can cause a production to grind to a halt… and yet I can’t think of many cases in which something got worse after we had another attempt. Because it wasn’t just about carrying out the notes. It was an opportunity to make things even better.
Notes, revisions, retakes, redrafts – they are all a part of the process. They come with the job. And when you get them, take the opportunity they offer.
A clean, clear concept. That’s what we want to see. I find pitching a project mostly comes down to answering one simple question: what is it?
What’s the concept?
Unfortunately finding a simple answer is usually harder than it seems. It is a constant struggle to refine your project description down to the very basics while still making it sound attractive. I have seen this go horribly wrong in pitches, where people talk about every element of their show for half an hour and still don’t answer the question ‘what is it?’ Even being very aware of it myself and working at that, I have still sometimes come back from my own pitches knowing that I need a simpler, cleaner way of explaining what it is.
Part of it is excitement. We can get so excited about all these great things in our show that we start to waffle. It just comes out and we lose control of what we’re saying and sentences wander from one part of our concept to the next. It is enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is good and people pick up on that – don’t lose the enthusiasm. But be very aware of the complicated spaghetti-like descriptions that enthusiasm can lead to.
So you need to be prepared. You need to work on your simple description in advance and you need to learn it. Then after you have delivered it, you need to stop talking. Let whoever you are pitching to take it in and ask the questions they need to ask. Answer those simply too. It’s like the advice I see given to people taking the stand in lawyer shows – short answers, answer only what you are asked. The difference between pitching and testifying in a law show, however, is that you need to retain that enthusiasm.
Here is one more thing to be aware of – sometimes your show will change. As it develops, new themes might be added, old ideas discarded. New characters or a new focus is brought in, adding layers to your concept. Your concept will likely grow and find new depth which is all a good thing. But instead of adding each new part to your core pitch, you really have to go back and create a new description. One just as simple as the original but gets across where the show is right now. Clean and clear.
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.
Regular readers will know I like to be able to break a character down to the very basics. When you write your story, you have to be able to quickly bring to mind that character and how they act. A simple sense of who the character is really helps give you clarity.
But it can also help you avoid what is an all too common problem: all of your characters coming across the same in your story.
The big test of character is not how great your description is. It’s if the audience knows who these characters are in a single story. In a single scene. They should. Every time. Your characters should be that clear. And how do we do this? Through action. Through how they tackle a situation, react to the unexpected, respond to pressure. So you need to give them situations, the unexpected or pressure.
And you can test this. Give your scene to someone who doesn’t know the show and ask them to describe the characters. Do they get it right? If not, what can you do to fix that?
Here are some things you shouldn’t rely on to make your characters different: funny voices, catchphrases, colours, different tools or weapons, racial stereotypes. None of these things are a substitute for actual personality and the last one is right out.
Know who your characters are. Make them different. Then make them clear.
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.
A lot of creative choices are simply that: choices. That’s all. Got a teapot in a shot? Maybe you make it yellow. Or blue. Or kind of off white. Maybe an art director would prefer it purple to match some curtains somewhere. Maybe the director’s favourite colour is orange and tends to go for orange more. Six different people might pick six different colours for that teapot. And a day later some of those might pick a different colour.
When someone hands you that teapot design and it isn’t the colour you would have picked, you might want to jump in and get that changed… STOP!
Before you put something into the system, ask yourself this: will this change genuinely make it better? Or will it just make it different? Different is rarely enough reason to justify the change. There are enough things in any given story, episode or production that actually need examination or improvement for anyone to spend time just making something different.
Story, engagement and entertainment are what matters. Detail is important in fleshing out a world, the stage for the stories. But it needs to be recognised that so many choices in any creative endeavour are no more than that: choices. We won’t all make the same ones and that doesn’t make a different choice wrong.
So when working with a team or evaluating work, keep in mind that a choice is not wrong just because it is not the one you would have made. Don’t focus on the things you would do differently. Focus on where you can genuinely improve and enhance, always keeping in mind the bigger picture – the storytelling and engagement.
Writers will understand the need for this straight away. It’s that feeling when you save the final version of your file, put it in an email and click SEND. And then you spot the typo. EVERY. TIME.
It just needed one more check before sending. That typo probably isn’t the worst idea thing in the world but it will haunt you. And it may not be a typo – it could be something bigger. It’s not just for the writers either. A scene. A storyboard. A design. They could all do with one last check before you show them.
So buy that time.
Work it so you can take the time to do that final check before you send. To do this, aiming for your deadline isn’t enough. Given that something will likely slow you up somewhere, you should always be aiming earlier anyway but you’ll definitely need some extra time for that last check. So reset your deadline to accommodate that.
Remember: the deadline and the actual time you need to finish in order to meet that deadline are rarely the same thing.
Build it into estimates you give people. If you think something will take five hours, say it will take five and a half. Or six. If it will take a week, build in an extra half day or even a day. It’s check time and it will pay off. Yes it takes more time but it will mean your work is presented in a better form and you may well find you have more to fix than the equivalent of typos.
Always have that time for one last check. If you didn’t need it, great. But usually you will and you’ll be very glad you allowed for it.
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.
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.