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.
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?
Last year, I started running. Yep. Running. Who would have thought it, right? It was HARD. It’s still hard but I’m getting better. What I’m finding now is that I don’t treat running all that differently to the way I treat work. The same basic ideas get it done, like I would write a script or make a show.
The first thing is obvious: do it.
It doesn’t matter if my run is hard or if I feel like I’m not making progress the way I want to or if I never want to run again when I get back. What matters is that I do it. Once my run is done, that’s the achievement. That’s an important thing knocked off my to-do list and, as long as I keep doing that, I will keep on running and I will get better. That in itself is progress.
But from there, I find a lot of it is about checkpoints – marking that progress. At the start, the goals were things like “run for five minutes straight without needing to call the emergency services”. Now, I really just have three checkpoints in any run. The first is starting (the “do it”). I’ll give myself a little pat on the back even for setting off. The last is the home straight – I’m almost done.
The middle checkpoint, however, is the one that I find needs the most acknowledgement. In my 7km runs, it is the 4th kilometre. On my regular route, the 4th kilometre is when my energy starts to flag. To make matters worse, it is uphill all the way. Those two factors combined make it the hardest kilometre. That’s when I need to really push myself. It’s when I sometimes express inner regret at having started at all. It’s when I want to stop for a pint and burger.
So when I hear on my little app “Distance: four kilometres”, I allow myself a little inner cheer. I made it. I faced that 4th km and won. A major checkpoint has been reached. It’s a victory. If it were a game, I’d save my progress.
Now here’s the thing: on the 5th km, I have even less energy and, actually, most of that is uphill too although not to the extent of the 4th. But I’m so busy allowing myself to bask in my own personal victory that I barely notice the 5th km and, before I know it, I’m hitting the home straight. And no matter how tired I am, I can always do the home straight. So celebrating that 4th km is what gets me all the way there. If I didn’t, 7km just might beat me.
Every production and every task has its own equivalent of my 4th km. On a whole animated TV show, I find it’s getting the first batch of episodes out while everyone is still finding their feet and the systems haven’t settled. When you get a certain number of good episodes delivered, you know the rest is going to be just fine. For a scene, it might be some really good key poses – hard to get right but they set the template for the rest of the shot. For writing, I find it’s when I get down a really strong outline. The rest is just work and refinement and improvement. Each task will have its own version. It’s that point when you have achieved something important and you know you can make it the rest of the way.
So celebrate that point. It doesn’t mean the rest will be easy but acknowledging the achievement along the way will help make it easier. It will help you get to that home straight in a much more positive way. So that your own 7km (production, story, episode, scene, whatever) won’t beat you.
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?
I spent a long time torturing over backgrounds for something we were making recently. Are they too basic? Too plain? Now too shaded? Overworked? Too fancy?
Backgrounds are really important. They are pieces of art in themselves. They can look wonderful in stills or posters and be all pretty and attractive and that can get people buying your work.
But here’s the hard truth: if a kid is looking at your backgrounds rather than what the characters are doing, you have a MAJOR problem.
Kids shouldn’t be looking at your backgrounds unless a character is pointing to something in one or something in that background is a plot point or an important setup piece. I know that sounds harsh to background artists but it’s actually the same for most areas of the process. If a child is lost in a writer’s wonderful prose rather than the action of the scene, the story will be lost. If they are whistling to the underscore rather than listening to what the characters are saying, the story will be lost. And so on.
Everything must serve the story. For backgrounds, that means giving context to the action, establishing the location. Framing it in pleasing ways, drawing the eyes to the characters and the important moments in the shots. Helping to tell the story. Like every other element.
We can all torture ourselves over individual elements, like I was doing about these backgrounds. But what is so important to remember is that it will never just be these backgrounds. It will be characters, dialogue, action, music, sound effects and more. And when it all comes together, what counts is this: does it tell the story in the best way possible?