We all fall back on certain staples of children’s writing if we think we can do something with them. Series 2 of Fluffy Gardens featured a sports day episode, for example. How many other shows have done that? Roughly around all of them. Every show ever. Using a familiar plot element as a catalyst is not a bad thing in itself. We can often find we have an interesting spin or something to add.
But there is one common story that manages to rub me up the wrong way every time: the surprise birthday party. I gave that away in the post title, didn’t I? Note to self: don’t ruin surprises.
The surprise birthday party story sees most of the episode being taken up with the main characters pretending they’ve forgotten one character’s birthday. Could there be anything more horrific? Well possibly if you were willing to do episodes about car crashes or a burns ward. But in a child’s life, I can think of few things worse.
For a start, it involves a secret. Secrets can haunt parents who, to keep them safe, need their children to be open and honest with them at all times. I must admit it’s a personal thing but I am not a big fan of secrets in children’s media generally.
It involves a very deliberate lie.
It involves a conspiracy in that lie, creating a sense of exclusion. One person is kept out of the secret.
It involves a character feeling awful for most of the episode as a result of that lie. On the very day that they should be feeling wonderful.
And then it eventually throws in a nice happy ending justifying the horror. It’s like sticking a shot of a puppy onto the end of Saw and calling it a feel-good film.
Back when I was writing series 2 of Fluffy Gardens, I wrote some stories that were, in many ways, reactions to stories I had seen as a child with messages I found to be way off what we should be telling children. And I did eventually write a birthday party episode in which characters were planning a party and one of the characters suggested a surprise party. The reaction was pure horror from the other characters. I quite enjoyed that moment.
Ultimately, I chose not to make the episode (in spite of everyone telling me otherwise) because I felt it didn’t do justice to Mrs. Toasty the Sheep, who cracked under the stress of planning the party. So I never got to express my horror at the surprise birthday party.
I have mentioned before that, for young children, television is not one-way communication. No matter the form, even with traditional stories, kids love being involved and the more you can do to help them feel involved the better.
In an early segment of Sesame Street, James Earl Jones recited the alphabet at a slow, deliberate pace. The letters appeared before he spoke each one. Heavily studied (as always with Sesame Street), the producers identified what they then called “The James Earl Jones Effect”, which was a result of the beautifully clear, powerful voice combined with the long gaps. Watch the segment below…
What the team found was that children would readily take up the invitation to join in as James Earl Jones recited the alphabet and, on first watch, would say the letters along with him. But as children got more familiar with the segment and the alphabet, they would say the letters before James Earl Jones could. So it was clear that the segment did its job and children were learning the alphabet but what also came from that is that children love knowing what’s happening and they love getting in there first and getting it right.
There is a real sense of empowerment that comes from knowing what the next letter is and that’s a thrill for kids. It is one of the reasons young children love a favourite story or will happily watch a favourite episode over and over. They adore knowing what comes next. They love the repetition. And it really engages them in communication. They aren’t just watching – they are taking part.
This is the James Earl Jones effect.
You can apply this no matter what form you are creating. For example in Planet Cosmo we engaged the audience directly and asked them questions, making them a part of the experience. Fluffy Gardens had a much more traditional straightforward narrative but, right from the first episode, there were sections written in that would repeat so children would begin to know the rhythm and know what’s coming. Even on first watch, there would be parts of an episode where the young audience already knew what was coming because we set it up deliberately for that to happen. And I knew those episodes could run and run. Far from getting boring, within our target age group, each repeat would become even more enjoyable.
This is something that comes with audience awareness. It happens when you’re not asking ‘what story do I want to tell?’ but instead asking ‘what experience do I want children to have or be a part of?’
Several years ago, I was writing a live-action script for adults. It was a story I was passionate about but it became apparent that the first draft just wasn’t quite coming together the way it should.
It was suggested by someone I trust that the problem with the draft was that I’m often ‘too nice and tend towards sentimentality’.
Well that sucks, I thought. I have a serious writing problem. Too nice. Tend towards sentimentality. A weakness.
Somewhat demoralised, I shuffled home and slumped over my laptop to polish a draft of a Fluffy Gardens story I was working on. I wrapped up the beautifully sweet ending to a lovely story about cute animals being pleasant to each other. It was a good story and it made me smile and, sure enough, that story went on to make many children and parents smile too. Too nice. Tend towards sentimentality…
That was no weakness.
While writing all 80 episodes of that show, that was very much a strength. One that, armed with a new awareness of, I then embraced and developed and would continue to be a strength when applied thoughtfully to the right projects. A strength, not a weakness.
So if you have what you perceive to be a weakness, or what others perceive to be a weakness, is it possible that applied differently it could turn out to be your strength? What if instead of trying to eliminate this ‘problem’, you pushed it further to where it might help rather than hinder?
One of the hardest things starting out in any field is knowing if what you’re doing is actually any good. We are so often completely unable to evaluate our own work and the closer we are to it the harder it is. Is that nagging doubt a sign we shouldn’t send in that script or submit that drawing? What if it’s actually pretty good? What if we think it’s good but that’s just pure delusion and we need to bin it and start from scratch?
How do I know if it’s any good?
I faced this so often in the early days of being a children’s writer. I was tortured by self-doubt and yet, at other times, so stubborn about things I thought would turn out great on screen. I couldn’t effectively evaluate the quality of my work.
Now when you are just getting started, the quick fix solution seems obvious: have someone else evaluate it. This can be a really good idea, especially if you are giving it to someone who is an expert in their field. I was fortunate on Fluffy Gardens to have a wonderful script editor who helped me become a better writer. Before that, I got great writing tips from a good author friend. You can learn a lot from the critiques, notes and suggestions of others and that will help you get better.
But it doesn’t really solve the problem and the thing is, you need to solve it. Why? Well…
1) The opinions of others are just that – opinions. Ask 100 people and you’ll get 100 different notes, often conflicting. They may all be valid in different ways but might not be right for what your work should be or suit your particular strengths. You may end up having to sift through many suggestions, leading you back to the initial question – how do I know if it’s any good?
2) Ultimately, you must become your own quality control. You have to seize responsibility for your own work and relying on others to tell you what is right or wrong can be a dangerous crutch. You have to be the one pushing for greatness. You have to be the one who knows what is best. You have to be the expert in your own work. If you hand in a script, you have to know it’s damn good.
So what’s the solution?
The solution lies in distance from your work. Time. I learned so much writing those first forty episodes of Fluffy Gardens but that’s not actually where I made the biggest leap as a writer. That came afterwards. You see, months after production and probably half a year after the scripts had been finished, the episodes were on repeat among other shows. All those feelings I had while writing were gone. I had distance. Now I was just someone watching a television show. I saw those stories in ways I never had before. I could see parts that really worked, and many that didn’t. At the same time, I was watching and studying many other preschool shows so I also had context and comparisons (doing your homework is essential).
Not only could I see these strengths and weaknesses in the finished episodes, I could see them in the scripts. Rewatching and rereading those forty episodes, I was building up a massive list of things that I felt worked and didn’t work. And they were all about my work, not about what worked or didn’t work for someone else.
Distance through time.
But the great thing is that you won’t always need that time. You see, once you have begun to properly evaluate your older work, you will see things to look out for in the work you are doing right now. You will have a far greater awareness and start to build up an objectivity that was next to impossible before. And it is so important that you do this because your work won’t always get better on its own. Practice makes perfect doesn’t work if you’re just repeating the same mistakes over and over because you can’t see them.
You can make a start on this right now. Have an old script? Dig it out and go over it. Be a harsh critic. Do it with other scripts. Make a list of strengths and weaknesses. Then see if you can find those same elements in your current work. Use what you learn to get better right now. If you don’t have an old script you think is suitable, write one. Write a script this week, get it into what you feel is good shape and stick it in a folder somewhere. Leave it. Continue working and learning and revisit it in six months time. Is it as good as you thought? Are some parts better? Worse?
The important part of this is that you begin to grasp a real awareness of your own work. An honesty about your work that you can apply now. And it works for writing, drawing, directing. It may well work for everything. Before long, you will have a good sense of whether your work is good or not no matter how deep you are buried in it.
While doing some housekeeping, I came across some old Fluffy Gardens development work. Fluffy Gardens had a somewhat unconventional visual beginning and was then refined in several stages until it was ready for screen. I have put this design process together in some collected images in my GALLERY, including a few explored yet unproduced ideas that have never been seen before outside of the Geronimo Productions (then Monster Animation) studio. I do hope you find it interesting!
I also found my notes to the new animators on series 2 of Fluffy Gardens and among the notes is something that struck me as relevant in any area when you are getting to grips with something new, whether that’s learning a new skill, new software, writing outside your comfort zone, etc. It is written about animation but, if you’re not an animator, consider how this can be applied in your own area. So here it is, a thought from the animation notes of Fluffy Gardens:
1. Don’t get creative!
At least, not at first. The first thing to focus on is just getting basic movement looking as if it came straight from the most controlled scenes of the first series. Walking, picking stuff up, showing different expressions and that sort of thing. They are surprisingly easy to get wrong. So don’t go in attempting anything fancy. Keep everything grounded and just try to get it all working.
But… when you have got that (and be sure that you have first)…
2. Get creative!
Add little touches. Try something unexpected. It may not always work. That’s okay. But look at some of the more special scenes in series 1. You’ll see they’re always simple and never go crazy (well, except for Poppy the Tiger’s dream sequence) but, every now and again, there is an extra touch in the animation. A hidden smile from George the Mean Yellow Dog, a close hug, wet fur, that sort of thing.
Do be careful and certainly go sparingly. But when it’s right for a scene, have a think about what extra you could do. Add something special. Surprise me!
So there it is. First, know your field and know what you’re doing. Then get creative and deliver something special, something exceptional, something unexpected. That’s where the magic lies.
It seems so simple when put like that. Certainly, if you see your job as selling merchandise, an iconic character design is essential. But there’s more to a character than that, right?
For example, she may have an iconic design but does anyone know what kind of personality Hello Kitty has?
Has lack of personality hurt her? Not hugely. Hello Kitty is an exercise in design. What about in the context of classic stories? The three little pigs – how much do we know about them? Well, we know they’re pigs, they’re builders and two of them like to cut costs. That’s more than we know about Hello Kitty but they’re still not exactly what you’d call well-rounded characters.
But then what do I know about Dora the Explorer?
She likes to shout. She’s neglected – after all, what parents in their right mind would let a young child out across the jungle with a monkey? And she has communication issues. The Map, for example, won’t talk to her directly and instead asks the viewers to tell her things. They must have had a falling out or something. Map probably didn’t like being shouted at.
I actually don’t know a huge amount about who she is. What makes Dora tick?
I remember when I pitched Fluffy Gardens, I showed the Paolo the Cat pilot. I was asked whether we had considered just making the whole show about Paolo. After all, he was such a great character. Character? I was puzzled. He’s a red cat. He’s clever and, em… he’s red. That is about as deep as Paolo was back at that time. He got considerably more fleshed out across the two seasons.
The difficulty here is that, sure, maybe it is all about the character but what it is about those characters varies so greatly that finding the common ground is often very tricky. Hello Kitty’s appeal is straight from the visual design and little more. Dora’s appeal is more that she speaks directly to her audience. The appeal of the three pigs comes more from the story and the tension rather than anything specifically about the characters. Paolo the Cat actually had one underlying trait that gave him much more appeal than even I initially anticipated: modesty.
The common factor? Appeal.
The challenge? Appeal comes in so many forms. It must appear simple to the audience and yet can be incredibly difficult to achieve. It is hard to quantify.
The solution? Don’t ever think of it in terms as simple as “it’s all about the character”. Character can be many things or sometimes very few things and character rarely exists in isolation. The process is complicated enough and there are so many aims and pitfalls that creating good content is never about any single thing. All aspects must be considered together. Design, personality, dynamic within a group of characters, story, mood, voice, sound, pacing and so much more. It is all part of creating appeal. See the whole and then pick and choose what is relevant for what it is you are creating.
Aim for appeal.
And if you do it right, even if you don’t know exactly how you did it, it will appear simple from the outside. So simple that someone with an interest will look at what you’ve created and think, it’s all about the character.
There are huge challenges writing scripts for young children and I think many of them come from the simple reality of what we are doing – working with just words. Words can very quickly become abstract, lose meaning. As I went through in an earlier post, descriptions can fall away until you have just talking heads in a void and they all sound like the writer.
I think a good test of character is whether you would know who is speaking if the names were removed. Do the characters think and act differently? Do they speak differently?
We engage different parts of our brain when dealing with spoken word than we do when reading and writing. So just because something looks okay on the page doesn’t mean it’s going to sound okay when recorded. I write my stories out loud, saying each sentence over and over in different ways until it sounds right. I have done that since the very first Fluffy Gardens story and do it to this day. I’m not the only one. Ken Levine and David Isaacs (of Cheers/M.A.S.H. fame) dictate their scripts, working them out verbally as someone else types them out.
But saying them out loud in your voice may not be enough.
Writing in character voices is key to making those characters sound different, to get their personalities to come through in the dialogue. Because their voices will greatly affect the choice of words you settle on. If you’re just writing in your voice, you will pick words you will use. If you try words you would never use, they’ll sound awkward and weird. Put on a the voice as you write and you’ll very quickly find yourself putting sentences together differently.
For example, I recently rewatched an episode of Planet Cosmo and found myself laughing at Lifter’s choice of words – “Are you sure, sweetie? I can rustle up quite a breeze!” I thought, oh that’s good, I would never use the phrase “rustle up”. Then I had to remind myself that I wrote those words. But in a way, I guess Lifter said them. I just listened and wrote them down.
So it’s really important to write in character voices.
But I would take this a stage further and say that those of us reading scripts (script editors, producers, directors etc.) should try to read in character voices. You might not yet know exactly how they should sound but give it a go based on what you know of the characters. It will make those lines read very differently. For example, Cranky in Punky (written by the wonderful Andrew Brenner) has lines that can look very harsh and not age-appropriate on the page. But Cranky’s voice (Paul Tylak) gives her a comic quality that completely disarms the lines and makes them work beautifully. They become very funny. Similarly when I wrote Dad in Planet Cosmo, some of his lines looked rude, selfish and sometimes even mean. But say them in Dad’s voice and they become light and funny, losing their weight. How those words sound out loud in a character voice is what counts – that’s what children will hear.
It is always a challenge to make characters work and a greater challenge to make them work well. Working with the character voices is a way of helping their inner personalities and differences come out, and a great way of getting those words on (and off) the page.
Many years ago, when I was just moving into children’s programming, I saw what was then Tell-Tale Productions (veterans Iain Lauchlan, Karl Woolley and Will Brenton) pitching a show called Where’s Boo? at the Cartoon Forum. They discussed the design and how their research showed that the simple shapes, clear colours and heavy lines made the character much easier to read for small children. Now sometimes people make outlandish claims at the Forum but this made sense to me and the (now ex) Tell-Tale guys know their stuff.
In the years that followed, I dug into research on how children perceive visual information and conducted quite a bit of my own testing on show concepts and designs. It was only then that I could truly appreciate how right they were. As adults, many of us tend towards complexity, the details, texture and polish. Many of these things have no relevance to preschool children and may even cause problems.
Young children need clarity. Visual simplicity.
I have written before about how I first found the Fluffy Gardens look – I drew the characters with a mouse. It prevented me from using some of the shapes and details that would be pleasing to me as an adult. I ended up with basic, crude drawings. Almost like those a child might do.
Children reacted so positively to these images and I found they were drawn in particular to the large eyes (hence them getting even larger in refining the look). The flat colours, the hard black lines on the characters and the simple easy-to-read expressions all contributed to it working for children, yet often far from what we look for as adults.
Since making Fluffy Gardens, different shows have had different needs. You can see, I’m sure, how Planet Cosmo is an evolution of the same ideas. Aiming at the higher end of preschool age range, Planet Cosmo needed to demonstrate the wonders of space. It needed to feel a little more beautiful, less crude. And yet still we have basic shapes, large eyes and flat colour on the characters. The balance took a long time to find and, throughout development and production, we had to remind ourselves of our purpose.
Because as we work, we tend to drift.
Often we drift towards old habits, sometimes we drift towards new ones. But we drift. This is across all aspects, not just design. It is why we so often play back old character samples when recording voice work for a show – even the actor who defined a voice can find themselves drifting away from it, just a little bit each recording. In classical animation, it is how characters might change when animating straight ahead, each drawing being just a little different from the previous one.
So it is important to reset.
Important to take us back to an earlier realisation and remind ourselves of what we learned. To relearn it. It is rarely enough to learn something just once.
For me, that means pulling out the very early Fluffy Gardens concepts, even more basic than the actual finished show. Appreciating the simplicity, the lack of details. And recognising that what I’m looking at is very different to what we often strive for or appreciate as adults. And that’s a good thing.
So, when working for young children, never fear simplicity. Keep in mind the drift, no matter what end of the craft you are in – writing, designing, directing, animating. Sometimes in our quest to get better, we can forget what is important to our audience.
On Monday, I attended the launch of RTÉjr, Ireland’s new dedicated children’s channel. Broadcasting twelve hours a day, the channel brings content directly to Irish children, expanding what was once a block on RTÉ2 into a full channel sitting along with all the other children’s channels on Sky, UPC and Saorview. Now I should point out that I have five shows currently airing on the channel so it’s likely I would say some pleasant things about it – I have been referring to the channel as my ‘showreel’, after all. But there is more to RTÉjr than just being a place to catch some of my shows.
RTÉjr is a big positive step for all Irish children. An important step. Here is why -
It is a dedicated children’s channel focusing on children aged seven and under. I have previously expressed my appreciation for dedicated children’s channels on this site. I feel they give parents more control, lessen the risk of inappropriate content and they simply make it easier to pick and choose what our children watch.
It is a channel focusing on delivering specifically to Irish children. Local content is so important to children. Each country has its own culture, its own ways of looking at the world. That unique point of view should be represented in the shows kids watch. Anyone in children’s content will know just how difficult that is to achieve ‘ most shows need to be sold all over the world to stand a chance of breaking even so how can they be culturally specific? Well, that’s why local content in any country needs support.
RTÉjr has, yes, content bought in from abroad but it also currently carries a large amount of content created here in Ireland for Irish children. For example, one of my own shows now airing on the channel, Ballybraddan, is about Irish children playing hurling, an Irish sport. That show just couldn’t be made anywhere else. And it is wonderful now to see it sitting in the schedule, seeing it among the NickJrs, the Disney Juniors and all the other juniors. And RTÉ’s own produced content (of which I am not involved with) has jumped in quality recently and the level of talent has risen. So it is not just content tailored for Irish children, it is better content for Irish children.
The biggest part of this whole channel for me as a parent?
RTÉjr carries no advertising. None.
It was so encouraging to hear RTÉ’s Director General, Noel Curran, focus on that point at the channel’s launch on Monday, calling the lack of advertising a strong statement and positive for parents, while expressing his and RTÉ’s commitment to children and the new channel.
So what we have now with RTÉjr is an ad-free channel, focused on children aged seven and under, delivering some uniquely Irish content that children just can’t get anywhere else.
As a creator, a producer of content, RTÉjr offers a home for existing content and makes it much more accessible for our audience. With the channel sitting in the Kids section, it is now far more likely that children and parents will see our shows, take a chance on them over some of the more international content. It also creates a need for new content. The challenge laid down by the channel and the commitment is to keep it relevant, keep it current. Oh there will be budgetary constraints (there always are), but this channel will need content as it evolves. And with such a strong start, I am looking forward to seeing the channel grow.
The launch event was tons of fun. I got to meet Reuben and Bó Donie (who, as a children’s presenter, I was very impressed with ‘ this guy could be the Irish Justin Fletcher) and almost got to pet a hedgehog before his minder told me he gets a bit bitey. And my girls have been testing out the channel for the last couple of days and have been enjoying it immensely. So congratulations to Sheila DeCourcy, RTÉ’s Cross-Divisional Head of Children’s Content, and all her team on a great launch, a strong schedule, and for giving something really positive to Irish children.
If you’re in Ireland, you can find RTÉjr on Saorview (Channel 7), UPC (Channel 600) and Sky (Channel 624). For my own shows, you’ll find Fluffy Gardens at 1.15pm and 4.55pm, Planet Cosmo at 9.05am and 1.40pm, Roobarb & Custard Too at 11.05am, Punky at 8.40am and Ballybraddan at 6.15pm. But be sure to check out some of the other excellent Irish content on there too ‘ Beo Show, Garth and Bev, Why Guy and more.
My path to writing stories for children has been a very visual one ‘ animation, storyboarding, directing. Along the way, I have seen some wonderful scripts and have been very fortunate to work with some excellent writers. But I have also seen many submitted scripts that would be almost impossible to produce, some that make little sense and I have heard numerous complaints from animators about writers who just don’t think visually. Many on the animation side, for example, preach the value of forming the story through storyboards rather than words on a script.
Even with my visual background, when I moved into writing I embraced the words. The language. I love language and the flow and the rhythm that words can bring and I have done since long before I got into television. I don’t believe the value and power of words should ever be underestimated, even in preschool entertainment.
But early in my career, I was writing a script and something went wrong. Something was missing. I didn’t quite know what it was. It was while working out another basic story problem, remembering that a character could use a wrench left in an earlier description, that I realised what had happened.
That wrench had been there all along. But I didn’t see it. I didn’t see anything. I had lost the picture. I was now dealing in just words. Oh there were descriptions but I was no longer really seeing anything. It was a whole lot of spoken dialogue in darkness. The actions seemed abstract, lost in the darkness, and even the characters were nothing more than mouths to deliver dialogue.
I was not writing visually.
I have since seen that same thing happen in the scripts of others and even in books and what I have found is this – the more words we write, the more risk there is of losing the picture. You can have great dialogue and really play with those words and that’s great but you have to have a complete visual picture. More than that, you have an opportunity to create something wonderful with those visuals, an opportunity that should not be wasted. Think of some of the defining imagery in movies ‘ the long spacecraft Discovery in 2001, getting the yellow bus moving in Little Miss Sunshine, pushing into the wind in Babel. Imagery so iconic, it often feels the rest of the movie is built around it. It is no surprise so many of those moments end up on the posters.
Does it happen in preschool? Sometimes. It does now when I write it.
Almost all of the series 2 Fluffy Gardens episodes are based on a single core image – a huge field of flowers, cycling over a hill framed by a rainbow, a little boat sinking in a vast ocean. The same is true for Planet Cosmo. If you know the episodes, you’ll recognise some of the scenes in the sketches above, done before the stories were ever written. And it has value to young children as each episode becomes special, a completely unique event even in a format as structured as Planet Cosmo – the episode with the tiny pieces of ice floating in space, the episode with the raging red storm, the episode with the room full of glowing stars. Iconic visual moments unique to those episodes.
So how do you stay visual while writing, dealing with just words?
Well, my advice is: don’t deal with just words. Sketch and doodle as the story forms. Try to define some of those key moments in advance. Keep those drawings close. No matter how good or bad they are (nobody ever has to see those drawings), they will help you keep your visual picture. There are other ways too. You could trawl Google Images for locations similar to those you’re writing about. Print them out and place little cutout characters on them. For one feature script (keeping in mind that the more we write, the more the risk of losing visuals increases and a feature requires much more writing), I actually made myself a little playset, customising figures to match the characters in the story and building a basic set from cereal boxes.
You don’t have to go that far. But do whatever it takes to keep hold of those visual images and create those iconic moments. That way, you’re taking the best of both worlds – staying visual like those who create their stories through storyboards while embracing your passion for words and language.
Be wary of getting lost in the darkness. Stay visual.