A very quick thought today that is relevant to many (all?) forms of storytelling but especially to preschool media where you have to achieve clarity for a young audience. It is this: much of story is simply asking a question and then answering it.
An example and familiar question: can your character overcome a challenge? The answer might be yes or it might be no but you need to answer that question if that is the question posed at the start of the story.
Seems obvious, right? And yet when I’m reading scripts, often a lack of a satisfying conclusion can be traced back to not actually asking the question asked. You might have a big finish, a resolution but somewhere along the line the story went in a different direction and you didn’t answer the question asked. You might have answered a different one.
Ask a question. Answer a question.
Can a boxer prove he’s not a bum? Yes. Can a farm boy really take on the Empire? Sure. Can a crew survive an alien brought on board? Mostly no except for Ripley and Jones. Asked and answered.
I began my kids’ media career as a director and writing came after that, first on my own shows and then on the shows of others. At that point, one of the strangest feelings was handing over the story. When you write, you immerse yourself in the characters, the world, the emotions, the laughs and you live in that space intensely. It is YOURS. Yes, you get notes and input and it is a collaborative process for sure but you’re the one who has to dive right back into that world to make those collective thoughts real.
And then a weird thing happens. The story is approved for production and you have to hand it over.
It is no longer yours. The production team and the director will take your script and make it THEIRS. They will interpret the lines their way. They will picture it their way. The voice director will get a take that has a whole different sense to the way you heard the line. Lines will get amended in pickups and there could be entire scenes you didn’t write. And on many productions, you might not ever know. There are episodes of shows I have written that I still have never seen. As a writer, it’s a strange feeling to be so close to a story and then just hand it over into the unknown. For people who are just writers, that has to be a tough thing to get used to and possibly even scary at first.
But I think back to where I started, directing Roobarb & Custard Too and working with Grange Calveley who created and wrote Roobarb. I think about how we took the scripts as the starting point and, from there, crafted the visual and audio storytelling from that. How we added visual jokes, puns (which were a big thing in the show), how we shuffled scenes and even had to completely reinterpret sections at times. Even at the time, I remember thinking that there was something special here – Grange had so much faith and trust. The property owner and distributor too. And in turn, I would pass that trust on to our team. It was a show built on creative trust and support.
Since then, I have tried to build every show on that same foundation. It is how I have got the best from every project – letting the people who are great at their job do their job to the best of their abilities. Sure, as a director and a producer I find it is essential to guide and lead and push but in a way that doesn’t stifle our team, preventing them from actually doing their job well. We start from a position of trust (“do an amazing job with this”) rather than suspicion (“you’re going to mess it up”).
So then as a writer, when I hand a story over to a director, to a production team, I do so sometimes with a slight sense of loss and certainly a huge curiosity about what happens next but mostly I do so with trust and support: my words are only the start and the next phase of storytelling is something different. Go make it something great!
Today I’m posting about endings. Specifically, what I can take from the Orphan Black ending, although I’ll be steering clear of any plot spoilers so don’t worry if you haven’t yet seen it yet. I watched through another show recently that I felt fumbled the ending very badly and it got me thinking about how endings are HARD. If I think back to the endings of so many shows, well, they just aren’t always great endings. They don’t always feel satisfying or… like an ending. Endings must be complex beasts.
This can be true within an individual story too – an episode, a film, a book. Although I have a suspicion that the longer form of narrative you’re trying to end, the more difficult it is. You have so much more to wrap up but, probably more importantly, your audience has invested so much more time in that narrative. The ending carries more expectation and more weight.
So why are some endings unsatisfying and some very satisfying? What’s the difference?
Having recently watched that Orphan Black ending as an example of how to do it right, I have a feeling it may not be all that complicated after all. I wonder if many of the unsatisfying endings are as a result of overthinking it, trying to be very clever about it or surprising. When in reality, whatever about what an audience might say, they aren’t looking for clever or surprising in an ending. They are looking for closure. And that all too often is missing from the unsatisfying endings.
The Orphan Black ending got all the tension out of the way in the first third of the episode. Everything from there was epilogue. It was giving us that closure. It was saying: here is the end of the story. While it played out differently, I feel the effect wasn’t all that different to the old fairy tale ending: “and they all lived happily ever after”. And that’s what we want. We want to be able to close the cover of that book, let out a deep sigh and know we have reached the end of a wonderful journey. We don’t want to be left wondering what the ending was about. Or what happened the characters who vanished. Or wonder about that last minute twist that will never ever be paid off.
We just want to see the characters we love overcome their challenges and be happy. We want to know they have won, have grown and are now safe. We no longer need to watch because we know they’ll be okay. We’re not going to miss anything now. We are given license to leave the story and be okay with that.
Good endings are pretty simple after all. Really, all we need in an ending is: “and they all lived happily ever after”.
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.
Telling a story is mostly about cause and effect. Something happens at the start of your story to trigger a change of action in the main character. A cause followed by an effect. From that point, you generally want each subsequent cause to be the actions and decisions of the main character and the effects to become the highs and lows of the story. Even the highs must bring more challenges to your character until the very end, where the cause is that final action which brings together everything the main character has learned or realised and the effect is total victory (or failure, if you’re going downbeat).
In each story beat, the cause and effect must be absolutely clear.
I recently play Obduction from the makers of Myst. A beautiful game with an incredible atmosphere and some great puzzles too. Puzzles, like stories, depend on cause and effect. You try something and watch for the effect. It’s like science. Each time you fail, you watch the effect and see if you can figure out what you can change to get you to a positive outcome.
Cause and effect in Obduction was not always clear. One part jumped out at me and got me thinking about story. There was a box with numbers and lights and characters on it. I played around with it and lit more lights but I didn’t know what the goal was. Later, I revisited the area and found that the box was somewhere else and was on its side. Why? I don’t know. At this point, I had a code and I was pretty sure I could input it on the box so I did. When I did, the box fell to a lower level. Why? I don’t know. Down at the lower level, I played with it but couldn’t seem to get it to do anything.
I couldn’t reconcile the cause and effect. Why had it moved in the first place? Why did it fall when I put in the code? What did that achieve? Once I had finished the game, I looked it up and it turns out that the answer is that it didn’t do anything for me. There was a lack of cause and effect in a game based around puzzles, which depend on a clarity in cause and effect. As it happens, the other area I felt the game fell down on was in the story resolution which was lacking clarity. That too was lacking a sense of cause and effect. It was at this point I felt that game devs could really do with a pass from a linear form script editor.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s a lovely game and you should give it a go, especially if you enjoyed any of the Myst games. But it helps illustrate an important story point.
When something happens in a story, especially when it’s an unexpected plot turn or twist, you have to have a clear sense of the cause and effect. This is how you give your plot weight. It’s not satisfying when a random element is thrown into your story or if the audience doesn’t understand why a particular thing happened. But if suddenly something strikes that makes life much harder for your main character and, as it does, the audience realises that this was a direct result of a choice the main character made, thinking it would make their life easier, then that has impact. That comes with a punch. That’s how you build the highs and the lows. Main character has a problem. They take action (cause) thinking they will get themselves out of that problem (Yay! A HIGH!) but then it makes their life SO MUCH WORSE (LOOOOOOW!).
That’s exciting. For it to work, the cause and the effect and how they are locked in to one another must be crystal clear.
Story problems need solutions. If your story doesn’t have a strong line running through it, or it wanders, or it doesn’t lead to a satisfying conclusion then you are going to have to fix that. As part of the normal process, you’ll have to look at your story and be willing to make significant amendments – that’s normal. Some stories have more problems than others but you can be sure that there will be story problems to solve somewhere in your process.
But here’s the thing: story problems usually require more than story solutions. In fact, looking for story solutions may be the wrong thing altogether.
Really? How can that be? Stay with me here! What I have found over the years of writing and, more importantly, in evaluating stories and script editing (because it can be easier to see things in the work of others) is that story problems usually need character solutions.
For one thing, it is often problems with the characters that lead to the perception of a story problem in the first place. They might be acting out of character and so a section just doesn’t feel true. Or there might be better actions that a particular character would take. A moment that should have a punch might have none because we don’t get why it matters to our characters. Or a section might just be dying because the characters in it don’t spark off each other. But even if the problem isn’t directly a character problem, when you go into the plot and the story and start moving things around then, invariably, you’ll introduce one of these problems. Funnelling characters into places to serve the plot or fix the plot can lead to a disconnect between character and story.
You have to go back to the characters.
You have to ask character questions. How can you amend your characters to put them on a new path that will, in turn, strengthen your story? If these characters aren’t yet fully defined, you actually have an advantage – you can completely rewrite the characters, improving the overall dynamic between them. If they are already locked down as characters, then what you might need to do is to change who is with who in the scenes or introduce a new element very early on that can put your main characters on a slightly different path or give them different information – something that will amend the choices those characters will make when you get to the difficult areas in your story.
When you get that right, your characters are driving your story and that’s exactly the way it should be. Always go back to your characters because story problems usually need character solutions.
It can be very interesting to study stories that made it to screen (or indeed bookshelves) for reasons beyond just the story itself. What I mean by that is, for example, Star Wars Episode 1. A new writer pitching that script would have had it torn to shreds and a bunch of other writers would have been brought in make it fit with more traditional story expectations. The weight of Star Wars and Lucas meant that didn’t happen so we were presented with a sort of ‘what if?’ scenario: what if you can study a story before all the usual conventions get applied?
It isn’t all that often we get a huge movie that allows us to study why other movies stick to certain story conventions.
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is one of them. A beautiful looking movie. But I think nobody but Rowling (or Lucas or the Wachowskis in their day) would have been allowed to put this story to screen. That makes it very interesting to study. Before you object, I don’t mean to disparage the movie by the Ep1 comparison. You see, we’re so used to story ‘formula’ that veering away from that isn’t always a bad thing in itself. It is just a different story. One we can learn from.
So in a movie and stories in general, I think three questions are really important:
1) What’s it about?
2) What is the climax?
3) Who is the main character?
Obvious questions, right? The trick is that each one should relate to the other. While the answers to 2 and 3 are very clear in Fantastic Beasts, they aren’t all that related to each other. The main character doesn’t act in the climax beyond a few words that don’t really influence the outcome. The outcome is taken away from the main character, who wasn’t even all that aware of the events leading to that climax until just before it. I have a feeling many would struggle to come to a consensus on what the answer to 1 is. Is it the title? If so, the climax didn’t relate to the main story. Was it the story being teased throughout that then became the climax? If so, the main character wasn’t a part of it. I have seen that part referred to in reviews as the ‘subplot’ and yet that’s the big climax of the movie.
Story convention tells us that the main character should drive the story. The story should be about something that presents a goal for that main character, an obstacle to overcome or a quest of some sort, ideally an area for growth. The climax should be that character’s and that story’s ultimate showdown, where they bring everything they have earned or learned to overcome the final challenge and achieve their goal (or not if it’s a sad story although we’ll still expect growth).
This works whether its a true life story of a broken person overcoming an addiction, a huge ridiculous sci-fi story to save the universe or a little preschool story about a bunny learning to tie their shoelaces. It is what keeps your story moving forward, gives it focus and brings it all together at the end for a satisfying conclusion.
So what happens when we don’t get that? Well, we can see that right here. Fortunately for Fantastic Beasts, it presents an incredible spectacle with a bunch of very entertaining scenes and characters. My daughter loved it and that’s what counts. I will often make the argument that, if a script or book has you turning that next page eagerly, it’s working. But I have to wonder if there was any tension at the climax? Whether many people were truly invested beyond just enjoying the spectacle? Or, if people were truly invested, whether it would have been possible to heighten that. That’s a hugely important thing in story. You have give someone reasons to really care by the time we get to the end of your story. That doesn’t just affect the feeling we have while watching it – it affects what I call the aftertaste of a story.
Ever enjoy the experience of a story but then you forget afterwards what it was about? Or you start picking holes in it yourself? Or you liked it but never really want to see it again? That’s the aftertaste. The moment to moment experience can drive us through a story in an exciting way (Star Trek Into Darkness). But without coherence and strength and earning each emotional beat, you can be left with a hollow aftertaste and a feeling that it never really made a lot of sense (Star Trek Into Darkness). The aftertaste is important.
So it is possible to tell stories any way you like. You can ignore story conventions altogether and never learn about them. Or better, you can learn them and choose to discard them. But unless you’re Rowling or Lucas a decade or so ago or the Wachowskis around the same time, you will have a much harder time getting your story out there for people. You might think, but Rowling did it and it worked. It did. That’s true. But no story is perfect (maybe Alien) so perhaps consider how the film could have been with that same spectacle, that same world of wonder and magic, that same entertaining cast but with a story driven by and for that main character, leading to a climax where everything for him was on the line and he was the only one who could achieve the final aim.
The great thing about learning about story conventions and getting to a point where you truly understand them and they become a part of your work is that they give you the choice. You can use them to make your story better. You are not a slave to them. They are your tools to help you tell your story even better. And when you read a book or see a film that doesn’t use these tools, for whatever reason and whatever outcome great or not, study it. Think about the different things you could have added or taken away from that story in an attempt to improve it.
I’m not saying you’ll do better than Rowling. But you will learn from it.
I love structure and find it an incredibly useful tool. But it comes with its own built-in pitfalls and here is one of them: if you plot your story to a specific structure from the very beginning, there is a danger that you will funnel your characters down unbelievable paths in order to get them to hit certain beats.
If your story target is too clear even before you have a sense of what is happening, what the characters are doing and why, you start to herd your characters in ways that restrict the storytelling. And in the process, often making the characters behave in ways they shouldn’t.
It is an all too common story problem that characters do things to serve the needs of the writer rather than serving their own needs. It happens so easily. I know because I have been guilty of it myself. I have a great idea for a scene but, to get there, I have to push characters in ways that don’t quite fit who they are or what they should want. And because it is all too easy, you have to be very wary of anything that invites that risk into your work methods.
Nailing down your structure before having a sense of your characters and story can do just that.
My advice is: know your premise. Know your characters. Know your starting point. Then let your characters take you where they should go. Let your mind wander in and out of the scenes, each character playing it the way they naturally should without you worrying about the end point of that scene. Make notes on all of that stuff until you have enough to build a story. And THEN sort out your structure.
That way, your characters are living, acting and reacting. It isn’t just an exercise in herding.
I remember when directing animated shows that I would sometimes see characters moving around for no reason while other characters talked. Some animators have a need to fill the space. They’re thinking they can’t just let the character stand there and blink, can they?!
Yep, you can. And you can go further. Every now and again, I would make the listening (or watching) character the focal point of the scene. And again, even when they are the focus, we just need to see them taking it in. The expression is important. Lots of movement isn’t.
As my friend Simon Crane and I would say: animation is not about making your characters move, it is about making them think.
This applies well beyond animation. Seeing characters take in a moment can have more emotion, more drama and more comedy. Remember The Office? Gareth (or Dwight) would do or say something ridiculous. Where did the camera spend most of its time? Watching Tim’s reaction. Or Jim’s, depending on which version you’re watching. Comedy can come from someone doing something funny. But better comedy can be seeing a character watching or listening to someone doing something funny.
When we write scripts, we’re often into the back and forth of lines. Character says A, next character says B and so on. We can get so caught up in what they say that we can miss what might be more important: what they hear. Or what they understand. Some actors are known for trying to reduce their lines in order to give them more time to listen and to react. Because it’s like animation – it’s not about making your characters say stuff, it’s about making them think. And making them feel.
So when you’re thinking about your scenes, playing them out in your mind and writing them down, think about the reactions. No, not the outbursts. Just those little moments of listening, of taking it all in. Of thinking and feeling. That’s where your character is. That’s where the drama is, the comedy or the heart of your scene. Let your characters listen.
Watching Shia LaBeouf watching his movies a few weeks ago got me thinking about narrative and just how simple it can be.
I watched him sit for a while. Sitting… sitting… sitting. Pretty dull, right? But I found myself wondering when he gets up to go to the toilet. I mean, he must have done that, right? And while I watched, he started to get up. He’s going! Look! He stood and… twist in the tale, he was just letting someone by. It was a little moment of excitement in something incredibly mundane and it had an unexpected outcome.
Later, he looked wrecked. I could see he was tired. Would I get to see him fall asleep? His eyelids got heavy. Almost… almost… and then he shook it off. Still awake. I found myself watching for a bizarre amount of time to see if he would fall asleep. And I felt a genuine satisfaction when it finally happened.
It reminded of a webcam about a decade ago that was fixed on a dog basket. When you logged in, the dog might be there. Or might not be there. The real excitement was catching the moment when it happened – when the dog got into the basket or left the basket. Seeing that dog get into its basket was a more rare and precious thing than watching Iron Man beat the heck out some bad guy for some reason he probably caused yet again.
Narrative comes in many forms. Expectations and outcomes can make a story. The little surprises, the anticipation and then catching a moment. The stakes only need be as high as the tone you set. And whatever about visual spectacle, we can relate to the little things.
And this is why a YouTuber finding some diamond in Minecraft can be more exciting to kids than your carefully crafted cartoon that took seven drafts and months of production to get right.