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 in the midst of a production, or probably life in general, things come at you all the time. There is a never-ending stream of things to do. We might need to get something important done, like this little doodle illustrates below. Easy, right? We go over and we do it.
But in reality, all these other tasks pop up along the way. Looking a little like this…
And there can be a temptation to handle them like this…
This is not the way to do it. Why? Because tasks are like fractals. I’m showing those big tasks that pop up to get in the way of achieving your main goal. But if I went deeper and zoomed into that image, you would see a whole bunch more little tasks and, each time you go to tackle one, you’ll likely see more things that need doing. And your original goal gets further and further and further away. The person tackling things in this order is a very busy person but they aren’t always making the best use of their time.
The thing is, not all of these tasks are equal. They may all need doing but they don’t all need doing NOW. You have to focus. You have to prioritise and use your time as best you can. Instead of being busy, you have to be productive in a very clean way. You go for your core task and you do that knowing that, if it is truly important, other tasks will either depend on it or be made easier by its achievement.
So really how you should approach the task is like this…
Focus on your core task. Get it done. Then evaluate those other tasks, prioritising them, delegating what you can and even making a conscious decision to ignore some – not everything is crucial and some schedules simply don’t allow for every little thing to get done. Focus on what will count when the end product is delivered and do so in a very clear order of importance. Go straight to your main task. That’s how to get stuff done.
When you’re making a series, you have to think long term. Are you making 26 episodes? 52? Double that? Where are all those stories coming from?
When the stories come in, there is one consideration often missed: is this going to affect other stories? Does it blow an idea without making real use of it?
Sometimes small details can have an effect on a later story and we usually encounter these after it has happened. A writer might have a great story idea about the main character not wanting to eat vegetables and then coming to love them. Until you realise that the last four episodes showed that character munching into vegetables. You might plan an episode about the first experience on a skateboard only to remember that there was a skateboard scene in a montage in a previous episode. A story might have your character bitterly disappointed that the boating trip they have been looking forward to all year has been cancelled but kids know that your character goes boating every second episode and it is no big deal to wait for the next trip.
Stories affect other stories. So when stories come in, or you’re the one writing them, you have to consider the series as a whole and you’re better looking for these things in advance. It is important to ask yourself: does this rule out anything in a future episode or use up a great idea that could be a whole story in itself?
Sometimes that will be hard to spot. No reason generally to avoid a character eating vegetables, for example. So you just deal with that new story suggestion when it comes in. But you can definitely look for a story point that might be blowing an entire future episode. If you see a beach story coming in that has a brief throwaway surfing moment, for example, it would be worth considering saving that idea for a whole story around surfing. Or you might suggest an amendment – if the surfing moment has everyone surfing really well, maybe it would be an idea to restrict it to just a couple of characters so you can do a story later about how one of the other characters has trouble learning to surf. If you show everyone surfing well in one shot, you’re establishing a default that is hard to go back on.
When making a whole series, you need stories. You’re going to need lots of them. So keep a lookout for the needs of stories yet to come and avoid breaking them or blowing them too early. Your future self will thank you.
Ah, notes. We all love notes, right? I know the first reaction to notes is usually negative (that’s normal) but it’s important once we get past that to see how they can help and how best to tackle them. Different people give different notes. Some are consistently great and helpful and others might not always seem useful initially. You have to get to know the notes you’re dealing with and the person you are getting them from and so each project often requires a different approach when it comes to notes.
But here’s something that is useful no matter what kind of notes you’re getting: look beyond the notes themselves. Look for the intention behind the notes.
Almost every note has a problem to solve or a question to answer. But sometimes the problem listed in the notes is not actually the real problem. It might be a symptom of something else that has been missed or has become unclear. It might even be about something outside of the work that you’ve made so far – a request that has come in from someone else that is now being applied in the form of a note passed on to you. Sometimes acting on a note immediately as described can actually cause more problems than it solves if you don’t know the intention behind it.
This will be especially relevant if specific suggestions are given. When people give notes, I love when they give suggestions on how to fix things. Firstly, it shows they really want to contribute positively and, secondly, it gives a really great starting point for the fix. But it is just a starting point. The solution offered may not be the fix. And your reaction to it might be “that won’t work” and you might even be right. But look for the intention behind it. What is it trying to solve?
Look beyond the note itself and try to find the intention behind it and you’ll then understand what you need to achieve and, more often than not, the real solution will become clear.
And if you’re reading this and you’re someone who gives notes, here’s a tip: you can help people get to the best fix by making clear why something is a problem or why you’re asking for something. No matter what side of the notes you’re on, knowing the intention always helps.
I read Seveneves by Neal Stephenson and it frustrated me. It has some wonderful sci-fi concepts and, sure, what Stephenson is doing seems to work for his audience. There is a very good chance, however, that it won’t work for yours, especially if you’re in children’s media. Here is how an average person might describe an office worker throwing some paper into a bin:
“Barry tossed the crumpled page into the bin.”
Here is how Stephenson might do it:
“Bins had been a regular feature in the office since the late 1970s, beginning first with little wicker constructions before moving to metal wire bins. Mary, a manager in the 1980s who subsequently left the company and so will never be mentioned in this story again, replaced them with plastic but didn’t line them with bags so they tended to get rather disgusting on the inside. Later, bags were placed in the bin. Barry (remember him?) threw his crumpled page. It could have landed to the side but didn’t. On another occasion, it might have hit the rim of the bin and bounced back, landing on the polished floor which had replaced the wooden floor that existed back when the company started. The wood had been supplied by a small company less than 40 miles away, but more than 20 and definitely more than 10 miles away. That company folded four years after the floor had been put down but the two events were unconnected…”
And so on.
Eventually we might come back to Barry and remember that he had thrown a piece of paper in the bin but not before we learn every system that led to that bin being there and throwing in some description of what had not, in fact, happened. Stephenson writes sci-fi and I can see how detail is important there. I don’t always need to know it, certainly not at the expense of characters, but it’s important.
For kids (and I think almost everyone else), focus is crucial. Simplicity is key. It is what will get you into the character stuff, the action. We like to follow characters doing things – that’s how simple it is. So if you want to describe an event and you’re NOT Neal Stephenson, here is what I would advise: write like an average person. Just say what happened as simply as you can. If you want to show Barry throwing a balled-up piece of paper into a bin, write: “Barry tossed the crumpled page into the bin.”
Anything more puts up a barrier between the reader/viewer and the story. And in children’s media, that barrier will cause you to lose your audience.
We can get into habits in life. We can certainly get into habits as writers and storytellers and there hits a point where that bites us in the backside because it makes our stories incredibly predictable.
Eastenders used to be on in my house when I was younger. I must admit I haven’t seen it in years but, back that, that show was MISERABLE. It was basically just a grey account of things going wrong for people. And yet on rare occasions, something would go right for someone. Many things would go right for that person. Often in a Christmas episode or some event. All their problems would be solved at once. Isn’t that nice?
No, because by the end of that episode, that person would be dead or in prison or beaten up or whatever. It was a very obvious story flag. Things go right for someone, that person is about to have a horrible end. It makes sense from a story point of view – set up a huge crash and get the impact from that by preceding it with a big high. Give them further to fall. I can rationalise it as a writer.
But it became far too predictable. Even years before I was a ever a writer, I was seeing not the characters, but the writing happening in front of me. I was seeing formula. And that sucks all drama and all connection and all meaning from the events.
Therein lies the danger of formula, of being certain you know how stories should be told. Sometimes knowing how a story should be told is the very reason to tell it a different way. Because if you know it, if it has been identified to the point where it is all over books and has been for decades, maybe the audience sees it too. You can learn from books and structure and from other stories and other writers and you absolutely should… but watch out for formula. It will do your stories a disservice.
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.
One of the places you can fall down in your pitch is in the information dump. Too much information, to the point where it feels overwhelming or boring or just plain too long. More often than not, the more information you give the less clarity you’re offering. Same with show pitch bibles, which I’ve covered here before.
Short, simple, clear and to the point.
However, that does not mean that you don’t have to know all that other stuff. When you’re sitting in front of someone telling them about your concept, you need to know everything that you can. You need to be armed with the information. You need to be able to answer all the questions (again, in a short, clear way) and provide the extra information that you don’t cover in your distilled quick pitch, and you need to be able to do it in an enthusiastic way. You must know your concept inside and out.
And here’s the thing – if you do know your show and it’s a concept that is clear and developed and refined, even if you barely have to answer a single question on it, that knowledge will come through in your confidence and the language you use. One of the best ‘nailed it’ moments was after a presentation I gave when a major broadcaster told me that it was clear that we really know our show and our characters. That counts for a lot with anyone who will take an interest in your show because it’s like a safety net. They know you have a clear vision and you’ve really done the work.
So do the work. Know your show. Know every part of it. Don’t dump it out on to the table in your pitch. Keep it there so you have more to talk about when asked. But know it.
Even a plotter like me can find that the story we begin is not the story we finish. Stories wander. Characters take other directions. Some minor characters take over. The theme drifts as we find we don’t deliver on what we set up at all and yet we’re paying off some whole other idea.
None of this is a bad thing. This is all part of the story process and, actually, I find it is usually a very good thing. It means the story is taking on a life of its own. Whether it’s you as a writer or you have a writer working on it, there are new inspirations and ideas at work. All this will help the story fresh and exciting.
But at a certain point, the story has to be unified. You can’t let it stay one story at the beginning and another at the end. This is for many reasons but possibly the most important of all is that, for an ending to satisfy, the entire story needs to have been going there from the beginning, whether the audience realises it consciously or not.
So you have to go back and see your story parts for what they are. You have to look at your themes, how your characters are working. And then you have some serious decisions to make – is the story you’re telling at the end better than the one you started with? If so, you go back and replot that beginning, always keeping in mind where it now has to go. If not, you need to keep the opening stuff that you love and keep your story on track as you get to a new ending that really delivers. Or you may end up with somewhere in between (although mixing two good ideas does not always lead to a great idea). Whatever you choose, you have some work to do.
This is easy in a short children’s TV episode. One thing I love about kids’ TV work is that it really isn’t a big deal to throw out huge chunks of your story. The damage done and amount you need to fix is never so much that you can’t be brave about changing story direction. A feature film, on the other hand? That’s hard. And I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to fix a novel in this scenario. When you’re dealing with a long story, my advice is to make a new bullet point outline of your story. Lots of screenwriters do this on cards and that works well. Whatever breakdown you began with, dump that and make one based on what you now actually have.
When you have identified the parts you need to fix, get rid of them. Remove them from your outline completely. Why? Because if you leave them and try instead to just amend them, you’ll do this half-assed because every fibre of your being will want to keep the older stuff. Get rid of them completely. Now you know where your gaps are.
With your new aims very clearly marked out – I would always have them in front of me (theme, character arcs and so on) – retell your story. Work through it, filling in the gaps in your outline bit by bit. If all goes well, this should actually be easier than the first time you told your story because you’ll have those clear aims.
When you have a new start to finish story, go back to your draft and delete all the same parts you deleted in your outline. Completely. Gone. Replace those big chunks with the notes from your new story outline. And now just write! Fill in the gaps.
When you hit your final draft, the story you begin must be the story you finish.
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.