Memento was a great movie, wasn’t it? And who didn’t love Godfather Part 2? But we don’t jump around chronologically like that in preschool. There is a very good reason most of the top preschool shows take place in real time, hardly ever even moving on to tomorrow, never mind shifting backwards to yesterday. If 24 had been a preschool show, nobody would have noticed what was different about it.
Generally in preschool, it’s good to stay in the present. Right now. In real time.
Young children don’t always have a clear sense of time. And the younger they are, the harder it is for them to understand. Children live in the moment. They live now. Yes, some actually have surprisingly great memories (like my eldest daughter) but it can be hard to process any true sense of when something really happened. A child might say “yesterday” and that could mean yesterday, last week, last year or five minutes ago. And without truly understanding how the past works, it’s incredibly difficult to really grasp the idea of time in the future.
Back in the early Fluffy Gardens episodes, I made the mistake of writing in too many ‘next day’ transitions. Rookie mistake. Much later with Planet Cosmo, it all takes in real time except for a single story which revolves around bedtime and so required one night-to-morning switch. Making it work took a lot of thought and, even then, I suspect I only managed to get across what was key to the story (bedtime) rather than fully getting across that passage of time, at least with the younger children.
It is okay to do that. You can tell stories like that as long as you know why it is you’re doing it, understand what elements are important to your story and make it absolutely clear, with the understanding that young children are not going to have that same sense of time passing that you do. But unless you really have to, I would always advise staying in the present. Stick to real time. It’s much easier for a preschool audience to grasp and they will be with your characters every moment of your episode.
But that was before just about every piece of knowledge from the entire planet decided to plonk itself right in front of us as we work. And even without that, think about those times you are buried in your work and someone interrupts to tell you something that, actually, has no real relevance to anything you are doing or are ever going to do. That knowledge is not power. It is distraction.
The truth is, there is more in the world than we could ever learn in a hundred lifetimes. We can amass knowledge. Everyone can. In a way, that has completely levelled many playing fields. Knowledge is not power any more. Not on its own.
Action is power – that comes from having drive rather than lots of knowledge. Relevant knowledge is power when applied – relevance and a sense of what is actually important comes from experience rather than just information-gathering. Above all, focus is power. And focus, by its very nature, means shutting some things out because you just don’t have the time or energy for them. Oh, I’m not anti-learning. Not by a long shot and anyone who reads this little blog would know that very well. I feel we should learn about the world and beyond our world, grow, test and challenge ideas. But when we are working, actually immersed in projects, we need focus.
And as it happens, it seems that focus is much harder to achieve these days than finding knowledge.
So in those situations, consider filtering just what information gets in. My rule of thumb: if the information is something I can’t take any action on, I don’t need it.
We had a great day on Saturday talking through writing and developing for preschool media. For the most part, we stayed with the needs of the audience and how best to focus and present the creative in engaging ways. But any work comes with systems that must be dealt with on top of all the fun creative and dealing with notes is part of almost any process. We touched on this a little on Saturday but I felt it worth expanding on here. It’s fantastic to get notes about how awesome our work is but, when we aren’t used to them, more critical notes can sometimes feel like a kick in the gut.
They can feel rotten and can be hard to take when we are so close to our work. That’s the truth of it.
So knowing that, here are my top tips for handling notes you don’t particularly like:
1. Don’t react instantly.
Read the notes. Then do nothing. Don’t send a mail, don’t pick up the phone and don’t tear your work apart. Do nothing. Instead, leave them and revisit them the next day. They’ll look different and you have now had time to process them even if you weren’t considering them directly. Sure, there may be some notes in there you still don’t like but the knee-jerk reaction is gone and you will be better able to consider them for what they really are.
2. Remember they are not out to get you.
People write notes to contribute. And you know what? Most do contribute. If there are notes that you vehemently disagree with, remind yourself that the person who wrote the notes is not your enemy. They want to help and their intentions are good. I could have done with someone reminding me this early in my career.
3. Really consider them.
This is so important. You might read something in the notes that doesn’t match with your initial thinking or they may be phrased poorly or even (the odd time) read as offensive but is it possible that the point behind the note might actually make your story better? Or is it possible that you might be able to implement them in some way that would produce, for you, a neutral result – so that you give on the note without feeling like you have lost what you were aiming for? If so, do it. Most of the time, even a note we see as rotten has a very valid point behind it. It’s a sign something hasn’t worked. The truth is, it is the critical notes that have value.
4. Choose your battles carefully.
Eventually you will find a note that, to you, defeats the whole purpose of what you wrote. One that would make you feel terrible if you went with it. You need to save your credits for that one. Don’t waste them on the little things, those things that don’t really matter. Don’t get into the habit of rejecting notes – it will wear you and everyone else down. Save the credits.
5. Those battles? They can’t be battles.
If it becomes a confrontational situation, everyone loses. You win by keeping people happy, acknowledging that something hasn’t quite worked and looking for solutions that are positive for everyone. Keep control, get the results you want while making sure everyone is okay with that. Be positive and stay constructive, not destructive.
And the most important tip of all when you have notes arriving in…
6. Cut off your email.
Don’t check project emails in the evening or weekend. Give yourself a cut-off and stick to it. I would even advise picking a time early Friday afternoon or lunchtime and cutting it off from then. Because someone might send a note on a Friday just as they are walking out of the office, like dropping a little nuclear bomb on your weekend. And you can’t do a thing about it until Monday morning. So let it wait until Monday. Don’t have it on your mind all weekend. You need your weekends, you need your evenings and you need your sleep. So be selective about when you open yourself up to mails.
So those are my top tips for handing those notes we don’t agree with instantly.
I will leave you with just one other thing to consider. I so often preach the value of Audience Awareness – knowing who it is we write for and keeping our audience in mind at all times. One of the wonderful by-products of embracing Audience Awareness is that it can take ego out of the equation. It becomes all about the kids and not in any way about you. When that happens, it stops being personal and you can really see that notes are not about being critical of you or what you can do, but are about seeing if a whole team can give something even better to children.
It all has to make sense. Once your audience starts asking questions in their head about why certain things have or haven’t happened, you’ve lost them. They may miss a line or even several lines and they are out of the story. They may not catch up again. They may not want to.
So everything in your story has to make sense. It has to be clear even for the younger children in your audience. It should be clear for you as a writer or a director and clear for everyone in the production. And so there are limits to how whimsical you can go before you start losing your audience and it is very important that you play by the rules you establish at the start of your story.
And therein lies a lovely little bit of freedom.
You see, we tend to accept the world as it is when we are first introduced to it. If we begin a story about a family that owns a spotty elephant and, halfway through the story, the elephant’s spots turn to stripes without any reason, we’ll question that. It could take us out of the story. But very few people will question how a normal family ended up with a spotty elephant in the first place because that’s the world we established right at the start. If a character becomes a wizard somewhere in your story, that needs to make sense in the context of your world. Open the story with a wizard and nobody will question it. A world of chocolate people? No problem. But when it’s a hot sunny day and they don’t melt, you have some explaining to do.
So if you have some fantastic, fun, whimsical concept you want as part of your story, open with it. That’s now your world. It doesn’t mean you’ll get away with anything, as the chocolate people example illustrates, but you’ll get away with that particular stretch.
We will generally accept the world as presented to us right at the start. From there, you have to stick to the rules you establish.
By the way, don’t forget I will be giving a course on Writing and Developing Content for Preschool Media this Saturday, 2nd of November. It’s going to be a really good day full of guidance and tips to help you focus your content in a way that better engages preschool children. Details here: Animation Skillnet.
Before I get on to my regular weekly post, I’d like to let you know about a one-off writing and developing workshop that I am presenting with Animation Skillnet on the 2nd of November in Dublin. For anyone interested in developing or writing content for preschool media, I will be offering an intensive day of training, guidelines and practical tips which includes insight from decades of research into children and media and my own years of industry experience, writing over 100 broadcast episodes and leading the creative on almost 300 television episodes for children.
With the recent boom in animation production in Ireland, we need great preschool writers and this day will give a head start to both new and established writers looking to develop or write preschool content. So please do come along! Details here on Animation Skillnet.
And now back to our regular services…
Here is a simple little scripting tip that will sound obvious as you read it and yet, because of the way we use language, is something often missed as people write.
Make sure actions and visuals play out in the chronological order in which they happen.
This is easily illustrated by an example. Read this next paragraph and play the story out in your head:
Harry laughs out loud almost as soon he enters the room when he sees Lenny hit the floor, after just tripping on a roller skate which sent him flying into the air.
There is no possible way that a scene can play out like this on screen unless you are playing it backwards. We read first that Harry laughs out loud but that doesn’t really happen until after he enters the room so we missed an action there. Lenny hits the floor but we have to rewind the scene as we find out how and why he hit the floor. As anyone reads through the lines (producer, editor, director, anyone), they lose a sense of what is happening because they are having to jump back in time as they read. That is a problem. It creates a barrier between the script and the storytelling and, really, you don’t even want people aware that they are reading a script – you want them to experience the story.
The solution? Just write it very simply as it happens in chronological order:
Harry enters the room. He watches as Lenny trips on a roller skate, flies through the air and lands right on his bottom. Harry laughs out loud.
Now everything happens in order. As someone reads it, every action plays out in their mind just as it will happen on screen. The sentences are functional. Personally, I like to keep them that way because what is important is the action. Your wordplay won’t make it to screen unless it is in dialogue and flourishes of language, as interesting as they can be, can often draw attention to your scripting rather than the actual story. The main thing is that you have clearly set down the order that will then survive to storyboarding, animatic and final episode.
So keep it mind as you write. Make sure actions and visuals play out in the chronological order in which they happen.
One of the hardest lessons early on in a career is finding out that, actually, we don’t know everything. And, yes, we need to find out more. We eventually realise that our ignorance is not a strength (“I’ll bring a fresh approach by not knowing anything” – ahem, no). So what do people do with that realisation?
It seems to greatly depend on what end of the business you are in. I have found that writers usually seek help, sometimes to a fault immersing themselves in books on Hollywood and structure rather than actually writing. To those writers, I say this – write more! But this post is for the others, often the directors, the creators, the developers, who tend to bury this realisation and continue to stumble along blindly. Why do we do this when it seems so obvious that we should learn from the research, successes and failures of others? I suspect it is because people in this position must constantly push so hard to open doors that their self-belief, whether real or as a persona, is crucial to getting ahead. To seek help or guidance could seem like a break in momentum. A step backwards.
But breaking our momentum is sometimes essential. We need to pause to evaluate what we have, to make it better. And sometimes we need to take a step backwards to get a better look at what we have created. And to challenge it.
To do that, we often need to seek guidance from those who have had their own successes and failures or those who have studied the lessons of the past. Those things we find out through trial and error others already know and we can bypass many obstacles by finding that out before we get there ourselves.
This can work at all levels. People call me up for guidance on preschool, writing or production, for example, but I too will seek out guidance in many areas as I work. On Planet Cosmo, a valuable contributor was Educational Consultant, Brian Neish. Now I did my homework and research on the educational methods but actually having the assistance of Brian, someone who had tackled this area many times over, meant we could avoid common mistakes and make our educational portions even better.
Seek guidance. Value it. Budget for it. It will make your work better.
But don’t always act on it.
This is the disclaimer. Not every piece of advice you get will be right for your project. In the fine print of any project development, it should say “be aware your work can get worse as well as better”. Guidance must be evaluated, considered carefully, and acted upon if it will contribute positively to your project. But I have seen some known names in the business miss the point of certain projects and offer guidance that negatively affected the end product. Guidance that, on another project, could have been gold. It is not that these people don’t know their stuff, it is just that every project is different and not every piece of advice applies in every case. By the way, that does not mean the process has been a waste – challenging your project just as a broadcaster or distributor will is incredibly important in building real confidence.
So how do you know? How do you know if it will be right or wrong for your project? Well, mostly through experience. But I will offer one of my own guidelines:
If a suggestion can make my project a better version of what it is, I will gladly take it on and act on it. But if that suggestion is attempting to turn the project into something it is not, I will usually reject it.
Be true to the project, whatever that may be.
So seek guidance. Recruit top level people with experience to help. Value that, be open to it and take on any suggestion that will help make your project better. But in the process, never lose sight of what your project is.
Story is drama. Drama is conflict. You need character conflict. And so on.
One of the biggest mistakes I see new writers make is applying what they have read about writing adult screenplays to preschool cartoons. Children are not little adults and one of the most important messages I would give to anyone in media is to stay audience aware. If your core target audience are adults just like you, great. That means you write what appeals to you. But if not (and preschool children are not like you), then audience awareness is of paramount importance.
And those adult screenplay tips and tricks no longer apply.
So what happens when people approach preschool with character conflict as a goal? We end up with story catalyst that leads to grumpy, angry characters snapping at each other. They get annoyed easily, often at things that have no relevance to the lives of preschool children. Very soon what we have is a harsh, unpleasant story that feels far too grown-up.
And the person reading the script thinks, this is not a preschool story. This is not a preschool writer. Not the desired outcome.
Part of the reason this happens is that we all tend to misremember our childhood. We have memories of how we felt that we assign to a much younger age by mistake. And all the while, we’re interpreting those memories with the thoughts processes of an adult, not the child we once were.
The lives of preschool children are so small. Their environment is tiny, they have fewer relationships and those that they have are usually with a trusted group of family and friends. Even in preschools and Montessoris, the atmosphere is much more controlled than later in life as they get into the school system. Those harsh conflicts don’t happen in the same way for preschool kids and, when they come close, they are diffused and forgotten about almost instantly.
So conflict for a preschool child is on a different level. Striving for victory, overcoming their shortcomings and conquering the world means being able to stand on one leg for five seconds, being able to brush their own teeth, being able to clump around the house in daddy’s shoes without falling over, getting their turn on the swing or successfully putting a plaster on an injured teddy bear. It is in ways like these that good preschool stories find conflict and even character conflict too. But not in the same way that stories for adults do.
In fact, the conflict in a preschool child’s life often wouldn’t even be considered conflict to most adults.
So try to ease up on the conflict. Keep the story small, even if it is set in some fantastical dreamworld, because the world of your audience is small. Give kids something to relate to. And keep it fun. Give kids something they’ll enjoy watching. There’s a reason Peppa Pig is a huge hit with kids and Breaking Bad isn’t quite so appropriate for them. Let’s see fewer sulks, angry exchanges and sad faces and, instead, give us more fun, more laughs and more smiles.
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.
In just about any creative field, we can sometimes hit a point where what we are doing seems like a complete and utter disaster. On quite a simple level I tend to encounter this when writing or illustrating. I might hit a point where I think what I am doing has gone horribly wrong. The story doesn’t work or the drawing looks nothing like what I had in my imagination. But we all know it happens on a large scale too, with whole projects that have so much more at stake. It just didn’t turn out like I hoped. What went wrong? This was a terrible idea. Abandon it and start something new quickly, before it’s too late!
Not so fast.
Keep pushing. Disaster is often simply a part of the process. All it usually means is that you aren’t finished yet. Keep going and finish it.
To give up early is to lose a huge opportunity for something special. We will never know if, actually, it would have turned out great with some more work. If we could have rescued it, turned it around and ended up with something that really did justice to the risk we took when we began.
And don’t ever fool yourself into thinking that any creative endeavour isn’t a risk. Anything creative comes with risk. So give it a chance, put in that extra work to allow that risk to pay off. That is what it takes – work.
I see this on a small scale with scripts and illustrations, where what was once a mess often ends in something really interesting. And I see this across whole projects.
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?’