Finished not perfect, right? Sure. You have to deliver and you have to deliver on time – that’s crucial. Respect deadlines. Get your work out and do not let your own tweaks and changes and doubts and endless polish hold you back from delivering.
BUT… you can never let this become an excuse to deliver scrappy work. You have to use your time well and make sure that the work you do is of excellent quality. Finished not perfect assumes your work is GOOD. And the danger of putting all focus on getting it out rather than getting it done well is that some can take that as a justification for scrappier and scrappier work.
You have to get your work finished but it has to be finished really well. Never let that slip.
A clean, clear concept. That’s what we want to see. I find pitching a project mostly comes down to answering one simple question: what is it?
What’s the concept?
Unfortunately finding a simple answer is usually harder than it seems. It is a constant struggle to refine your project description down to the very basics while still making it sound attractive. I have seen this go horribly wrong in pitches, where people talk about every element of their show for half an hour and still don’t answer the question ‘what is it?’ Even being very aware of it myself and working at that, I have still sometimes come back from my own pitches knowing that I need a simpler, cleaner way of explaining what it is.
Part of it is excitement. We can get so excited about all these great things in our show that we start to waffle. It just comes out and we lose control of what we’re saying and sentences wander from one part of our concept to the next. It is enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is good and people pick up on that – don’t lose the enthusiasm. But be very aware of the complicated spaghetti-like descriptions that enthusiasm can lead to.
So you need to be prepared. You need to work on your simple description in advance and you need to learn it. Then after you have delivered it, you need to stop talking. Let whoever you are pitching to take it in and ask the questions they need to ask. Answer those simply too. It’s like the advice I see given to people taking the stand in lawyer shows – short answers, answer only what you are asked. The difference between pitching and testifying in a law show, however, is that you need to retain that enthusiasm.
Here is one more thing to be aware of – sometimes your show will change. As it develops, new themes might be added, old ideas discarded. New characters or a new focus is brought in, adding layers to your concept. Your concept will likely grow and find new depth which is all a good thing. But instead of adding each new part to your core pitch, you really have to go back and create a new description. One just as simple as the original but gets across where the show is right now. Clean and clear.
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”.
Research is taken as a given in some types of stories. We wouldn’t write a novel about life in 15th century France without doing some reading into what life was like in 15th century France. We wouldn’t write a sci-fi story about the ISS without finding out what it looks like and what astronauts actually do up there. We wouldn’t write a show about lawyers without doing some research on the law and how that works, right?
Except that some people try exactly that. They see law shows on television and so assume that they know all they need to know to write a story about lawyers. It’s not really a true understanding, will likely lead to mistakes and lawyers who actually live that life will rightly tear your work to shreds when you make those mistakes. You’ve got to do your homework and look up the information.
Children’s media is different though. Especially in preschool. Stories can be about going to the supermarket and we all know what going to a supermarket is like. Or a story might be based around getting on a train. We know how trains work. They might just be about falling out with friends and that’s pretty easy because there isn’t even a picture we’d have to google for that one.
NO! This is wrong! Because what you know is what it is like to experience those things as an adult. The life of a child is VERY different. They will see things you don’t. What is mundane for you to the point where you don’t notice things is still new and exciting to children. How they react to their world and each other will be very different to you.
It can be incredibly beneficial to look stuff up that you take for granted. Firstly, knowing about kids is crucial. Those ‘Secret Life of 4 (and 5) Year Olds’ and similar shows are fantastic for getting a glimpse into how they interact. If you haven’t watched any, do so. But also look up what people are telling children about the mundane things you think you know everything about. What are educators telling kids about supermarkets? What things to their early reading books point out? A lot of these will have been refined over years with research and they might suggest something you never thought of. Look it up and see what you can find out.
And when you can, ask children. No matter how good you are at this, sometimes their answers are going to surprise you. They are the real experts in their own lives.
A couple of weeks ago, I went for a run that got me thinking about comedy in stories. Here’s what happened:
I set off as usual in my t-shirt and shorts with my little app going and my music on. And then I felt something wrong… a sort of sliding feeling on my butt cheeks. Under my running shorts, my boxers were slipping down and down. The elastic must have gone on my boxer shorts.
I hiked them up and kept going. They slipped again. I hiked them up. They slipped again. At this point I couldn’t help but think about what it must look like with me adjusting my pants every minute or so as I jogged past people. This couldn’t go on. So about a kilometre into my run, I stopped and tried to tackle this properly. What I did was take my boxer shorts and get the seam right under the waistline of my running shorts, pulling my running shorts tight. The idea was that the running shorts would hold the boxer shorts in place. And they did…
…for almost another half km, at which point they slipped again.
I stopped to adjust and got another half km out of that. But I could not keep running with my underpants sliding down my butt cheeks over and over again.
So I did the only thing I could to hold them in place. I took hold of them and I pulled hard, giving myself a wedgie. The only thing that could hold these in place was the power of my own butt cheeks. So with wedgie firmly in place, I ran. I ran like the wind. No, it wasn’t comfortable but I was running and my boxers stayed in place. I smiled as I ran, not one person knowing how my boxer shorts were pulled right up my butt crack except for the people who saw me adjust them again two kilometres later, giving myself the wedgie to end all wedgies to get me all the way home.
And I thought about how ridiculous this was and about comedy. Great comedy so often comes from the little human failings. The disasters. The challenges we aren’t prepared for. I wrote one project once for a really great director who just had one thing missing – comedy wasn’t his thing. The reason was that he was seemingly great at everything (and he really was). He couldn’t understand when characters got things wrong or weren’t prepared for the challenges they faced. That didn’t make sense to him. It makes sense to me. I fail. I get everyday life wrong. And I can write good comedy.
But here’s a really important thing about the challenges we give characters in comedy – they are funny when they don’t completely beat the characters. On my run, had I just gone home and changed my underwear, that wouldn’t have been funny. Had I stopped and broken down in tears, that wouldn’t have been all that funny either. What created a funny situation was that I didn’t give up. I persevered and was a willing participant in the situation becoming more and more ridiculous. That’s funny.
So if you’re going to write funny, you need to understand what it’s like to be the guy who will go for a 7km run with a wedgie.
Regular readers will know I like to be able to break a character down to the very basics. When you write your story, you have to be able to quickly bring to mind that character and how they act. A simple sense of who the character is really helps give you clarity.
But it can also help you avoid what is an all too common problem: all of your characters coming across the same in your story.
The big test of character is not how great your description is. It’s if the audience knows who these characters are in a single story. In a single scene. They should. Every time. Your characters should be that clear. And how do we do this? Through action. Through how they tackle a situation, react to the unexpected, respond to pressure. So you need to give them situations, the unexpected or pressure.
And you can test this. Give your scene to someone who doesn’t know the show and ask them to describe the characters. Do they get it right? If not, what can you do to fix that?
Here are some things you shouldn’t rely on to make your characters different: funny voices, catchphrases, colours, different tools or weapons, racial stereotypes. None of these things are a substitute for actual personality and the last one is right out.
Know who your characters are. Make them different. Then make them clear.
If you’re making content for children, one of the most basic requirements is that you know children. You have to know your audience. If you’re creating, writing, directing, animating child characters, you have to know what children are like at that age.
Kids and adults are not the same thing. Approach your audience like adults and you’ll get it wrong. Approach your characters like adults and, yep, you’ll get it wrong.
And be aware that children of different ages vary hugely. Sure, a 36 year old might be pretty much the same as a 39 year old. A 3 year old child is like an entirely different being to a 6 year old. They are not the same thing.
There are far too many things to cover in one post (and I shouldn’t – reading bullet points is not the same as knowing what kids are like) but you have to remember that young kids are SMALL. They are curious. They are explorers. They learn fast and soak up information. They often think in absolutes, not grey areas. They don’t do subtlety. They get REALLY excited about things. More excited than you ever get and often about things that you find utterly mundane. And they can go straight to REALLY upset in an instant. They can switch emotions with no transition. They are animated, expressive and, when young, usually have very few reservations or social barriers. They have challenges you never face. And they don’t let it hold them back. The smaller ones have to climb just to get up on a chair. You can be sure they’ll climb up on to the kitchen counter to get a glass. They have achievements every single day, often several a day. That means tying their laces or something else you take for granted. They will eat sweets until they are sick and then do it again the next day. They probably don’t care in the slightest about the pretty scenery out the window. They could well be picking their nose and eating it at this very moment. And they can do exactly what an adult just told them not to do and it doesn’t make them bad kids.
And most of all: they are all different.
But the one thing they aren’t is adult. You’ve got to know what kids are like. It’s so important.
A lot of creative choices are simply that: choices. That’s all. Got a teapot in a shot? Maybe you make it yellow. Or blue. Or kind of off white. Maybe an art director would prefer it purple to match some curtains somewhere. Maybe the director’s favourite colour is orange and tends to go for orange more. Six different people might pick six different colours for that teapot. And a day later some of those might pick a different colour.
When someone hands you that teapot design and it isn’t the colour you would have picked, you might want to jump in and get that changed… STOP!
Before you put something into the system, ask yourself this: will this change genuinely make it better? Or will it just make it different? Different is rarely enough reason to justify the change. There are enough things in any given story, episode or production that actually need examination or improvement for anyone to spend time just making something different.
Story, engagement and entertainment are what matters. Detail is important in fleshing out a world, the stage for the stories. But it needs to be recognised that so many choices in any creative endeavour are no more than that: choices. We won’t all make the same ones and that doesn’t make a different choice wrong.
So when working with a team or evaluating work, keep in mind that a choice is not wrong just because it is not the one you would have made. Don’t focus on the things you would do differently. Focus on where you can genuinely improve and enhance, always keeping in mind the bigger picture – the storytelling and engagement.
Writers will understand the need for this straight away. It’s that feeling when you save the final version of your file, put it in an email and click SEND. And then you spot the typo. EVERY. TIME.
It just needed one more check before sending. That typo probably isn’t the worst idea thing in the world but it will haunt you. And it may not be a typo – it could be something bigger. It’s not just for the writers either. A scene. A storyboard. A design. They could all do with one last check before you show them.
So buy that time.
Work it so you can take the time to do that final check before you send. To do this, aiming for your deadline isn’t enough. Given that something will likely slow you up somewhere, you should always be aiming earlier anyway but you’ll definitely need some extra time for that last check. So reset your deadline to accommodate that.
Remember: the deadline and the actual time you need to finish in order to meet that deadline are rarely the same thing.
Build it into estimates you give people. If you think something will take five hours, say it will take five and a half. Or six. If it will take a week, build in an extra half day or even a day. It’s check time and it will pay off. Yes it takes more time but it will mean your work is presented in a better form and you may well find you have more to fix than the equivalent of typos.
Always have that time for one last check. If you didn’t need it, great. But usually you will and you’ll be very glad you allowed for it.
Ever skip a paragraph in a book? Sure you have. Don’t deny it! Ever drift off in a movie? Start thinking about work or what you’re going to have to eat afterwards? Yep. I know you’ve done that. Kids do it too. Some people have this image of children locked to a screen like zombies but, actually, they usually get pretty busy when they watch TV or a movie. They move around a lot. Their attention might not go to you when you’re calling them for dinner but they might see a bird outside or see if they can put their toes in their mouth or whatever.
And the reality is that it’s not always as easy to engage a child meaningfully as some seem to think.
So think about when you drift off in media. There are many factors but there is one common problem I see crop up a lot and it also happens to be in a bunch of scripts that have passed by me in children’s media over the years: you’re just not getting to the story part.
We can call it a lot of different things and it ties into character agency but, really, it’s that simple. You have got to get to the story part. What is the story about? What’s the problem to solve or the challenge to overcome? Don’t get to it in the last 10% of your story. Get there as quick as you possibly can and let it drive every beat of that story. Is it happening too late? CUT ALL THE EARLIER STUFF! Just cut it. Get to the story. Can you do it on the first page? Give it a shot.
A lot of what we tend to write is fluff around the story that helps us as writers find that story and that depth and that world. But it’s not all story. Some of it is just help for us, part of our process. Like scaffolding around a building – you take the scaffolding off at the end so people can just go straight into the building. Get kids straight into your story. Remove the fluff. Get to the story parts.
Always imagine someone shouting in your ear as you edit and write those later drafts: “JUST GET TO THE STORY PARTS!”