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!”
I like my preschool funny and happy and silly and then maybe even more funny. Bright skies, big smiles, warm hugs. Kids are full of love and the world can be a wonderful place. Why would we have anything else?
But I remember years ago when my eldest was little, my motorbike was stolen. And she couldn’t understand why someone would do that. She had no frame of reference for that. The day it happened was the first day I talked to her about a specific TV character in a more serious way: Swiper the Fox. Yep, Swiper from Dora who steals things. At that moment, Dora the Explorer went from being a shouty show with Spanish words to a very useful parenting tool.
There have been some dark world events recently that can be difficult for kids who know about them and we’ve had one rather gruesome local event that had me struggling to talk to my kids about it, even now at the older ages they are. I have found myself wondering: what tools might have helped? What metaphors or characters or narratives might help guide a conversation? We have to be careful because a lot of events will completely pass young children by so no need to hit them with the hard stuff on television. But that doesn’t mean we ignore reality or shy away from prompting thought or discussion. Some of the best television for children challenges their audience. And when kids learn so fast, it seems like a good time to do it.
It’s not easy and you have to be careful but it’s something to consider. I guess it comes down to a question I find good to ask when making anything: how can I help? So maybe give that some thought when you’re creating.
As people who know me are familiar with, one of my mantras is: be good to the parents. If your show can be not just entertainment but actually useful at some point, you’re doing some real good and also generating goodwill that will come back to you. I guess hopefully taking all of us, children and adults alike, one step closer to that world of bright skies, big smiles and warm hugs.
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 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.