Every TV episode I write has to justify its existence. Yes, people want volume and that alone can be the aim. For some shows, it doesn’t matter if every episode blurs into the next. But for me, I want to add something. Offer something that hasn’t yet been covered. I approach this in different ways on different shows and different episodes but I usually have the same thought behind it – how might this become a child’s favourite episode?
For that to happen, an episode needs something to define it.
You just have to think about how a child asks for the episode. “I want the one with the balloons!” “Can I see the one about the dog?” and so on. Quite early on, I found myself applying what I have come to call the Friends Title Method. Remember Friends? Of course you do. The episode titles in that show were all “The One With…” There was:
The One With The Monkey.
The One With Russ.
The One Where Joey Moves Out.
They all followed this format. For me, thinking of it that way means that I have clarity as a writer. If I know what the one thing is that defines the story, everything I write serves that and should strengthen it. For kids, it separates out the episodes and makes each one unique in its own way. Every episode offers something a little different and so justifies its existence.
So when I’m working on a story, I ask myself what episode this is and I refer to it with that Friends title system – it’s the one with… And now I always know what defines that episode.
Many years ago I asked an author friend about his approach to writing. His advice: make each chapter better than the last. He makes it sound so simple!
As it happens, it is the perfect advice. If you consider a whole novel and the amount of content in that, it could soon be overwhelming. Keeping track of narrative over 85,000 words? Eighty-five THOUSAND? That’s a challenge. Character development, plot points, little seeds planted that you want to pick up later across something of that size is very daunting. And if someone suggests a pretty big change smack bang in the middle of all that and it’s a really good suggestion? You could have a domino chain of fixes running the entire way through that in both directions. That is a terrifying prospect for the human mind.
And that is why many of us will start a book and never ever finish it.
But breaking it down chapter by chapter and focussing on the chapter at hand? That’s manageable. Approaching each one with the aim of making that chapter entertaining all by itself? Sure, we can do that. Giving each chapter a little conclusion, whether a high or a low? Yep, that sounds good. Very soon, you build chapters that have their own twists and turns and if you keep that up you could soon have a book.
So much of what I have written in my career have been short episodes. 7 minutes mostly, some 13 minutes. While telling a story in that space of time is a challenge all of its own, the huge benefit is that there isn’t all that much to keep track of. There is a limit to the fallout that can happen when you change something. You can try things and, if they don’t work, you can try something else. No problem.
This month, I delivered a children’s feature script that is due to shoot next month. I’m currently on another one. While not quite a novel, that feeling of moving from a 7 minute episode to an 80 minute movie sent me into a little bit of a panic at first. Not just making it fun but doing so with movie structure stuff and acts and what have you. And if something doesn’t work and I have to pull it apart, that’s a lot more pages to deal with.
So I started to think of it like chapters in a book. And I made my aim to make each chapter better than the last. Yes, it is one overall story just like a novel is. But approaching it in smaller chunks made it manageable and I could keep track of everything much easier. As I aimed for highs and lows within those chapters and tried to end with something that would have the reader desperately want to start the next chapter, I soon found what I had was a story that worked.
All I had to do was actually write it.
As it turned out, that was simply a case of writing all the fun parts first and then filling in the gaps. If there are very few gaps to fill, that is a sign you could have something good.
Every character in a show or individual episode must have a purpose. They have to be there for a reason and they should offer something that no other main character can.
They should contribute in a way that furthers the story somehow, filling a role: mentor, ally etc. Or in a way that can complement or oppose in personality to enhance the group dynamic. Preferably both.
If you are ever in any doubt about just what that character is doing there, remove them. Better to have too few characters than too many.
Character descriptions are incredibly important in nailing down just what kind of person each character is. They should tell us how we will relate to that character. They should let us know why we might care about that character. And they should make clear why each character is different and has earned their role in a show or film. Often, character descriptions can bloat with back story, complex explanations of relationships with each and every other character and lots of tiny details.
Sometimes that stuff is useful. It might spark a story.
More often than not, however, it gets in the way. One thing I do when I am writing is to create my own little reminders of the core character traits at the top of my document or script. So a character description in a show bible might be a few paragraphs but, for me, it would become something like: Very young. Wants to be liked. Things must be fair.
Three sentences. And not even full sentences. Sometimes it might just be one word. If one of those sentences is simply ‘ordered’ that tells me a lot about how that character will react in situations.
What I have found over the years is that the characters that work best are the ones that can be narrowed down to three sentences easiest. If it’s a struggle to find the core traits that sum up that character or if they require lots of ‘ands’ and ‘buts’, it can be an indicator that the character isn’t quite nailed down yet. Or if you find two characters come down to the same basic traits, that too can be an indicator of a problem. So the three sentences can be a good test of how a character is working.
But does such simplicity do a character a disservice? Surely we can’t all be reduced to three sentences? We are more complicated than that, yes? We are, of course. But you still need that clarity to begin with. And you will find that three sentences per character applied to a whole range of situations will still result in a huge amount of variations in action and reactions. Because the aim then is to write them as living beings, not just robots carrying out their three traits like that’s all they are capable of. For example, we won’t write down ‘hungry’ as one of our traits unless constant hunger is a defining quality. And yet our characters will still get hungry. But how they deal with that will change depending on their three main sentences.
So give it a try – reduce your characters to three core sentences and see what you end up with.
I tweeted about this a couple of days ago and then thought it worthy of a post in case it helps anyone. Back almost ten years ago I had to come up with 40 characters and 40 stories to go with them for Fluffy Gardens. It was an evolving world and I didn’t yet know everything about it. What I did know is that I had to write these stories while also directing the show. I didn’t have time to mess about. Some stories came very easily. Others didn’t.
I needed inspiration for those tougher stories. So I created a cheat sheet.
In a simple document, I wrote lists. Everyday events in a child’s life, including mealtimes, washing up, going shopping and so on. Special events, including parties, going to the doctor, a trip to the zoo and things like that. It contains a list of locations: library, shoe shop, waterfall etc. A list of things: crayons, lederhosen, tuba etc. And (very important) a list of character traits: generous, analytical, boisterous etc.
Many of these are broken into smaller parts. For example, here is the listing for Concert:
Concert Dressing up. Getting tickets. Going to see a live performance. Listening to music. Orchestra. Band. Noisy. Getting restless. Loving the music. Singing along. Trying to play the songs afterwards.
Whenever I got stuck for a story, or I had a part of one but I wasn’t sure what to do with it, I would spend some time browsing the list. I would almost never find a ready-made story on it but it would inspire thoughts, scenes, ideas and ‘what if’ scenarios. Before long, a few words on that page would lead me off somewhere else and I would find what I had was a story. An actual story.
I have updated this list a few times over the years but the guts of it have remained the same. And it has remained just as useful since I wrote it all those years ago. So if you ever find yourself stuck for a story, consider making lists and creating your own cheat sheet.
Anyone who likes sci-fi will be familiar with council scenes. In these scenes, we take a well-earned break from the interesting stuff to watch a group of stuffy old people spout exposition and debate ethics while sitting or standing very still. The Phantom Menace had them. A bunch of Star Treks had them. Those Matrix sequels probably had them, I can’t quite remember. Jim from Neighbours has made a career out of them.
But they’re boring.
They are really, really, really boring.
They are so easy to spot in sci-fi but, once you develop a distaste for them, you’ll start to see them everywhere. It could characters spouting exposition and debating in a kitchen. Or a sitting room. Or somewhere else. The main hallmarks are that the characters aren’t going anywhere, don’t have much actual purpose other than to fill in story gaps, the scenes are about as static as can be without being labelled a photograph and often the characters involved don’t even have a role in the rest of the story. Boring, boring, boring.
And you know what? I just spotted one beginning to form in a thing I’m writing. Not a total council scene but close enough. I feel shame and alarm and I have cut the scene completely but I have no excuse for it.
I won’t let this travesty pass without some good coming from it. So now I use my now-deleted half-written scene of boringness as a lesson: avoid the council scenes. Just get rid of them. Look out for them and cut them. They’re boring. They’re boring for everyone but especially in kids’ media. Even your quirky designs won’t prevent the energy grinding to a halt when they happen. So just don’t let them happen. Say NO to council scenes.
I started with animation, the 2D hand-drawn kind. At a certain point, I recognised a built-in difficulty with the 2D animation system: the dilution of drawings. While setting up a scene, a storyboard artist sketches a character pose. Then a layout artist draws a tighter on-model version of that pose. An animator uses that as a basis for their rough key poses. Then in-betweeners fill in the drawings that are still missing, using the key drawings as their starting point. Finally a clean-up artist redraws all those drawings again with a clean line.
In each one of those steps, the energy that was once in that storyboard pose gets harder and harder to keep. It’s like a far less interesting version of Chinese Whispers, where the end result is a bland approximation of the starting point. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but the chances are pretty high in every single scene.
So people tackle this in different ways. Often the storyboard artists get to put a lot more life into their drawings. They don’t have to stick exactly to what the character looks like so they can be more playful. That way, we hope that they capture an energy that survives in part all the way through, albeit in a diluted form.
But the best way I found to beat this problem is one I saw employed by some making the crazier cartoons of the ’90s – encourage everyone at each stage to push it further.
You don’t just aim to capture what was in the previous drawing. You don’t aim to equal it. You take it to the next level. Got a strong storyboard pose? Try to make it even stronger in the layout. Then again in the animation and so on. Each artist adding to the energy rather than just repeating or, more likely, losing the energy altogether. And you have to keep doing it. You have to push every drawing actively. The second you stop doing it consciously, the energy fades again.
So I realised this many, many years ago.
What I hadn’t realised at the time, however, is that it applies to far more than just hand-drawn animation. It applies to just about everything. It applies to story. It applies to character. It applies to writing. It applies to directing. It even applies in ways to production systems. You have to keep trying to push things further at every stage. Make them more interesting, stronger, better. And you have to do it consciously and keep reminding yourself to do so. Because the second you stop, things slip. They start to get far less interesting and, eventually, stop working altogether.
So keep pushing it further. Do it at every stage. And use every bump, every criticism, every do-over, every problem as an opportunity to ask yourself how you can push it even further. Do this and you’ll end up with something interesting, better and truly alive.
Just a little note today on scripts and why they are so important when developing a concept. Now when I say scripts, that can be the traditional written form or, as some prefer in animation, a fully working storyboard instead. Either way, it is the document that sets out the story. For me, they are more important than how great the concept itself sounds and certainly way more important than what’s in the show bible.
If it doesn’t work in the scripts, it doesn’t work.
That is all.
And tomorrow at Animation Dingle, I’ll be giving a masterclass going through my whole development process as a creative producer. If you’re at Dingle, come along! It is just one of many great things happening there this year. Details HERE!
Don’t worry, we’ll fix it in post. When you see it with sound, it will work much better. Sure it seems wrong now but the story will come together in the animatic. We’ll let that scene go but the scenes around it will give it context. Ah, what do kids know anyway?
Making shows and media is hard. Sure, it can be fun and we’ll all talk about it with a smile to people who aren’t in the business but you and I know that it can be hard. There are so many places for things to go wrong. And fixing mistakes? Production problems? Making stuff work that really doesn’t? That’s a nightmare. It can send problems down the entire chain of production and on to the screen.
So how do we avoid that? Well… you know all those places it can go wrong? You make sure that each one of those stages is, instead, carried out correctly from the very beginning. I make it sound so easy! The thing is, every time you get a step right it becomes harder to get the entire process wrong. The earlier you start to get it right the better.
Let’s look at a real example: an animated television episode.
We will assume the concept is already in place (if not, get that right first). So you have your characters, your setting and you know what the show is about. You may even have scripts already. That’s a good start. But this individual episode is all new.
You start with the story idea. Just the very basics, often a one-line concept. If this concept is good, it could lead to 100 different stories and many if not most of them could be really great. So get it right first. Work through lots of ideas and pick the best or pick one that really inspires.
Once you have that idea right, the next stage becomes easier: plotting the story. You’ve got to get this right because your script will be much harder if you don’t. You need to know what happens and if there are early story problems they will become apparent here. Work at getting this right and you’ll have a much easier task on the next really important part: writing the script.
Now your script has to be good because that defines the whole episode. Pulling a good episode from a bad script? Forget about it. Get your script right and the storyboard artist will have a much easier job drawing a lovely set of panels. Get those panels right and the animatic will be a breeze. Get the animatic right and your animation… and your scenes… and your sound… and so on.
Get it right the first time and everything becomes easier. It sends that goodness down the entire chain of production. Get it wrong and you’re struggling every single step of the way and you’re looking at your final episode thinking, the next episode might be better. Or worse, thinking that it’s awesome while everyone else is hoping the next episode might be better.
So start at the start and get your story and your script right. Only let it go to the next stage when these are good. Build on each step rather than constantly trying to paper over the previous one. It can be hard work up front and you might wonder if there is really value in torturing over some of the details but your future self or your director or your whole team will benefit. More importantly, the kids will love what you make.
On a related and not coincidental note, Nelly and Nora from Geronimo Productions launched in Ireland this week. I had the pleasure of working as script editor on the show with two great writers – Andrew Brenner and Emma Hogan. Both of them worked incredibly hard early on crafting lovely stories to get those first stages right and begin the chain of events that would lead to what are now lovely episodes for young children. The core of what those episodes achieve was all there in the scripts and so the production team could spend their time making them wonderful (and that’s just what they’ve done). There are 52 episodes now airing on RTEjr and going global very soon. If you have children, look out for it.
Yesterday I saw this article about how children often miss the moral of a story. The article is true whether we’re talking preschool children or whether we’re talking kids in the 6-10 age group. Time after time, children walk away from a story having completely missed the message. Or worse, having badly misinterpreted the message.
The reasons for this are numerous. As the article points out, understanding the outcome requires stages of judgement throughout the story as cause and effect is revealed. As we approach stories as writers, we often work under the assumption that children know why characters are doing certain things whereas it is common that the audience hasn’t looked for a why. The why can be integral to understanding the final message.
Then there is that issue itself – that the moral or main message usually comes at the end. Your one-line sum up about how great it is to be yourself is simply not as likely to stick as the lead-up where each character wants to be just like the other kids and we get a song about trying not to stand out. In providing the negative example to lead to your wonderful positive message about life, chances are you may be planting that negative as the key takeaway of your story.
And then there is the fact that, as covered here recently, kids often miss bits. They’re busy, busy little people and they may not get a key line required for that “aha!” moment.
So what do we do? Well the one place I disagree with that article is the idea that we can’t predict whether a message will stick. I think it’s more likely that people just don’t ask the question. If we accept that getting the point across is difficult, we can do many things to ensure the success of that message. Many are already covered on this blog already so here are just some key suggestions:
- Make sure the message is itself simple and easily illustrated.
- Ensure that your moral/message realisation is as big and exciting as any negative parts.
- Really take the time to celebrate that message.
- Have your message run through the entire story, not just the end. Make it a running theme.
- State any key message clearly without surrounding clutter. Leave no ambiguity.
- Find a way of asking the audience to pay attention. It’s a simple trick but it works.
Do these things and the chances of your core message sticking will increase dramatically. And at that part of the process, there is one great way to know whether it is working: try it out on children and talk to them about your story.