Children are soaking up the world at a phenomenal rate. This is not always easy. For younger children, I often liken it to Superman being overwhelmed by the sound of voices everywhere or that guy in Scanners hearing the thoughts of everyone at once. The amount of information thrown at us is incredible and, as we grow, we build filters. We can pick and choose what gets by our filters and what we focus on.
So when making content for kids, this leads to a whole bunch of things to consider. Firstly, they do take in information. They’re taking in probably far more than we are, just like Superman. They are smart, they are trying to interpret, they are using context and knowledge to inform and they are actively learning all the time. They see and hear and know often much more than we realise.
And they get subtlety.
The difficulty is that, with the amount they are processing, they don’t always get the subtlety you want them to. It’s like leaving a post-it with ‘get milk’ on the fridge when the fridge is covered with a hundred other post-its. Sure, you might spot it and get milk but you could just as easily end up having your tea milkless that evening.
So where does that leave us? Well here’s my take: when making content for kids, you can allow for subtlety. You can let those grey areas happen, because not everything in life is black or white. Especially when this is approached with an honesty about the lives of children. Give children a sense of the variety in the world, even the unpredictability.
But when it comes to core story points or messages, be direct and as crystal clear as possible. Hit those things hard. No ambiguity. Clarity is key. Somewhere out there, Superman is listening to a million voices. If you want yours to be heard, shout louder and say what you mean.
I have been writing children’s feature films recently. Quite a different experience to writing short formats with a lot to look out for and so much more to keep track of. One thing that is true for short format but becomes so much more apparent in longer format is that nothing exists in isolation. Every change has a knock-on effect on everything else.
When you realise this, sometimes changes can terrify you as you watch a domino effect of fixes due to what seemed like one small tweak. But it’s so important to recognise the positive power of this effect.
You can give some scenes so much more impact, more emotional weight or more comedy without changing the scenes themselves. Look back at the setup. What can you change or add to your setup to maximise the effect of the moments you want? For example, a woman finds shoes. Yay! Happy moment. Change your opening to a woman realising she just lost her legs and you change the entire effect of that scene. Change the opening to that woman having lost her shoe business and she’s living on the streets and now maybe these shoes become an uplifting moment at the start of building herself back up. Odd examples and not exactly right for children’s films but you get the idea.
And it becomes so important to look for this cause and effect. Otherwise your temptation might be to push the effect scenes much harder. Woman finds shoes. Instead of looking a little sad, now she bursts into tears and roars at the sky. It’s going to feel forced. But tweak the setup and you don’t need more than her looking sad to get the effect you want. And it will feel earned.
An industry friend went through something at the weekend that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone: a photoshop file he had worked on all day corrupted. The work, gone. I’ve had this happen (which is why now I save a ridiculous amounts of copies) and it can be a real kick in the pants.
But… it’s always easier the second time around. Not only is it easier, but I find that I notice there are steps I just don’t need the second time. I might even get better results without all the steps I took the first time. Sure, it’s silver lining thinking and doesn’t undo the disaster, especially if deadlines are tight, but it’s true.
I had a last-minute rewrite thrust upon me last week with no almost no time to get it done. Some requests required pulling the story apart. By the end of Saturday, I was at crisis point. It was like my script was once a beautifully detailed Lego town and I had taken the entire thing apart and the bricks were thrown all over my house and some were probably lost and I had no instructions. That’s how it felt.
Sunday was about rebuilding. And it was tough. Like building Lego, for a long time, it just looked like bits and pieces. Then it started to come together. Pieces clicked together, sometimes in surprising ways. And sure enough, it turned out that a whole bunch of scenes I felt were essential to the previous draft just weren’t needed any more. There were simpler, better routes to the end. And if you can cut something, you probably should.
I couldn’t help but think of a story I read years ago about a working TV screenwriter who would type every required draft out himself on an old typewriter. Why? Because he hated typing and it would force him to look for parts he didn’t really need. Sounds crazy but, like losing a file and having to start all over again or having to tear your script apart and rebuild it, it forces you to ask yourself: do I really need all these pieces?
We talk about story a lot, and for good reason. For many forms of media, story is key in so many ways to engaging kids. But for me, story is the start. Not the end goal.
Story provides the framework on which everything else sits: look, feel, setting, comedy, emotion, wonder, discovery and so much more. All put together, the idea is that we offer kids an experience. One they feel a part of. One they relate to, one that seems familiar and yet also one that can surprise them and get them thinking. An experience.
And one of the best ways to offer young children an experience is to show them young children experiencing, just like them.
I had a dream a few weeks back about a movie series I’m writing on. In the dream, I met with the producers and they talked me through two movies and all was fine. And then they got to movie number 3. This one was to be set in space. That was unexpected but fantastic, I thought. Yeah, but you’ve never been to space and, really, to know it you have to live it so we’re sending you to space. Umm… when? Well, right now this second.
I wasn’t ready to go to space. I wasn’t prepared.
The rest of the dream was mostly me gripped with fear about this trip into the unknown being forced upon me. There are many ways I can interpret it but I think the producers in it had a point.
‘Write what you know’ is nice advice but we don’t always follow it. We can’t always follow it. Often what we know doesn’t make for great stories. So we make things up (see previous post). Making stuff is awesome. I love it and can’t recommend it highly enough and there is certainly nothing wrong with it.
But research can really inform your work. Little moments of life from whatever it is you’re writing about can bring the soul into your work. And it can suggest stories, scenes and even individual lines. Some of this you can get from books, articles, movies, documentaries. But to get the best from it, sometimes you just have to live it. So where possible, see if you can. If a story is about a trip to the zoo, take a trip to the zoo. If it is about bike ride, go on a bike ride. If it about going to space… well that may not be an option. Not yet.
Just a quote today for the writers out there. This is from William Froug, writer and producer and head of the UCLA filmic writing programme. Consider it when putting together your story.
“If you’re a little old man, sitting in the park, and you want to feed the pigeons a bag of bird seed, how do you do it? If you dump the whole bag out, the pigeons will cluster around you in a frenzy for 45 seconds, eat all the bird seed, and disappear. However, if you throw out a little seed at a time, the pigeons will stay there all day.”
Structure, emotional beats, turning points, act breaks and so on. All important stuff when writing scripts, especially so when it comes to full features. These things are wonderful for troubleshooting and spotting areas to improve. They are helpful tools to analyse your work in a (somewhat) more objective way. That’s all good stuff.
But I find they are also a trap. Because if you worry about them too early, you could be restricting the most important part: making stuff up.
Just coming up with the story, the scenes, the characters and, with all that, the entertainment should be a free experience. An open exploration of ideas. You have to gather all the fun parts. See them play out in your mind. Once you’ve got more than enough and you have them down, then you can worry about all those other things to help yourself make it all work. And the better that exploration and the more interesting the stuff you make up is, I find the less you really have to push to get that structure, beats etc. working. If it’s fun, it’s fun.
So focus on the most important and most fun part first: just make stuff up.
Whenever we write a story for a show or film, we get notes. A script editor, head writer, director, exec, whoever will point out things that don’t work for them, problems or difficulties and often offer solutions too. It is part of the process and a very important one.
But dealing with notes is not always easy because, all too quickly, we get so close to our story that we can have a hard time seeing it any other way. Or during its early stages, we explored it so many different ways that we have already ruled out some suggestions we’re now seeing in the notes. Sometimes it is just hard to know where to start with them.
So here’s a simple tip. It’s something I do. After waiting 24 hours (I always need time for notes to sink in), I rewrite the notes at the top of my document. Not just transcribing them, I reword them in a way that suits me better (how I would have phrased them) and I lay them out so they are line by line, like a ‘to-do’ list.
This does two things. The first comes from rewriting them in my own words. Now the notes are no longer alien. They are no longer an outsider in my story. They are there in my document, in my story and in my words. It makes them personal to me. And so often I find that, even as I write them, my mind is already creating ideas and solutions that I didn’t see while reading them in an email. Usually as I write these notes, I’m actually also writing the solutions or new lines along side them.
The second thing is even simpler. Because they are now laid out like a ‘to-do’ list, I use them as one. When I’m confident a problem is no longer a problem, I strike it off the list. It gives me a sense of achievement, gets me closer to my goal and I always have clear focus on what it is I am actually tackling at any given moment.
It is a simple thing but it makes a big difference to rewrites and polishes.
Procrastination is one of those things I would find very hard to recommend in many areas of children’s media production. And yet when writing, procrastination is a core part of my working method.
Why? Well, generally I won’t put word to page until I know what those words are. I need to see the scenes. I need to hear the voices. I need to experience my story playing out. Without that, I’ll get lost in the words I am typing just at that moment and lose sight of everything around them. I need to work through the story from a few perspectives and have different options available to me, so that I can be sure that the words I type aren’t just the first words that happen to be sitting at the front of my vocabulary.
That takes time.
It is a process that can be rushed if needed. I can start with a scene and try to play it different ways as I lean back on my chair ready to catch any great thoughts on my laptop. But the truth is that some of the best moments seem to hit at odd times rather than being forced out. They happen when I’m doing other things. When I’m procrastinating.
And if you realise you’re getting results from something, use it. So here’s how I use procrastination to get results:
I break stories into tiny notes, basically lists. These are just one-line descriptions of each main event. If I have a gap in the story or a problem area, I note that and usually put some marker down (I tend to use a bunch of these: *********). Above this story description, I will write questions on things I need to solve or something I want to achieve but haven’t yet (often: make more use of this secondary character). The length of this document will vary massively depending on what I’m writing. Less than a page for a TV episode but it could be four pages or so for a feature. But it will always be very spaced out and easy to scan.
And now to the procrastination. Just before I go somewhere, like bringing the dog for a walk or having a shower or even out for the day at meetings, I will browse this document and pick something to tackle. I’ll read the notes and try to imagine the pieces I have already for that scene or problem. Sometimes that isn’t much but I will still try to visualise as much as possible. I’ll try to hear the character voices even if they aren’t saying anything worthwhile yet.
And then I go and get very busy not writing a thing. Sometimes nothing happens. I might just forget the notes or I might think about them the odd time but get no further along. But other times magic happens. Seemingly all by itself, my mind will start to play out pictures or throw out ideas. Every now and again, one of these will be really good. When that happens, procrastination is working as it should and all is right with the world… as long as I have something with me to take notes.
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.