In children’s media, I like my characters to be simple and easy to grasp. It offers clarity in storytelling, it lets the kids know the characters quickly and it means things don’t get messy. But simple and clear doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a spark or depth beneath that clarity – that’s where genuine humanity comes into play. We all act differently under different circumstances, especially when under stress.
A very simple story example of this is in Indiana Jones. He’s brave and that’s a defining, clear trait. We know where we’re at with Indy’s bravery. But present him with some snakes and that changes. He acts differently. He’s not acting out of character because this is an established part of who he is – Indy is frightened of very little but he is scared of snakes.
This is a fantastic storytelling tool because it allows a writer to put Indiana Jones in a panic situation, something that would be very rare for him as a character.
Secondary traits and exceptions to the core traits are really important for this reason. One-note characters are nicely clear but can be deadly boring. On the other side of that, a character who isn’t pinned down and has no consistency will be a character we can never truly know or understand. But a clear, simple character with a set of exceptions allows an audience to quickly get on their side while also providing the storyteller with some tools to mix things up – to make the character uncomfortable and, at some points, even unpredictable.
In a way, this is really about knowing the limits of your character and how that works in their everyday life. They might be a generous character… until it comes to sharing a dessert. They might be a grumpy character… until presented with a puppy. They might be an energetic character… until they have bad night’s sleep. There is always an exception somewhere when it comes to people and how we act.
So use that. Use those exceptions. Do it clearly – know who your base character is and know why you’re going to change how they act and then make that clear to your audience. Don’t let them get muddled or feel like they are acting out of character. But use the exceptions to mix up your stories and add some twists and turns in there. Because acting differently under different circumstances is the human thing to do.
One thing I find about scripts is that, the longer they get, the harder it is to see the story. All the words get in the way. Descriptions, characters, dialogue, the little formatting quirks – they are all part of telling your story and yet, as you work, each one can be a hindrance when it comes to really seeing the story. Your nice location may prevent you from seeing the pacing problem. Your witty dialogue may obscure the basic character flaws. And when you get up to a certain number of pages, you can forget about seeing the whole story – you’re now into little bits of story. That’s all you can manage at a time.
So I find it crucial to have a distilled version of the story. We writers often work with story beats and I think that’s a great idea. Having a list of your beats, whether on cards, post-its or just in a document or notebook is a really good way of keeping track of the larger story. And yet at certain points in the process, I like to get even more distance from the details.
Instead of looking at beats, I start to lump them together and I write down the basic sections. In a movie script, there might just be around 8 or so but it varies depending on the needs of the movie. Do what you can to create a grouping. The early part is usually easy – that’s the Setup. So you can have Part 1, Setup and a one-line description of what happens. Then whatever event happens that kicks off your story might be Part 2. In the actual story, it will be ‘this happens, then this happens, and this other thing happens’ but the idea here is that, if they can possibly combine into a section, combine them and tell it in one line.
So when you have a line for each section and you’ve given each a heading and a space between each section, you should be able to see your entire story in less than half an A4 page. And I can assure you that, doing that, you will see things about your story that you would have been very difficult to spot just reading the script but also you’ll even see things that might have eluded you working with just the beats. Getting it down to a smaller and smaller form is like creating more and more distance between you and the story (yes, these are small, those cows are far away – it’s kind of like that).
Because all those words get in the way. They’re important, of course. Those will be your finished product. But you need to get them out of the way to really see your story.
There is another important reason to ask this question. It is this: your content can have a negative impact too. Wait, but it’s just a cartoon! It has characters being nice to each other! It teaches about family values! Okay but are you absolutely certain that, when a child applies the events in your content to their lives, they’ll take away the positive messages and not some other message?
Content counts. It can count in a positive way and it can count in a negative way.
If your content says something about the lives of the audience without you having planned that, kids can come away with a negative message. An example… your characters are magical elves who transform depending on their mood (great idea, right?). The evil elf is hideous and deformed and terrorises the good elves. We don’t want a message of violence so, instead, in our story this elf learns to be good and transforms into a beautiful creature. So a lovely message that our true worth comes from our actions… OR… if someone calls you ugly or rejects you, it is YOUR fault because YOU are a bad person.
Damaging message. Kids aren’t elves so, if you transplant the story to the life of a child (what does it say about their lives?), things get kind of nasty.
Messages are important. And they are there in every story you write or make, whether you intended it or not. For kids, everything is educational. So you really have to look at your story in every way possible and see how it could be reinterpreted when applied directly to your audience by your audience.
Take care with what you are saying to children. Always ask: what does this really say about their lives?
Last year, I started running. Yep. Running. Who would have thought it, right? It was HARD. It’s still hard but I’m getting better. What I’m finding now is that I don’t treat running all that differently to the way I treat work. The same basic ideas get it done, like I would write a script or make a show.
The first thing is obvious: do it.
It doesn’t matter if my run is hard or if I feel like I’m not making progress the way I want to or if I never want to run again when I get back. What matters is that I do it. Once my run is done, that’s the achievement. That’s an important thing knocked off my to-do list and, as long as I keep doing that, I will keep on running and I will get better. That in itself is progress.
But from there, I find a lot of it is about checkpoints – marking that progress. At the start, the goals were things like “run for five minutes straight without needing to call the emergency services”. Now, I really just have three checkpoints in any run. The first is starting (the “do it”). I’ll give myself a little pat on the back even for setting off. The last is the home straight – I’m almost done.
The middle checkpoint, however, is the one that I find needs the most acknowledgement. In my 7km runs, it is the 4th kilometre. On my regular route, the 4th kilometre is when my energy starts to flag. To make matters worse, it is uphill all the way. Those two factors combined make it the hardest kilometre. That’s when I need to really push myself. It’s when I sometimes express inner regret at having started at all. It’s when I want to stop for a pint and burger.
So when I hear on my little app “Distance: four kilometres”, I allow myself a little inner cheer. I made it. I faced that 4th km and won. A major checkpoint has been reached. It’s a victory. If it were a game, I’d save my progress.
Now here’s the thing: on the 5th km, I have even less energy and, actually, most of that is uphill too although not to the extent of the 4th. But I’m so busy allowing myself to bask in my own personal victory that I barely notice the 5th km and, before I know it, I’m hitting the home straight. And no matter how tired I am, I can always do the home straight. So celebrating that 4th km is what gets me all the way there. If I didn’t, 7km just might beat me.
Every production and every task has its own equivalent of my 4th km. On a whole animated TV show, I find it’s getting the first batch of episodes out while everyone is still finding their feet and the systems haven’t settled. When you get a certain number of good episodes delivered, you know the rest is going to be just fine. For a scene, it might be some really good key poses – hard to get right but they set the template for the rest of the shot. For writing, I find it’s when I get down a really strong outline. The rest is just work and refinement and improvement. Each task will have its own version. It’s that point when you have achieved something important and you know you can make it the rest of the way.
So celebrate that point. It doesn’t mean the rest will be easy but acknowledging the achievement along the way will help make it easier. It will help you get to that home straight in a much more positive way. So that your own 7km (production, story, episode, scene, whatever) won’t beat you.
When you make children’s media of any sort, you become a part of a child’s life. What you create, what you are a part of, has access to them. It’s like walking into their houses and getting to sit them down for 7 minutes or 11 minutes or a few hours and just tell them stuff. If you’re a parent, how would you feel about someone you don’t know doing that? What would you want from them? What would you expect from them?
It is a huge responsibility. You must always remember who your audience is and understand that responsibility.
There are many reasons to make children’s media but, no matter what other reasons you have, giving something really good to kids should be VERY high up on that list. It is, right? Right? I’m sure you do want what’s best for kids – chances are you wouldn’t be at my blog if you didn’t because it’s a recurring theme here. But it’s no harm to have a reminder of why you’re really doing what you do.
And then, once you remember that, your career often comes down to questions: what good can I do for kids?
What can I create that might make their lives a little better right now? Or (and for me, this is often the more important question) what can I create that might make their lives and the lives of others better as they grow older? Where can I help? Where can I contribute? How can I be a positive force in their lives? And how can I do it in a way that works with parents, rather than trampling over that role?
What’s odd about that is that it really puts us in the role of assistant. It’s just ‘how can I help?’ Odd because, as we create, we become part of forming worlds, creating entire characters and little lives. We decide where they go and why. Or we manage teams to create whole shows. We get this feeling of being able to mould everything, to be in charge of everything, to decide who does what and why. And we can do all that. But ultimately we’re doing it to be an assistant. An assistant to parents, to society and, especially, to children themselves.
How can I help?
So I guess if you consider the responsibility of your content coming into a child’s life as if we’re walking into homes ourselves, maybe the best thing we can do is to stop talking for a moment and ask the parents and the children: how can I help?
Story problems need solutions. If your story doesn’t have a strong line running through it, or it wanders, or it doesn’t lead to a satisfying conclusion then you are going to have to fix that. As part of the normal process, you’ll have to look at your story and be willing to make significant amendments – that’s normal. Some stories have more problems than others but you can be sure that there will be story problems to solve somewhere in your process.
But here’s the thing: story problems usually require more than story solutions. In fact, looking for story solutions may be the wrong thing altogether.
Really? How can that be? Stay with me here! What I have found over the years of writing and, more importantly, in evaluating stories and script editing (because it can be easier to see things in the work of others) is that story problems usually need character solutions.
For one thing, it is often problems with the characters that lead to the perception of a story problem in the first place. They might be acting out of character and so a section just doesn’t feel true. Or there might be better actions that a particular character would take. A moment that should have a punch might have none because we don’t get why it matters to our characters. Or a section might just be dying because the characters in it don’t spark off each other. But even if the problem isn’t directly a character problem, when you go into the plot and the story and start moving things around then, invariably, you’ll introduce one of these problems. Funnelling characters into places to serve the plot or fix the plot can lead to a disconnect between character and story.
You have to go back to the characters.
You have to ask character questions. How can you amend your characters to put them on a new path that will, in turn, strengthen your story? If these characters aren’t yet fully defined, you actually have an advantage – you can completely rewrite the characters, improving the overall dynamic between them. If they are already locked down as characters, then what you might need to do is to change who is with who in the scenes or introduce a new element very early on that can put your main characters on a slightly different path or give them different information – something that will amend the choices those characters will make when you get to the difficult areas in your story.
When you get that right, your characters are driving your story and that’s exactly the way it should be. Always go back to your characters because story problems usually need character solutions.
Here’s a question to consider when coming up with your concept or story or even scene. It’s a simple question that isn’t always easy to answer. If the answer doesn’t come easily, that doesn’t mean you have a problem necessarily but it’s certainly something to consider because, when your story offers a clear answer to this question, it can really help engage your young audience.
Here it is: what does this say about the life of my audience?
Now many of us in the younger end of children’s entertainment, me included, often think about what we would like it to say to our audience. We think about the message and I think that’s important too. But that won’t answer this question. This question is about what your content says about the life of your viewer as it is right now.
What will they relate to? What will they see of themselves in your story? How does it reflect their life? And how might it make them feel about their life?
When you have your answer, challenge it. Is it saying more about your perception of a child’s life than about the reality? Will children themselves see what you see in it? Or is it just that you’d like to say these things to children, in which case we’re back to it being a message to kids. Be honest and challenge the relevance of your story. This will help you make it better. If your story connects directly to children and allows them to see their own life in it, it gives them something they can truly feel a part of. Something they feel a bond with. Something that is uniquely for them.
We’re well into January already but any time someone says that they are making a list, my brain follows with “checking it twice”. Thing is, that’s a REALLY good thing to do. Well done, Santa Claus. That’s how you stay on top of what must be an insanely difficult job, especially when it comes to pipelines and management.
For me, I find there are a couple of very different work situations in which this is crucial. One is in a production or fixed delivery work situation. We know what needs to get done, we know when it needs to get done and it is a case of making that happen on time while getting the absolute best quality. Making that list and checking it twice is key to avoiding pitfalls that will mess up your productivity. It allows you to keep a very clean chain of events, so you can know what needs to be done at every stage.
And while you check that list for the second time, remove the non-essentials. Take out the fluff or what is your equivalent of needless red tape. The fewer steps in a process, the fewer places there are for communication errors or blockages. You just need to be careful that the step you’re removing is not the one that ensures your quality control. Keep a simple, clean list and you’ll always know what you and everyone else needs to achieve.
The other possible work situation for me is both easier to manage and infinitely more difficult. It is when I am working on development or exploring ideas in order to find what might come next. Easier because it usually involves very few people to manage and sometimes it’s just me. More difficult because it doesn’t come with built-in deadlines or clear stages and, the truth is, results are not guaranteed.
Where production comes with a need for order to make it work, creating on your own with a small team can be like floating in a huge sea of chaos with many, many stops to make a cup of coffee. And more coffee. It is fluid by nature. And so some clear goals need to be set down so that you have something to aim for. Something to drive you. And something to acknowledge and celebrate when you get results. Make a list of the core steps. Check it twice. And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, set or acquire deadlines.
When you check your list that second time, watch for the parts that don’t really contribute. Most of all, in this work scenario, watch for the grand sweeping barely-achievable goals that are just too big and vague to be any help. Strike off “make a hit show” or “write a series of novels” and instead stick to the individual steps that might get you there bit by bit.
I’m sure he is taking some well-deserved time off now but, when he gets back to work, Santa will be back to making those lists and checking them twice and we can all learn from what that man achieves each and every year.
I was sad about Carrie Fisher at the end of 2016. Who wouldn’t be? Such a huge part of my life. The night the news hit, I rewatched the first Star Wars movie. Such a fantastic film in so, so many ways. No big surprise that it has endured for so long.
The trash compactor scene? Superfluous. It could be cut or replaced and nobody would ever notice. Nothing builds to it and nothing is affected by it afterwards. It’s just a thing that happens.
Now Star Wars is Star Wars and it’s totally awesome and it gets away with it without a problem. And it’s a good scene, right? If it’s a good scene, we’re going to want to keep it. But we aren’t all as fortunate and excellent as Star Wars and, really, being a good scene or even a great scene isn’t always enough of a reason to keep it. When a scene could be so easily switched out without affecting the story in any way, it’s worth asking ourselves whether we should really have it at all. Wouldn’t it be better to replace it with a scene that actively contributes to where the story is going? That adds a skill or some determination or info that will come into play later? Something that will be paid off? Or something that directly says something important about the characters or the theme?
In screenwriting books, we often read about the need for complications and obstacles and they aren’t wrong. But if they’re JUST obstacles and then they are overcome, you’re just chucking stuff at your characters without really building your story. This is like those old black and white TV serials, which of course Lucas was hugely inspired by. You could miss a bunch of episodes and it won’t matter at all even if what you missed contained fantastic scenes.
But if you can go a step further and add those complications and obstacles in a way that, once they are dealt with, your characters have now progressed clearly in your story, then you’ve got a section that means more. Something that has some real impact. And often the test is: what happens if I cut this? If you have huge holes to patch then you know at least that the section moved the story forward. That doesn’t mean it’s good yet! But at least it progressed the story.
So ideally, there should be two reasons that it’s really hard to cut scenes:
1) It’s an awesome scene.
2) It moves the story forward.
One without the other should be very hard to justify. Fix it or cut it. When someone goes through your story, they shouldn’t want to cut a scene. If someone else suggests it, everyone should be horrified at the thought and instantly shout reasons why it needs to be kept. Make your scenes hard to cut by making them great AND crucial to the story.
Then be prepared to lose them anyway as you refine your story further.
There are lots of ways to entertain, lots of ways to engage. Making stuff for kids, we tend to go the positive route. I like that. Sure, we can challenge children and present them with new ideas and get them thinking and I think that’s exactly what we should be doing. But when we do this right, we tend to wrap all that up in fun, laughter and a strong dose of heart.
But when we’re coming up with stories, it can be hard to know how to focus ourselves to achieve that or how to really pin down just what it is we’re doing. When we talk about story, we often split it into two completely different categories. One is a very structured, recipe-like approach, which is helpful but, if that’s all you’ve got, you’ll be leaving your audience cold. The other is where we get into flowery language and often what feels like very intangible stuff. Make it more dynamic. Capture the soul of the character. This is good but can you make it more reflective with a hint of longing and yet all wrapped up in joy?
What is it we really want?!
Well, here is one simple aim that I think can totally change how you think about your story: make your audience feel good. Make them feel good about themselves. Make them feel good about being part of the experience you’re giving them. Leave them feeling better than they did before they experienced your story.
It’s such a simple thing and it can lead to many different solutions and, really, you have probably been aiming for it anyway but actually exploring your story with this goal clearly in mind can have you looking at it in a whole different way. Does it make them feel good? Does it make them feel good about themselves? This is important for adults because it’s part of why we recommend shows or music or whatever. We feel good about being part of it. It’s much more than “you might like this”. It’s “I’m awesome because I found this for you and I’m now part of it”.
For kids, young kids, they don’t share the same way adults do but the same feeling applies in different ways. It can be “this made me feel good and I want more of it”. And really, that’s a very basic thing in entertainment and it’s odd how we don’t always think of aiming for that. We get so wrapped up in telling stories that we forget to think about what it’s like to hear them, to experience them. That’s audience awareness.
So when you’re having a hard time pinning down the intangible stuff, ask yourself this: what can I do in my story that will make my audience feel good?