I was asked a little while ago about how to approach writing a blog. My first thought was, well, you just think of an idea for a post and then you write it. But there is more to it than that and I realised the strategy for writing my little blog is not just about writing a blog. It’s about writing, be it posts, articles or TV episodes. So here is my little guide to writing:
1) Set a deadline
I always post here on a Wednesday. So I know for the rest of the week that, one way or another, I need a post ready for Wednesday. It must be posted. The same is true on TV shows or delivering content – productions are expensive and delays can cost serious money so you have to deliver on time if you’re going to remain working. Deadlines must be respected. Once you realise this, you will deliver. So there is nothing like a deadline to cure writer’s block. Just set one and then stick to it.
2) Jot down every idea
Ideas come and go so quickly. They’re like sparks. So don’t assume you’ll remember a good one and don’t judge a bad one too harshly early on. Note every idea down and come back to them later. This is especially important when writing on a series, where you often have to come up with a large amount of stories. When it comes to that next script, you’ll need a bank of ideas to draw upon. So create that bank – jot down all ideas as they come.
3) Search for ideas
Yes, many ideas just come to us but it’s not always that easy. There are times we have to actively search for them. How do we do that? Depends on what we’re writing. For blog posts, I often go through the process of what I do and I ask myself, is there something interesting here? Is there something I have learned that might help others? I write keywords and see if anything leads somewhere. For stories and shows, I take a similar approach writing lists of activities, places, events and seeing if they form together to become a story. If I get stuck, I’ll start doodling scenes. Often seeing your characters visually can lead to a moment that leads to a whole story.
Yes, you actually have to write. People write at different times of day. I tend to work best in very quiet places in regular hours free from interruptions, leaving the evenings free to clear my head but I know some people are night owls and do their best writing at night. Whatever works for you is fine as long as you do the writing.
It is rarely right first time (for me, it’s never right first time). Whether just a little blog post or a feature script, it’s going to need another pass. It could need several. If you’re on a regular schedule, this is important to factor in when getting close to your deadline – you don’t want to be clicking ‘post’ as soon as you hit that last word. Give it time so you can come back to it and do another pass.
6) Build in a buffer
I never deliver late and I feel uncomfortable even coming close. I want to deliver early or, if something goes wrong, at least on time. To do that, you have to factor in the unexpected. Something can delay you, stop you working when you need to work or you may actually really face a hideous case of writer’s block. So how do you still deliver on time? You build in a buffer. Write more than you need when you can. On my shows, I wrote furiously at the start so I was always a few episodes ahead of schedule each time. That way, if I needed to take a week off for any reason, I had scripts ready to go into the system and nobody was held up. Same is true for blog posts. Have a few sitting there ready to go in case you need them.
And that is how to write. Seems so simple. Of course the challenge is often not how to write, but how to write well. That is a whole other topic but the best way to get to a point where you’re writing well is to keep writing. So write!
Young kids like structure. You’ll hear it about parenting and it is true for content too.
Hollywood movies are generally very structured and they usually follow the same format you will read about in any number of scriptwriting books. Most regular adult viewers won’t be able to identify it consciously but ask someone 20 minutes before the end of a movie how long there is before the credits roll and most will be pretty good at guessing correctly. That is because they know where they are in the familiar traditional structure, having seen it play out in movies over and over across a lifetime.
When you are in the area of preschool content, your audience doesn’t yet have a clear preconception of how structure works. And they want to know. They certainly want to know when the story ends. It can be jarring for children when the end credits roll and it is a surprise to them – they didn’t quite think the story was finished. So you need to help them out with that.
This is one reason circular stories are great in preschool. End as you began but now with a new realisation or a key change. Bringing it back to the beginning can tie your story up very neatly and kids like that. It is also why a very clear format can help children. Dora the Explorer has the “We Did It” song towards the end of every single episode. As soon as kids hear that, they know the episode is coming to an end and they feel satisfied knowing they got the full story. Many other shows (including my own Planet Cosmo) now use similar song endings or key phrases that appear at the end of every episode. Many Peppa episodes end with the family falling over laughing or jumping in muddy puddles. That tells kids, okay now we’re done. Kids don’t want stories left in a limbo. They like their stories neatly packed away, as happens literally in the end sequence of Yo Gabba Gabba.
So no matter what form you are working in, when making content for preschool children try to signal your ending. End neatly and clearly. Leave them satisfied. Don’t leave them hanging.
One word of caution: don’t signal your ending too early. Once kids get it into their heads that the story is finished, they can disengage and go looking for the next story and your lovely warm epilogue will be drowned out by the argument of what to watch next.
When you’re creating for kids and assembling your characters, getting your balance right and making sure that each character fills a role that the others don’t (you do all that, right?), always consider the family dynamic. Are the characters literally a family? If not, do they slot nicely into family roles?
I began thinking of my characters as a family many, many years ago, even before I had built up practical experience in children’s content. What tipped me off to the importance of family was actually deconstructing sitcoms. A huge amount of sitcoms are family units. Even those that aren’t actually families still work as family units. They’re friends or even rivals or people who just put up with the other people but, in sitcoms, those relationships are usually much closer than in real life. In a family, many of the barriers we put up even with close friends are gone, so there’s an honesty there. You can very quickly establish the family pecking order and that helps us get into a show quicker. For example, Cheers was a dysfunctional family unit. As a result, we tend to buy into and relate to the frayed nerves that lead to so much of the comedy.
Taking this back to kids, specifically in preschool, research finds that children are often drawn in by the familiar. They are engaged by things they recognise from their own lives. More than that, it is very clear that young children place massive importance on the family unit. It is their first world, and they use that to help them understand the extended world beyond. Many children will use their own family to assign roles to fictional families. Mum and Dad are easy, of course, but in my family Daisy was Peppa Pig and Alice, being younger, was George. Children will aim to understand other families in terms of how they relate to their own.
So it’s worth looking at your own characters like a family. Given a young child may define (or fail to define) your characters by attempting to match them to their own family, how do your characters really relate to the lives of children? How can you strengthen that? How can you make your unit and roles even clearer?
The family unit you create does not have to match that of your audience exactly, nor could it. But if you think about the lives of your young audience and you make the roles clear, there is a far better chance that your audience will grasp the dynamics very quickly. And remember: like Cheers, you can build a familiar engaging family unit without your characters actually being family… but getting it right does take more work than just assigning family-based labels.
Backstory does not equal character. It can inform and shape the character but the backstory only has value if it does just that and, quite often, it doesn’t.
Characters are in the here and now. That’s what counts.
I have seen documents with pages of backstory for preschool characters who are as one-dimensional as they come. That’s just a waste of paper. What’s Dora’s backstory? What’s Peppa’s? Has any preschool child ever asked for more information?
If it helps as part of your creation process, great. Go with it. But don’t get caught up in it or convince yourself you have an interesting character because they had some childhood trauma – that’s a trap. What matters is what a character does in the present of your story. That’s character.
When making any content for young children, there are two very important things to keep in mind. Here is the first:
Preschool children are not little adults.
They are different to you. You can not apply your thought processes, your logic, your taste, your likes and dislikes and expect them to work for preschool children. Doing that will only lead to self-indulgent content that is not age-appropriate and simply not engaging for a young child.
Interestingly, preschool children have or develop early a sense of what is for kids and what is for adults and they’ll often lose interest if they think something is not made for them. That is why one of our first concerns when at design stage is: will children know this is for them? The answer has to be ‘yes’ or your content is in trouble.
So your audience is not you. It is so easy to forget and yet crucial to remember if you are aiming to be any part of making content for children – creating, writing, directing, animating, designing. But there is another part to this:
Preschool children are little people.
They are real people. They are curious, imaginative, thinking, feeling little scientists working out the world and learning at a phenomenal rate. They pick up so much of what is going on around them, long before they can effectively verbalise that they are doing this. So they are not little adults but give them credit for what they are and especially for how much they can understand and learn. They do care about quality (not always gauging the same things you are). They do care about character, about story. They have a clear sense of what interests them and what doesn’t. So the bottom line here is that you cannot just make any old rubbish and expect it to hold your audience.
They are a very discerning audience, especially in a world saturated with children’s content. Just because you can get it on to the TV (buyers are adults) or on to the App Store (those choosing featured apps are adults) does not mean it will hold your audience for any length of time.
So remember who they are not (a little you) and let’s all give kids credit for who they are: amazing little people.
From time to time, I hear writers declare their love for animation because, in animation, you can just write anything. You’re not limited by what you can shoot in physical locations so it is no more expensive to write in a trip to Jupiter than it is to write a trip to the supermarket. Budget just isn’t an issue.
This is not true.
Budget very much is an issue. Animation is time-consuming and costly and the bottom line is that you have to write something that people can actually produce. And in this case the supermarket could be more expensive than the trip to Jupiter due to having to draw all those items on the shelves and animate customers, staff and so on. More characters on screen means more expensive. New characters means new designs (often new rigs and setups) which is also more expensive. Same with new locations.
What you write has to be produceable. More often than not, it has to work within a tight budget. So unfortunately you can’t write anything and expect it to be produced. You have to keep budget in mind. This is the reality.
The trick then becomes not letting this reality cripple your writing.
Sometimes we get notes back on a script and it is so clear that the writer of the notes was not really paying attention. They were checking their emails, on a phone call, reading twitter all while making notes on our script and they missed that one really important scene that explained the bit they said made no sense.
Doesn’t seem fair, does it?
Well, that’s often how kids watch TV. They’re shuffling around, playing with toys, stabbing their sibling with a Peppa figure, being called in for lunch for the hundredth time. What they are not always doing is paying attention.
So as unfair as it may seem, sometimes that distracted exec is actually a good gauge of how clear our story will really be to our audience. Given we can’t possibly control a child’s environment, is it our problem if kids aren’t paying attention? Of course it is.
So what do we do about it?
The first thing is to make your content as engaging as possible. There are many ways of doing this and many tips already on this blog and more to come.
The second, and really the subject of this particular post, is for us to accept that, no matter how awesome our content is, there may be times children aren’t paying attention. So compensate for that.
Make all goals clear. Several times.
Run your core ideas through the entire story.
Recap. Several times if possible.
Save your story message for the last scene.
State an important line with other action happening that may distract.
Fear repetition. Young kids enjoy repetition.
So make it easy to keep up. Approach your little 7-minute story like it is a 39-episode series with an essential story arc. What happens if your audience misses episodes 25-27? What happens if someone joins the show mid-season? Give kids an in-point to your episode in several places and never forget this: the one part they miss could be your ending.
A message to the people just starting out in this whole making content business – the wannabe writers, directors, designers, creators. Don’t be a wannabe anything. Just be it. Go on, change that twitter profile and remove the ‘wannabe’. Whatever it is you wanted to be, you are now it.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could make a show or app that appeals to absolutely everyone? One that appeals to all broadcasters? All distributors, publishers and everyone involved in making things a success? One that every single kid everywhere just loves?
It’s probably not going to happen.
Why? Because people love different things. You want people to have strong feelings – they have to have strong feelings in order to get excited about what you’re doing. But the thing about strong feelings is that, for everyone who really loves an aspect of what you’re doing, someone else will likely have strong feelings in the whole opposite direction.
A simple example from my own history is how Fluffy Gardens excited a few key broadcasters on little more than the look and yet one broadcaster didn’t want it because they didn’t like characters with big eyes. It was that simple.
Now if you aim to please everyone, to have your show be all things to all people, the solution is to reduce the size of the eyes for that broadcaster. Now you have affected the look, the one thing that had some people excited in the first place.
And this is the problem in a nutshell: in aiming to please everyone, it quickly becomes about easing dislikes rather than enhancing likes and loves. You shave off the edges that may put off individuals until you have something that, sure, nobody really dislikes but nobody loves any more either.
Instead, accept that not everyone will like what you are doing. Focus on those who will like it. And then improve it until they love it. Those people will be your champions. They will make things happen.
No show, no book, no app can be everything to everyone. And attempting that risks losing those who really matter to you.
Expectations play a huge role in any story. It is not as simple as having high or low expectations. Personally, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t expect a good story and if a film, show or game is entertaining, we will rarely come away disappointed just because we expected something pretty good.
Where expectations become a problem is in those situations where we expected something entirely different to what we got.
For example, if I told you we were going to watch a film with Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey and you started to look forward to a light, quirky romcom then you would likely come away pretty annoyed when it turns out the movie we watch is Texas Chainsaw Massacre The Next Generation, right? You would a very hard time accepting the movie for what it is because there is a huge disconnect between that and what you were expecting.
If I told you in advance we were going to watch a schlocky horror sequel, you would likely have a better time.
The same is true within the stories themselves and, yes, within children’s stories. Sure, we like twists and turns and surprises but if something in your intro has us looking forward to something that is ignored or forgotten about later on, we will likely be disappointed. It’s Chekhov’s gun: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” (side note to preschool writers: avoid stories about loaded rifles).
So if you’ve got a kids’ story that opens with news that the circus is coming to town, make sure you get to the circus and make that moment as fun as you possibly can. Don’t just make it a throwaway epilogue. Really milk it. Let kids enjoy it because that’s what you told them to expect. Pay off what you set up. Make sure that where the story goes is at least as entertaining as the promise you made when you introduced the ideas.
My advice? When you finish a draft, revisit the opening. If it looks like the story was going somewhere entirely different, change it to reflect where you actually ended up. Don’t ever leave kids hanging, waiting for something that just isn’t going to happen.
Let them know what to expect and then pay that off in the most entertaining way possible.