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.
Even a plotter like me can find that the story we begin is not the story we finish. Stories wander. Characters take other directions. Some minor characters take over. The theme drifts as we find we don’t deliver on what we set up at all and yet we’re paying off some whole other idea.
None of this is a bad thing. This is all part of the story process and, actually, I find it is usually a very good thing. It means the story is taking on a life of its own. Whether it’s you as a writer or you have a writer working on it, there are new inspirations and ideas at work. All this will help the story fresh and exciting.
But at a certain point, the story has to be unified. You can’t let it stay one story at the beginning and another at the end. This is for many reasons but possibly the most important of all is that, for an ending to satisfy, the entire story needs to have been going there from the beginning, whether the audience realises it consciously or not.
So you have to go back and see your story parts for what they are. You have to look at your themes, how your characters are working. And then you have some serious decisions to make – is the story you’re telling at the end better than the one you started with? If so, you go back and replot that beginning, always keeping in mind where it now has to go. If not, you need to keep the opening stuff that you love and keep your story on track as you get to a new ending that really delivers. Or you may end up with somewhere in between (although mixing two good ideas does not always lead to a great idea). Whatever you choose, you have some work to do.
This is easy in a short children’s TV episode. One thing I love about kids’ TV work is that it really isn’t a big deal to throw out huge chunks of your story. The damage done and amount you need to fix is never so much that you can’t be brave about changing story direction. A feature film, on the other hand? That’s hard. And I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to fix a novel in this scenario. When you’re dealing with a long story, my advice is to make a new bullet point outline of your story. Lots of screenwriters do this on cards and that works well. Whatever breakdown you began with, dump that and make one based on what you now actually have.
When you have identified the parts you need to fix, get rid of them. Remove them from your outline completely. Why? Because if you leave them and try instead to just amend them, you’ll do this half-assed because every fibre of your being will want to keep the older stuff. Get rid of them completely. Now you know where your gaps are.
With your new aims very clearly marked out – I would always have them in front of me (theme, character arcs and so on) – retell your story. Work through it, filling in the gaps in your outline bit by bit. If all goes well, this should actually be easier than the first time you told your story because you’ll have those clear aims.
When you have a new start to finish story, go back to your draft and delete all the same parts you deleted in your outline. Completely. Gone. Replace those big chunks with the notes from your new story outline. And now just write! Fill in the gaps.
When you hit your final draft, the story you begin must be the story you finish.
We’ve all heard the stories of rejection. How many people rejected Harry Potter or Spongebob before someone finally said yes. I hear these stories in two forms. The first is really positive – as a reminder not to give up. If you truly believe in your work, push and keep pushing. This is a good message although it should probably be combined with messages about making sure your work is as great as it can be and also being open to feedback.
That is not what this post is about. This post is about the other form of that story that I hear every now and again. It goes a little like this: these people are idiots! They even rejected <insert success here> so that shows what they know! This is a dangerous way of thinking. For a start, it’s wrong. Harry Potter or Spongebob or whatever was never, ever a guaranteed success and the big successes are almost always long shots in some ways and that needs to be recognised – they come with risks. And not everyone could have made a success out of them. A publisher or broadcaster taking something that isn’t quite a fit for them could have led to those same concepts being unsuccessful. Saying no could have been the best thing for them and the creator.
For the most part, it’s all about taking a chance. And those people, the gatekeepers, are doing it by weighing up everything they know about their audience and their business and then trying to see if your concept might be a fit for them. Do they believe in it enough to take the chance? That’s what they’re really being asked to do. It is a risk for them. Often a high risk with lots of money involved.
If they say no, it’s not usually because they didn’t like your concept. Or didn’t like you. And it’s certainly not because they are idiots. It is because, knowing their audience and business, they didn’t quite think the risk for them was one they could justify. In that case, that’s the best decision for your project – when you eventually get that yes, you need it to be from someone who truly, truly believes in your concept.
It’s not just about getting a yes. It’s about getting the best yes from the right person.
The title of this post might not give you the correct impression of what this post is about, although having a dog is generally wonderful and I can recommend it to anyone. But really, this comes from something I thought to myself when I watched Guardians of the Galaxy for the first time. There is one shot where Rocket wakes up and the fur on one side of his face is all flat, just like a hairy dog’s face would be. It’s a really funny detail and I thought: whoever did that must own a dog.
Maybe they did. But it’s quite possible they didn’t. It could also be a result of research, doing their homework. They knew they were animating a furry animal and got all the research they could about furry animals, watched videos, talked to people who know about these things and then also put a lot of thought into each moment.
There is an old expression: write what you know. I don’t fully buy into it because it feels somewhat restrictive. Maybe it should be better expressed like this: get to know what you write. It’s not just writing either. Like the little animation touch above, it can run across the whole process. You’ll see this in something like Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A chimp person will tell you that the people making that movie knew their chimps. And similarly they would have rolled their eyes hard if it had all been based on pure speculation with no research behind it.
Even if you’re writing or making content on a subject you haven’t personally experienced, you can do the research. You can get to know it so that, when you create, it’s like you have that personal experience. It’s like you have that dog. Even if you don’t.
What’s your story about? No, not ‘what happens in your story?’ or ‘what does your character do?’. What is the story actually about? In children’s media, we often stick to very simple themes. This is great for story. So when asked this question, the answer might be: it’s about the value of teamwork. Yes, that’s a really obvious one but it’s a pretty good example.
It might be: it’s about why it’s okay to feel shy sometimes. It might be more practical: it’s about how to count to ten. As your stories go up in age group, you might go deeper: it’s about the safety that comes with a mother’s unconditional love.
Those aren’t the events that happen in the story. Those aren’t the characters. But what your episode is about should be seen through the characters and in every event in your story. Every single one of them. Depending on the form and length of your story, it might be that every element reinforces what the story is about or it might be that the events directly challenge what the story is about and then you prove it at the end of your story. As we get into longer form, that’s what we tend to do. It becomes like an argument in a way, told through story. In order to make the case for what your story is about, you push that alternative viewpoint in order to create a challenge. A challenge for your characters and for your story.
One very common problem I see in stories time and time again is that, somewhere along the line, the writer forgot what the story is about. Or never fully decided on it in the first place – I’ve been here, because sometimes the answer to that question changes. So when we get to the end of the story, what happens actually doesn’t back up or say anything about what that story was about. This will make the story feel much less satisfying.
So make sure you know what your story is about. If you have a clear vision for what that is, make that your goal. If you don’t yet, that’s okay but take a stab at it. Put something down on a post-it or the top of your document – just very briefly what that story is about. Never lose sight of that. If you find that your story takes you in another direction (that’s okay), then change those words. And then at some point, go through your story again and make sure that it all now says something about those new words.
What your story is about should be seen throughout, from the very start all the way to the end. It won’t always be in the audience’s face, but it should be ever-present. And you get to the end, you wrap that up and make it feel complete.
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?