I love structure and find it an incredibly useful tool. But it comes with its own built-in pitfalls and here is one of them: if you plot your story to a specific structure from the very beginning, there is a danger that you will funnel your characters down unbelievable paths in order to get them to hit certain beats.
If your story target is too clear even before you have a sense of what is happening, what the characters are doing and why, you start to herd your characters in ways that restrict the storytelling. And in the process, often making the characters behave in ways they shouldn’t.
It is an all too common story problem that characters do things to serve the needs of the writer rather than serving their own needs. It happens so easily. I know because I have been guilty of it myself. I have a great idea for a scene but, to get there, I have to push characters in ways that don’t quite fit who they are or what they should want. And because it is all too easy, you have to be very wary of anything that invites that risk into your work methods.
Nailing down your structure before having a sense of your characters and story can do just that.
My advice is: know your premise. Know your characters. Know your starting point. Then let your characters take you where they should go. Let your mind wander in and out of the scenes, each character playing it the way they naturally should without you worrying about the end point of that scene. Make notes on all of that stuff until you have enough to build a story. And THEN sort out your structure.
That way, your characters are living, acting and reacting. It isn’t just an exercise in herding.
In the world of media, I have seen a lot of unrealistic expectations over the years. I see people with what might be the beginnings of an idea who expect others to throw a fortune at them to take it off their hands and actually do the work to turn it into something good. These people tend to wonder what is wrong with the entire industry when that doesn’t happen. Oh you’ll regret it when I’m rolling in money and this is the biggest property on the planet.
I also see a lot of more humble people daunted by how intimidating the industry can be. Gripped by that fear and a sense that they don’t have what it takes. Afraid to sit down and really develop their idea because it may end up awful and it will all go horribly wrong. I’m not a writer. I’m not a creative. I can’t draw. How will I get anywhere?
And this may come as no surprise to some of you but, regularly, I see these two things in the same person. Because the fear of sitting down and doing the work can often result in a defensive need to offload a project long before it’s ready. Someone take it! Now!
This is a fun business to be in with lots of wonderful people doing wonderful things. But the truth is, it comes with hard work. Sitting down and just doing the work, often on your own before anyone else believes in it, comes with the territory. It’s what you take on when you decide this is what you’re going to do. You have to work hard to prove what you’re doing has any value or has a place in a world saturated with high-quality media already.
It’s not an easy path to walk down.
But if you do, if you put in that work, you will find people who like what you’re doing. You will get to know why something you tried didn’t quite take and you’ll be better prepared next time. You’ll find the enthusiasm grows as you get closer, as you help others on their projects and as you get to be a part of the process. Then, when you find champions for your own work (and if you stick at it, you will), you realise you can do it. You have probably already been doing it. It’s not easy. It’s unlikely that someone will ever dump a truck full of money at your house for your concept, even when you put in the work. But it is still rewarding. It is still worth it.
So do the work. Keep your expectations realistic and do the work. Enjoy it and keep doing it.
A lot of people have passion for their own work and the desire to create something wonderful. The dream of really really take ownership of their work. And yet, more often than not, those people achieve much more when working for someone else than they do on their own projects. They might tinker away at their projects once a month or so. Or just wish that’s what they were doing and then feel bad that they haven’t actually achieved anything. Sound familiar?
So how do you focus yourself on your own work when you get a bit of time? For me, there are several ways of doing it but what they really come down to is replicating the pressure of having a job. When you’re an employee, usually someone tells you what they need and when they need it. And once you have a goal and a deadline, you have a target and you get to work and great things happen.
When you have your own projects, you probably know your big end goal. But you may not have broken it into smaller tasks yet. And I’m willing to bet you have no deadline.
So set a deadline. Better yet, get yourself a deadline. What’s the difference? If you set a deadline, you can shift it. You get busy and so you put it off for a week. Two weeks. Months. But if you acquire some sort of external deadline, that’s likely to be fixed. An application to a funding body. A submission to the Cartoon Forum. A trip to a conference or a market. Set up a meeting for that market with someone important and then put that date in your calendar. Congratulations – you just got yourself a deadline.
Now put that in whatever diary you use to keep track of what you’re doing, whether it’s your phone calendar or a series of scrappy post-its stuck to your computer. Break down what you need to do into smaller goals and create smaller step deadlines between now and your fixed deadline. Never lose the pressure of that big deadline. In fact, if it doesn’t feel pressured enough, get more deadlines to meet. Become a gatherer of deadlines.
Then meet every one of them. Before long, your project will have turned from an idea to a developed pitch concept and, if you keep at it, hopefully much more than that.
Every moment is precious. We only get a certain number of them. In childhood, I think they are even more precious because they become part of who you grow up to be. Everything can influence us one way or another and it can be so hard to predict what experiences will impact us in what ways.
So imagine you can sit a kid down for eleven minutes of their life. Or seven minutes. Or maybe even just five. And you can tell them anything you want. They might not remember it but, at that moment, you have an opportunity to tell them something. You could make them laugh, tell jokes and brighten up their day. You could tell them something you wish you had known at that age, something that might make being a kid that much easier. A trick to tying shoelaces, perhaps. Or you could tell them something that might help them grow up to be a better adult. Something that, if they take it to heart, might help other kids.
When you make a show or write an episode or make an app, you get to do just that. You get to communicate with children. You have their attention and you can tell them something. It doesn’t have to be something important but it can be.
You get to a little moment of their life. Use it well.
Scripting comes with struggles. I find one of the most common struggles is marrying what you want with what would actually happen. You might need a character to go somewhere to serve the story but there is no way that the character would ever go there. You want a core aim for your B-plot character but they keep getting swept up in the A plot and won’t focus on anything else. You want a theme of acceptance but your characters require such a turnaround to get there that it just isn’t plausible.
Those struggles happen all the time. If you’re having a hard time with one of them, you’ll hear ‘it feels contrived’. And it IS contrived. It is all contrived. But if you’re crafting a story, it is your job to make it feel like it isn’t.
This post isn’t about that struggle. It is about what happens when you beat it. When you win.
You’ll get a flash of inspiration. Suddenly the dots will connect. You have a way of making your character do exactly what you want in a natural, believable way. Or you rephrase a goal or theme and everything falls into place. Those are wonderful moments.
Here’s the tip: make absolutely certain that your realisation, that clarity, actually makes it into your story. It is no good if just you know why it all makes sense. It has to be there in the story, in the script or in the boards. That’s where it counts.
It sounds obvious, right? And yet is all too easy to have the pieces fit for you and actually miss that you have to make them all fit for everyone else too. You won’t be around to explain it to the audience. So when you’ve overcome a story struggle, a character challenge, a theme obstacle, get it into the script in the clearest way possible. Nobody should see how you struggled with that. If they do, you still have work to do.
I normally only post on a Wednesday so this might upset the entire fabric of the space-time continuum but, in advance of heading to the Children’s Media Conference, I thought I’d get in a little update on me and Mooshku. Why? Because I don’t often talk about my current work here and it’s no harm to remind you about what it is that I do.
So what have I been up to? And Méabh? And all of us at Mooshku generally?
Mooshku have been consulting on 3 lovely early stage children’s properties for third party companies. That entails evaluating existing content, focussing it for the right audience and also broadcasters and partners and putting it together to make a really strong pitch for a really strong concept. That has included writing concept documents, show bibles, storylines and also sample scripts. Simply put, we have been making lovely ideas even lovelier!
We created, wrote and produced Trufax Tot Cop for the Nickelodeon shorts programme, just one of four international companies selected. It is absolutely KILLING ME that I haven’t been able to show this yet or say more about it. There are very good reasons why I can’t but I’m so eager to show it to you.
Update: I’m now okay to add an image so here he is, Trufax Tot Cop!
We produced animation for a live science show for the Edinburgh Fringe last year and, around this time last year at Mooshku, we were just finishing production on a pixel art music video for GUNSHIP. You probably know I love my pixel art.
And we have been developing our new IP and producing some new animation samples to show them off. They are really pretty and fun and we’ll be bringing them along to the CMC next week. We’ll post some online soon too, I promise! In the meantime, some pictures:
Sticking with our Mooshku mission of collaboration, Méabh produced the live-action for the 52 episodes of Little Roy for our wonderful friends at JAM Media. And Méabh is currently producing The Overcoat for the talented guys at Giant Animation, featuring the voice talents of Cillian Murphy and Alfred Molina.
And on top of all this, I have been doing a huge amount of writing. Over the last 18 months or so, I have written…
5 episodes of the upcoming Wild Adventures of Blinky Bill for Flying Bark in Australia.
4 episodes of a lovely new show I can’t yet name for Submarine in the Netherlands.
2 Gråtass live-action theatrical children’s feature films for Cinenord in Norway.
More than 10 scripts for top secret early development projects for Ireland and the UK (early development for 3rd party companies is a lot of what we do in Mooshku).
And I have been writing the full 20 episodes of the new Karsten Og Petra series and a Karsten Og Petra feature film, also for Cinenord. This is one that is particularly dear to my heart. This series is so lovely. If you haven’t seen anything from it yet, you should look it up. It is preschool perfection (I can’t take credit for that – it was perfection even before I got involved!).
And I’m working on something lovely for Karrot (of Sarah & Duck) and a nice new show I can’t yet mention but will be a lot of fun.
That post turned out even longer than I expected. We’ve been busy! Really, we’ve been doing what we love to do: make really great stuff for kids. We have our mission to bring kids something really good and we’re strong on that. And we also love collaboration and working with others. We don’t see competition – we see a community. So far, that ethos is working wonderfully for Mooshku.
So that’s the update. If you’re at the CMC, do say hello! It will be lovely to catch up with old friends and meet some new ones too.
As you work through the early stages of a concept, show or story, you’re really gathering information. You get to know your characters, how they work together and how they interact with other secondary characters. You know what you want to say with their interactions, thinking about the many important themes. You know how the environment works in your stories with each location providing so many scene ideas. You know the history, why everyone is the way they are, and where they might go from here.
This is great – you’re getting know the world of your story really well.
And it’s like you’re standing in one of those ball pits, only it’s the size of a large swimming pool. It is your job to take all those balls and stack them together in a really pleasing shape the size of a small cardboard box. With a hole at the bottom.
This is what it’s like crafting a story. All that information is helpful and often important. But it can be crippling too. It can be so hard to know where to start. When you do finally start, it can quickly become a total mess as the sides of your box split and balls roll everywhere and you can’t keep track of which is which.
So what do you do?
My method is to leave all those balls behind. Do the work, find the characters and the ideas and all that important information. Maybe put them in a document as you work through them. Then close that document and leave it behind. It’s like walking out of the ball pit. Then you start fresh and make just a few notes on the very basics. Really stripping everything down to its smallest form (like the 3-sentence characters I have written about before). A few small notes and nothing more.
That’s what you work from when you come up with your story. And that story – you write that up in a couple of lines. In fact, calling it a story should be a stretch. It will be a situation. The characters encounter this and a thing happens. Or one character wants to go here but this is a problem. Now you have a really simple, clear beginning. A focus. You only have a few colourful balls here. It’s not daunting any more.
Then you go down a level and flesh that out. Not much. Little half-page outline. At this point, you’re hoping it starts to become an actual story. Have some think time and add a few scene ideas, making a note of where they might fit in the outline. Play with that for a while and, when your outline feels good, start writing.
And here’s the thing – in the writing, your characters are going to start to live. When you get down to a scene level, the relationships really come into play and the details matter. You left that ball pit behind but having spent that time gathering all the info will pay off at this point. Then you work at those details until you have a rich yet clear story.
It’s a little like the food pyramid, which is clearly just a triangle so I’m not sure why they call it a pyramid. You start at the top, small and simple and confined, and it opens out more the deeper you go.
It should be noted that this is just my way of making sense of that ball pit. While we writers face the same challenges, our solutions often differ greatly and your approach will be your own. Find what works for you.
We put so much into our work. So much passion and thought and trial and error. Creating anything is decision after decision. You have to make a call and, each time, you know how important those decisions are. And then you get to a point where it is ready to show someone.
The next step might be to pitch it to someone. Or to test it with children. Or to run it by peers.
And you hesitate. Why? Why don’t you test it with kids? You know people with kids, right? The reason is usually always the same: fear that the response you want is not the response you’ll get. We all go through that. Every time. And when we do send it out to people with the power to make or break our project and an email comes back, our chest flutters as we open it. We’re afraid. And when we see negative feedback or a flat-out rejection, we get angry, we get sad. Often we fluctuate between being hugely demoralised and totally stubborn. I’ll show them!
That’s because it matters to us. It’s because we care. Those feelings suck. They really do. But they’re important because they mean we still care.
What happens to your project all depends on what you do next. You have to be completely honest about that feedback, especially if it comes from testing with kids. You have to really look deep and examine the results you got. What worked. What didn’t work… and why. The key is that you accept the results. Too often, we just look for the results we want and we will find ways of dismissing the results we got. They were distracted. They didn’t read it properly. They missed page 7. I had a cold that day. What do kids know anyway? That way of thinking is all too easy, precisely because we care so much and we feel so attached to our project. And it’s a sure fire way to make a project worse.
Work with the results you get, not the results you want.
That doesn’t mean you cave in at every negative sign. It doesn’t mean you start your project from scratch the second someone tells you they don’t like it. It simply means this: those are the results your project is generating right now. Accept that as truth and then you just have to ask yourself: now what am I going to do about that?
To me, a first draft should not actually be a first draft. You don’t start at the start, type until you hit the last page and then click send. You write, in any order you like (I don’t always write from start to finish), until you have a draft. That is your rough draft, not a first draft. Then you edit. Bit by bit, not all at once – you have to keep it manageable. You amend, you fix.
On top of that, I do separate passes depending on the needs of the script. I always do character dialogue passes, character by character so that I can retain that character’s voice throughout. I’ll do a tighten pass, specifically to take out the fluff (of which there is usually a lot). I’ll do a gag pass if there is supposed to be comedy. And so on.
And I do all this before calling it the first draft. Or a second, third and beyond. Every draft goes through all these processes.
So how do you know when it’s done?
Well it is never truly done. When you call it a day on the 1st draft, you know there will be a 2nd. Even when you hit what everyone calls final draft, there will be production tweaks and last minute requests. So then how do you know when to stop? When does your draft go from being a rough work in progress to being an actual first draft? When is your second draft actually a second draft you can submit?
For me, it is when I’m just faffing around. When I’m changing lines and words simply to change them, and nothing is actually getting better or substantially altering anything, I’m just faffing around. Often I have a couple of days of faffing around before I realise that is what’s happening.
And when I realise that, it’s done. That draft is as good as it is going to be without putting some real distance between me and the keyboard. That is the time to write the draft number and date on the title page and click… wait! Not yet. Do a last pass for typos. Then check the first 10 pages again for typos – it is in the first 10 pages that those typos will truly haunt you.
Then click send. Congrats. You just finished a draft.
Recently, I was exploring an art piece in collaboration with an artist online who really inspired me when I was exploring pixel art for fun. A case of mutual admiration, which is always fantastic. One thing he said to me in a mail was: you really put a lot of love into your pieces. A lovely thing to say and it meant a huge amount as it was, but it was one of those little sentences that opened out into something much bigger as I realised that all the people I admire and all the people who I have loved working with and the people I want to work with in the future share this one thing: they put a lot of love into their work.
You can see it. You can feel it. You might not use those words but, on some level, you know. The love shines through in great work. The love even shines through in work that isn’t so great technically but is approached with honesty and passion. It elevates work.
Find something to love. To really love.
When you find what that is and you try it, no matter how raw you are at the start, you will put more into it than just time or hard work. You will put a little or even a large piece of yourself into everything you do. And people will feel it. It will count. And they will love it too.