A very quick thought today that is relevant to many (all?) forms of storytelling but especially to preschool media where you have to achieve clarity for a young audience. It is this: much of story is simply asking a question and then answering it.
An example and familiar question: can your character overcome a challenge? The answer might be yes or it might be no but you need to answer that question if that is the question posed at the start of the story.
Seems obvious, right? And yet when I’m reading scripts, often a lack of a satisfying conclusion can be traced back to not actually asking the question asked. You might have a big finish, a resolution but somewhere along the line the story went in a different direction and you didn’t answer the question asked. You might have answered a different one.
Ask a question. Answer a question.
Can a boxer prove he’s not a bum? Yes. Can a farm boy really take on the Empire? Sure. Can a crew survive an alien brought on board? Mostly no except for Ripley and Jones. Asked and answered.
I began my kids’ media career as a director and writing came after that, first on my own shows and then on the shows of others. At that point, one of the strangest feelings was handing over the story. When you write, you immerse yourself in the characters, the world, the emotions, the laughs and you live in that space intensely. It is YOURS. Yes, you get notes and input and it is a collaborative process for sure but you’re the one who has to dive right back into that world to make those collective thoughts real.
And then a weird thing happens. The story is approved for production and you have to hand it over.
It is no longer yours. The production team and the director will take your script and make it THEIRS. They will interpret the lines their way. They will picture it their way. The voice director will get a take that has a whole different sense to the way you heard the line. Lines will get amended in pickups and there could be entire scenes you didn’t write. And on many productions, you might not ever know. There are episodes of shows I have written that I still have never seen. As a writer, it’s a strange feeling to be so close to a story and then just hand it over into the unknown. For people who are just writers, that has to be a tough thing to get used to and possibly even scary at first.
But I think back to where I started, directing Roobarb & Custard Too and working with Grange Calveley who created and wrote Roobarb. I think about how we took the scripts as the starting point and, from there, crafted the visual and audio storytelling from that. How we added visual jokes, puns (which were a big thing in the show), how we shuffled scenes and even had to completely reinterpret sections at times. Even at the time, I remember thinking that there was something special here – Grange had so much faith and trust. The property owner and distributor too. And in turn, I would pass that trust on to our team. It was a show built on creative trust and support.
Since then, I have tried to build every show on that same foundation. It is how I have got the best from every project – letting the people who are great at their job do their job to the best of their abilities. Sure, as a director and a producer I find it is essential to guide and lead and push but in a way that doesn’t stifle our team, preventing them from actually doing their job well. We start from a position of trust (“do an amazing job with this”) rather than suspicion (“you’re going to mess it up”).
So then as a writer, when I hand a story over to a director, to a production team, I do so sometimes with a slight sense of loss and certainly a huge curiosity about what happens next but mostly I do so with trust and support: my words are only the start and the next phase of storytelling is something different. Go make it something great!
What happens when the ideas just don’t come? When you have a blank page you need to fill, some story you need to conjure from nothing or you need to find a whole new project without a starting point?
I find that creativity leads to more creativity. If you can get ideas flowing at all, it will bring you somewhere and you’ll be able to find more ideas. If this is the same for you, you need a creative kickstart. Here are three ways I do this:
1) Work on something else. If the thing you’re supposed to be working on is going nowhere, how about starting by coming with ideas for something totally different? It’s like searching your house for something – you’ll find it while looking for something else. Ideas can be like this. Pick something else and get to work. As soon as the brain starts moving, see if you’ve got anything for the project you’re supposed to be working on.
2) Creative time travel. If your ideas just aren’t coming, how about going back to a time when they were? I keep ideas all over the place but most of them are buried in many, many notebooks going back more than a decade now. A lot of the scribbles and notes contained in these notebooks are terrible. But they are creative. They came from a burst of inspiration or a building flow of ideas. Pull out some old notes and leaf through them. Remind yourself of some old silly concepts and your brain will add more to them. Before long, you’ve got new ideas and your creativity is flowing.
3) Cheat. I have mentioned this one before. I keep what is effectively a story cheat sheet for when I get stuck. It is a list of character traits, everyday experiences, story starters and even just silly words. A combination of just a few of these could lead to hundreds of different stories. Keep your own story list of things you like and, when things just don’t come to you, refer back to it and just pluck ideas straight from it. No creativity required to start with. But once you start playing with them, the creativity will come.
So there you have it. Three ways to get your creativity moving on those harder blank days. Get started, get ideas flowing and keep working!
Some time ago, I was having a conversation in which I put forward that we overthink narrative and that the success of YouTube Let’s Play videos offer narrative in a much simpler and wonderfully spontaneous form. A form that those of us in more constructed media are missing (something I have said here before). I questioned the need for anything resembling traditional narrative at all. The very next day, I wrote a post about the need for very traditional and very constructed narrative ideas – how we need to build on the established structures.
You could be reading this and writing all this in your notebook (it’s okay, I know you don’t do that) and be thinking to yourself, well now I don’t know what to believe! Which is fact here? Traditional narrative or not?
Here’s the thing: when you take in every piece of information you get from someone who has made media, had certain successes or failures, has had a long career or whatever appears to make them qualified, you need to think about how that information applies to YOU. To YOUR work.
The one rule I have found over the years is that any time someone says there is a rule, you need to instead write that down as ‘guideline’ or ‘personal piece of advice according to this person’. There really aren’t facts when it comes to this creative stuff. Yes, there are so many things you can learn and should learn but that won’t mean they are always relevant to your work right now. What works for one project in one particular year won’t necessarily work the same for another project in another year. Actually, you can be pretty sure it won’t, hence my rather obvious prediction that the next big successes will come as a surprise to most people.
Many have gone before you. Many have tried different things, done the research, had failures and often understood why. These are things you should learn. There are tools of the trade that we should all have.
But unfortunately this won’t give us a simple set of instructions to follow. So they shouldn’t be taken that way. When your favourite author or creator says something that you remember, don’t file it away as a rule. Because it’s not. Instead, think of it as a tool to be considered. A resource you have that may or may not be applicable in different situations.
The core thing here is that everything you hear and read, the very reason you’re reading this right now, should really be to get you thinking rather than to stop you thinking. To provide an insight that will help you in your own work and, if we’ve done our job, the insight will more likely come from YOU rather than the words you’re reading right now.
For me, my guideline, my personal piece of advice is: be informed. As much as possible, be informed. And then really consider that information. Think about it. Use it. Or don’t use it but make that a decision rather than just something that happened because you didn’t realise you had tools at your disposal. Let every nugget of information prompt more questions. Your work is your own and you will find your own path.
So traditional narrative or not? Well that actually has a very simple answer: maybe…
Notes, eh? They can frustrate. Just when you think you’re done, you get a new note and have to unravel what you’ve done. Maybe even come up with something else entirely. And can you do that in the time you have? Notes can throw spanners in all the works. But there is something to consider here:
Quite some time ago, we were trying to work out a character for a thing I was working on and we submitted some first options to see if we could get a steer. One of those options was approved instantly. No notes. No suggestions. No questions. An approval.
Cause for celebration? No. I wasn’t happy. That character wasn’t completely ready yet. It wasn’t as great as it could be. It was a first draft. And it could be made better but we didn’t get the opportunity. And this is exactly the thing to keep in mind: notes are an opportunity to make something even better.
Even if you don’t like the note, you now are given that chance: make it better. Take that opportunity. There are times in my career I did not agree with notes I was given and there were times we got too many notes with not enough time to carry them out and notes have to be managed on all sides because they can cause a production to grind to a halt… and yet I can’t think of many cases in which something got worse after we had another attempt. Because it wasn’t just about carrying out the notes. It was an opportunity to make things even better.
Notes, revisions, retakes, redrafts – they are all a part of the process. They come with the job. And when you get them, take the opportunity they offer.
Finished not perfect, right? Sure. You have to deliver and you have to deliver on time – that’s crucial. Respect deadlines. Get your work out and do not let your own tweaks and changes and doubts and endless polish hold you back from delivering.
BUT… you can never let this become an excuse to deliver scrappy work. You have to use your time well and make sure that the work you do is of excellent quality. Finished not perfect assumes your work is GOOD. And the danger of putting all focus on getting it out rather than getting it done well is that some can take that as a justification for scrappier and scrappier work.
You have to get your work finished but it has to be finished really well. Never let that slip.
A clean, clear concept. That’s what we want to see. I find pitching a project mostly comes down to answering one simple question: what is it?
What’s the concept?
Unfortunately finding a simple answer is usually harder than it seems. It is a constant struggle to refine your project description down to the very basics while still making it sound attractive. I have seen this go horribly wrong in pitches, where people talk about every element of their show for half an hour and still don’t answer the question ‘what is it?’ Even being very aware of it myself and working at that, I have still sometimes come back from my own pitches knowing that I need a simpler, cleaner way of explaining what it is.
Part of it is excitement. We can get so excited about all these great things in our show that we start to waffle. It just comes out and we lose control of what we’re saying and sentences wander from one part of our concept to the next. It is enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is good and people pick up on that – don’t lose the enthusiasm. But be very aware of the complicated spaghetti-like descriptions that enthusiasm can lead to.
So you need to be prepared. You need to work on your simple description in advance and you need to learn it. Then after you have delivered it, you need to stop talking. Let whoever you are pitching to take it in and ask the questions they need to ask. Answer those simply too. It’s like the advice I see given to people taking the stand in lawyer shows – short answers, answer only what you are asked. The difference between pitching and testifying in a law show, however, is that you need to retain that enthusiasm.
Here is one more thing to be aware of – sometimes your show will change. As it develops, new themes might be added, old ideas discarded. New characters or a new focus is brought in, adding layers to your concept. Your concept will likely grow and find new depth which is all a good thing. But instead of adding each new part to your core pitch, you really have to go back and create a new description. One just as simple as the original but gets across where the show is right now. Clean and clear.
Today I’m posting about endings. Specifically, what I can take from the Orphan Black ending, although I’ll be steering clear of any plot spoilers so don’t worry if you haven’t yet seen it yet. I watched through another show recently that I felt fumbled the ending very badly and it got me thinking about how endings are HARD. If I think back to the endings of so many shows, well, they just aren’t always great endings. They don’t always feel satisfying or… like an ending. Endings must be complex beasts.
This can be true within an individual story too – an episode, a film, a book. Although I have a suspicion that the longer form of narrative you’re trying to end, the more difficult it is. You have so much more to wrap up but, probably more importantly, your audience has invested so much more time in that narrative. The ending carries more expectation and more weight.
So why are some endings unsatisfying and some very satisfying? What’s the difference?
Having recently watched that Orphan Black ending as an example of how to do it right, I have a feeling it may not be all that complicated after all. I wonder if many of the unsatisfying endings are as a result of overthinking it, trying to be very clever about it or surprising. When in reality, whatever about what an audience might say, they aren’t looking for clever or surprising in an ending. They are looking for closure. And that all too often is missing from the unsatisfying endings.
The Orphan Black ending got all the tension out of the way in the first third of the episode. Everything from there was epilogue. It was giving us that closure. It was saying: here is the end of the story. While it played out differently, I feel the effect wasn’t all that different to the old fairy tale ending: “and they all lived happily ever after”. And that’s what we want. We want to be able to close the cover of that book, let out a deep sigh and know we have reached the end of a wonderful journey. We don’t want to be left wondering what the ending was about. Or what happened the characters who vanished. Or wonder about that last minute twist that will never ever be paid off.
We just want to see the characters we love overcome their challenges and be happy. We want to know they have won, have grown and are now safe. We no longer need to watch because we know they’ll be okay. We’re not going to miss anything now. We are given license to leave the story and be okay with that.
Good endings are pretty simple after all. Really, all we need in an ending is: “and they all lived happily ever after”.
Research is taken as a given in some types of stories. We wouldn’t write a novel about life in 15th century France without doing some reading into what life was like in 15th century France. We wouldn’t write a sci-fi story about the ISS without finding out what it looks like and what astronauts actually do up there. We wouldn’t write a show about lawyers without doing some research on the law and how that works, right?
Except that some people try exactly that. They see law shows on television and so assume that they know all they need to know to write a story about lawyers. It’s not really a true understanding, will likely lead to mistakes and lawyers who actually live that life will rightly tear your work to shreds when you make those mistakes. You’ve got to do your homework and look up the information.
Children’s media is different though. Especially in preschool. Stories can be about going to the supermarket and we all know what going to a supermarket is like. Or a story might be based around getting on a train. We know how trains work. They might just be about falling out with friends and that’s pretty easy because there isn’t even a picture we’d have to google for that one.
NO! This is wrong! Because what you know is what it is like to experience those things as an adult. The life of a child is VERY different. They will see things you don’t. What is mundane for you to the point where you don’t notice things is still new and exciting to children. How they react to their world and each other will be very different to you.
It can be incredibly beneficial to look stuff up that you take for granted. Firstly, knowing about kids is crucial. Those ‘Secret Life of 4 (and 5) Year Olds’ and similar shows are fantastic for getting a glimpse into how they interact. If you haven’t watched any, do so. But also look up what people are telling children about the mundane things you think you know everything about. What are educators telling kids about supermarkets? What things to their early reading books point out? A lot of these will have been refined over years with research and they might suggest something you never thought of. Look it up and see what you can find out.
And when you can, ask children. No matter how good you are at this, sometimes their answers are going to surprise you. They are the real experts in their own lives.
A couple of weeks ago, I went for a run that got me thinking about comedy in stories. Here’s what happened:
I set off as usual in my t-shirt and shorts with my little app going and my music on. And then I felt something wrong… a sort of sliding feeling on my butt cheeks. Under my running shorts, my boxers were slipping down and down. The elastic must have gone on my boxer shorts.
I hiked them up and kept going. They slipped again. I hiked them up. They slipped again. At this point I couldn’t help but think about what it must look like with me adjusting my pants every minute or so as I jogged past people. This couldn’t go on. So about a kilometre into my run, I stopped and tried to tackle this properly. What I did was take my boxer shorts and get the seam right under the waistline of my running shorts, pulling my running shorts tight. The idea was that the running shorts would hold the boxer shorts in place. And they did…
…for almost another half km, at which point they slipped again.
I stopped to adjust and got another half km out of that. But I could not keep running with my underpants sliding down my butt cheeks over and over again.
So I did the only thing I could to hold them in place. I took hold of them and I pulled hard, giving myself a wedgie. The only thing that could hold these in place was the power of my own butt cheeks. So with wedgie firmly in place, I ran. I ran like the wind. No, it wasn’t comfortable but I was running and my boxers stayed in place. I smiled as I ran, not one person knowing how my boxer shorts were pulled right up my butt crack except for the people who saw me adjust them again two kilometres later, giving myself the wedgie to end all wedgies to get me all the way home.
And I thought about how ridiculous this was and about comedy. Great comedy so often comes from the little human failings. The disasters. The challenges we aren’t prepared for. I wrote one project once for a really great director who just had one thing missing – comedy wasn’t his thing. The reason was that he was seemingly great at everything (and he really was). He couldn’t understand when characters got things wrong or weren’t prepared for the challenges they faced. That didn’t make sense to him. It makes sense to me. I fail. I get everyday life wrong. And I can write good comedy.
But here’s a really important thing about the challenges we give characters in comedy – they are funny when they don’t completely beat the characters. On my run, had I just gone home and changed my underwear, that wouldn’t have been funny. Had I stopped and broken down in tears, that wouldn’t have been all that funny either. What created a funny situation was that I didn’t give up. I persevered and was a willing participant in the situation becoming more and more ridiculous. That’s funny.
So if you’re going to write funny, you need to understand what it’s like to be the guy who will go for a 7km run with a wedgie.