Whenever we write a story for a show or film, we get notes. A script editor, head writer, director, exec, whoever will point out things that don’t work for them, problems or difficulties and often offer solutions too. It is part of the process and a very important one.
But dealing with notes is not always easy because, all too quickly, we get so close to our story that we can have a hard time seeing it any other way. Or during its early stages, we explored it so many different ways that we have already ruled out some suggestions we’re now seeing in the notes. Sometimes it is just hard to know where to start with them.
So here’s a simple tip. It’s something I do. After waiting 24 hours (I always need time for notes to sink in), I rewrite the notes at the top of my document. Not just transcribing them, I reword them in a way that suits me better (how I would have phrased them) and I lay them out so they are line by line, like a ‘to-do’ list.
This does two things. The first comes from rewriting them in my own words. Now the notes are no longer alien. They are no longer an outsider in my story. They are there in my document, in my story and in my words. It makes them personal to me. And so often I find that, even as I write them, my mind is already creating ideas and solutions that I didn’t see while reading them in an email. Usually as I write these notes, I’m actually also writing the solutions or new lines along side them.
The second thing is even simpler. Because they are now laid out like a ‘to-do’ list, I use them as one. When I’m confident a problem is no longer a problem, I strike it off the list. It gives me a sense of achievement, gets me closer to my goal and I always have clear focus on what it is I am actually tackling at any given moment.
It is a simple thing but it makes a big difference to rewrites and polishes.
Procrastination is one of those things I would find very hard to recommend in many areas of children’s media production. And yet when writing, procrastination is a core part of my working method.
Why? Well, generally I won’t put word to page until I know what those words are. I need to see the scenes. I need to hear the voices. I need to experience my story playing out. Without that, I’ll get lost in the words I am typing just at that moment and lose sight of everything around them. I need to work through the story from a few perspectives and have different options available to me, so that I can be sure that the words I type aren’t just the first words that happen to be sitting at the front of my vocabulary.
That takes time.
It is a process that can be rushed if needed. I can start with a scene and try to play it different ways as I lean back on my chair ready to catch any great thoughts on my laptop. But the truth is that some of the best moments seem to hit at odd times rather than being forced out. They happen when I’m doing other things. When I’m procrastinating.
And if you realise you’re getting results from something, use it. So here’s how I use procrastination to get results:
I break stories into tiny notes, basically lists. These are just one-line descriptions of each main event. If I have a gap in the story or a problem area, I note that and usually put some marker down (I tend to use a bunch of these: *********). Above this story description, I will write questions on things I need to solve or something I want to achieve but haven’t yet (often: make more use of this secondary character). The length of this document will vary massively depending on what I’m writing. Less than a page for a TV episode but it could be four pages or so for a feature. But it will always be very spaced out and easy to scan.
And now to the procrastination. Just before I go somewhere, like bringing the dog for a walk or having a shower or even out for the day at meetings, I will browse this document and pick something to tackle. I’ll read the notes and try to imagine the pieces I have already for that scene or problem. Sometimes that isn’t much but I will still try to visualise as much as possible. I’ll try to hear the character voices even if they aren’t saying anything worthwhile yet.
And then I go and get very busy not writing a thing. Sometimes nothing happens. I might just forget the notes or I might think about them the odd time but get no further along. But other times magic happens. Seemingly all by itself, my mind will start to play out pictures or throw out ideas. Every now and again, one of these will be really good. When that happens, procrastination is working as it should and all is right with the world… as long as I have something with me to take notes.
Every TV episode I write has to justify its existence. Yes, people want volume and that alone can be the aim. For some shows, it doesn’t matter if every episode blurs into the next. But for me, I want to add something. Offer something that hasn’t yet been covered. I approach this in different ways on different shows and different episodes but I usually have the same thought behind it – how might this become a child’s favourite episode?
For that to happen, an episode needs something to define it.
You just have to think about how a child asks for the episode. “I want the one with the balloons!” “Can I see the one about the dog?” and so on. Quite early on, I found myself applying what I have come to call the Friends Title Method. Remember Friends? Of course you do. The episode titles in that show were all “The One With…” There was:
The One With The Monkey.
The One With Russ.
The One Where Joey Moves Out.
They all followed this format. For me, thinking of it that way means that I have clarity as a writer. If I know what the one thing is that defines the story, everything I write serves that and should strengthen it. For kids, it separates out the episodes and makes each one unique in its own way. Every episode offers something a little different and so justifies its existence.
So when I’m working on a story, I ask myself what episode this is and I refer to it with that Friends title system – it’s the one with… And now I always know what defines that episode.
Many years ago I asked an author friend about his approach to writing. His advice: make each chapter better than the last. He makes it sound so simple!
As it happens, it is the perfect advice. If you consider a whole novel and the amount of content in that, it could soon be overwhelming. Keeping track of narrative over 85,000 words? Eighty-five THOUSAND? That’s a challenge. Character development, plot points, little seeds planted that you want to pick up later across something of that size is very daunting. And if someone suggests a pretty big change smack bang in the middle of all that and it’s a really good suggestion? You could have a domino chain of fixes running the entire way through that in both directions. That is a terrifying prospect for the human mind.
And that is why many of us will start a book and never ever finish it.
But breaking it down chapter by chapter and focussing on the chapter at hand? That’s manageable. Approaching each one with the aim of making that chapter entertaining all by itself? Sure, we can do that. Giving each chapter a little conclusion, whether a high or a low? Yep, that sounds good. Very soon, you build chapters that have their own twists and turns and if you keep that up you could soon have a book.
So much of what I have written in my career have been short episodes. 7 minutes mostly, some 13 minutes. While telling a story in that space of time is a challenge all of its own, the huge benefit is that there isn’t all that much to keep track of. There is a limit to the fallout that can happen when you change something. You can try things and, if they don’t work, you can try something else. No problem.
This month, I delivered a children’s feature script that is due to shoot next month. I’m currently on another one. While not quite a novel, that feeling of moving from a 7 minute episode to an 80 minute movie sent me into a little bit of a panic at first. Not just making it fun but doing so with movie structure stuff and acts and what have you. And if something doesn’t work and I have to pull it apart, that’s a lot more pages to deal with.
So I started to think of it like chapters in a book. And I made my aim to make each chapter better than the last. Yes, it is one overall story just like a novel is. But approaching it in smaller chunks made it manageable and I could keep track of everything much easier. As I aimed for highs and lows within those chapters and tried to end with something that would have the reader desperately want to start the next chapter, I soon found what I had was a story that worked.
All I had to do was actually write it.
As it turned out, that was simply a case of writing all the fun parts first and then filling in the gaps. If there are very few gaps to fill, that is a sign you could have something good.
Every character in a show or individual episode must have a purpose. They have to be there for a reason and they should offer something that no other main character can.
They should contribute in a way that furthers the story somehow, filling a role: mentor, ally etc. Or in a way that can complement or oppose in personality to enhance the group dynamic. Preferably both.
If you are ever in any doubt about just what that character is doing there, remove them. Better to have too few characters than too many.
Character descriptions are incredibly important in nailing down just what kind of person each character is. They should tell us how we will relate to that character. They should let us know why we might care about that character. And they should make clear why each character is different and has earned their role in a show or film. Often, character descriptions can bloat with back story, complex explanations of relationships with each and every other character and lots of tiny details.
Sometimes that stuff is useful. It might spark a story.
More often than not, however, it gets in the way. One thing I do when I am writing is to create my own little reminders of the core character traits at the top of my document or script. So a character description in a show bible might be a few paragraphs but, for me, it would become something like: Very young. Wants to be liked. Things must be fair.
Three sentences. And not even full sentences. Sometimes it might just be one word. If one of those sentences is simply ‘ordered’ that tells me a lot about how that character will react in situations.
What I have found over the years is that the characters that work best are the ones that can be narrowed down to three sentences easiest. If it’s a struggle to find the core traits that sum up that character or if they require lots of ‘ands’ and ‘buts’, it can be an indicator that the character isn’t quite nailed down yet. Or if you find two characters come down to the same basic traits, that too can be an indicator of a problem. So the three sentences can be a good test of how a character is working.
But does such simplicity do a character a disservice? Surely we can’t all be reduced to three sentences? We are more complicated than that, yes? We are, of course. But you still need that clarity to begin with. And you will find that three sentences per character applied to a whole range of situations will still result in a huge amount of variations in action and reactions. Because the aim then is to write them as living beings, not just robots carrying out their three traits like that’s all they are capable of. For example, we won’t write down ‘hungry’ as one of our traits unless constant hunger is a defining quality. And yet our characters will still get hungry. But how they deal with that will change depending on their three main sentences.
So give it a try – reduce your characters to three core sentences and see what you end up with.
I tweeted about this a couple of days ago and then thought it worthy of a post in case it helps anyone. Back almost ten years ago I had to come up with 40 characters and 40 stories to go with them for Fluffy Gardens. It was an evolving world and I didn’t yet know everything about it. What I did know is that I had to write these stories while also directing the show. I didn’t have time to mess about. Some stories came very easily. Others didn’t.
I needed inspiration for those tougher stories. So I created a cheat sheet.
In a simple document, I wrote lists. Everyday events in a child’s life, including mealtimes, washing up, going shopping and so on. Special events, including parties, going to the doctor, a trip to the zoo and things like that. It contains a list of locations: library, shoe shop, waterfall etc. A list of things: crayons, lederhosen, tuba etc. And (very important) a list of character traits: generous, analytical, boisterous etc.
Many of these are broken into smaller parts. For example, here is the listing for Concert:
Concert Dressing up. Getting tickets. Going to see a live performance. Listening to music. Orchestra. Band. Noisy. Getting restless. Loving the music. Singing along. Trying to play the songs afterwards.
Whenever I got stuck for a story, or I had a part of one but I wasn’t sure what to do with it, I would spend some time browsing the list. I would almost never find a ready-made story on it but it would inspire thoughts, scenes, ideas and ‘what if’ scenarios. Before long, a few words on that page would lead me off somewhere else and I would find what I had was a story. An actual story.
I have updated this list a few times over the years but the guts of it have remained the same. And it has remained just as useful since I wrote it all those years ago. So if you ever find yourself stuck for a story, consider making lists and creating your own cheat sheet.
Anyone who likes sci-fi will be familiar with council scenes. In these scenes, we take a well-earned break from the interesting stuff to watch a group of stuffy old people spout exposition and debate ethics while sitting or standing very still. The Phantom Menace had them. A bunch of Star Treks had them. Those Matrix sequels probably had them, I can’t quite remember. Jim from Neighbours has made a career out of them.
But they’re boring.
They are really, really, really boring.
They are so easy to spot in sci-fi but, once you develop a distaste for them, you’ll start to see them everywhere. It could characters spouting exposition and debating in a kitchen. Or a sitting room. Or somewhere else. The main hallmarks are that the characters aren’t going anywhere, don’t have much actual purpose other than to fill in story gaps, the scenes are about as static as can be without being labelled a photograph and often the characters involved don’t even have a role in the rest of the story. Boring, boring, boring.
And you know what? I just spotted one beginning to form in a thing I’m writing. Not a total council scene but close enough. I feel shame and alarm and I have cut the scene completely but I have no excuse for it.
I won’t let this travesty pass without some good coming from it. So now I use my now-deleted half-written scene of boringness as a lesson: avoid the council scenes. Just get rid of them. Look out for them and cut them. They’re boring. They’re boring for everyone but especially in kids’ media. Even your quirky designs won’t prevent the energy grinding to a halt when they happen. So just don’t let them happen. Say NO to council scenes.
I started with animation, the 2D hand-drawn kind. At a certain point, I recognised a built-in difficulty with the 2D animation system: the dilution of drawings. While setting up a scene, a storyboard artist sketches a character pose. Then a layout artist draws a tighter on-model version of that pose. An animator uses that as a basis for their rough key poses. Then in-betweeners fill in the drawings that are still missing, using the key drawings as their starting point. Finally a clean-up artist redraws all those drawings again with a clean line.
In each one of those steps, the energy that was once in that storyboard pose gets harder and harder to keep. It’s like a far less interesting version of Chinese Whispers, where the end result is a bland approximation of the starting point. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but the chances are pretty high in every single scene.
So people tackle this in different ways. Often the storyboard artists get to put a lot more life into their drawings. They don’t have to stick exactly to what the character looks like so they can be more playful. That way, we hope that they capture an energy that survives in part all the way through, albeit in a diluted form.
But the best way I found to beat this problem is one I saw employed by some making the crazier cartoons of the ’90s – encourage everyone at each stage to push it further.
You don’t just aim to capture what was in the previous drawing. You don’t aim to equal it. You take it to the next level. Got a strong storyboard pose? Try to make it even stronger in the layout. Then again in the animation and so on. Each artist adding to the energy rather than just repeating or, more likely, losing the energy altogether. And you have to keep doing it. You have to push every drawing actively. The second you stop doing it consciously, the energy fades again.
So I realised this many, many years ago.
What I hadn’t realised at the time, however, is that it applies to far more than just hand-drawn animation. It applies to just about everything. It applies to story. It applies to character. It applies to writing. It applies to directing. It even applies in ways to production systems. You have to keep trying to push things further at every stage. Make them more interesting, stronger, better. And you have to do it consciously and keep reminding yourself to do so. Because the second you stop, things slip. They start to get far less interesting and, eventually, stop working altogether.
So keep pushing it further. Do it at every stage. And use every bump, every criticism, every do-over, every problem as an opportunity to ask yourself how you can push it even further. Do this and you’ll end up with something interesting, better and truly alive.
Just a little note today on scripts and why they are so important when developing a concept. Now when I say scripts, that can be the traditional written form or, as some prefer in animation, a fully working storyboard instead. Either way, it is the document that sets out the story. For me, they are more important than how great the concept itself sounds and certainly way more important than what’s in the show bible.
If it doesn’t work in the scripts, it doesn’t work.
That is all.
And tomorrow at Animation Dingle, I’ll be giving a masterclass going through my whole development process as a creative producer. If you’re at Dingle, come along! It is just one of many great things happening there this year. Details HERE!