I sat down to write a post on one of my most important guidelines when making anything: if it can be made better, it should be. Turns out I already wrote that post back when I was making Planet Cosmo.
The reason this was on my mind is that at the weekend I decided to redo a trailer shot I was working on. The shots were finished and were just fine. It’s just I realised this one could be just a little bit better. And so if it can be made better, it should be. The shot are now improved and final picture has been delivered to post. If I spotted something else important at this point, could I do anything about it? Yes, actually. Until the trailer is delivered to its final destination, until I hit the absolute drop dead deadline, I could probably still improve it.
This brings up the question: when do you stop?
When do you stop tinkering with what you’re making to avoid doing a George Lucas on your work? For me, the answer is in two parts:
1) STOP at the last point at which you will still hit your deadline. Implementing a fix too late could mean you miss your deadline. This is not acceptable (post on deadlines here). So your first cut off is the latest point at which you can still get everything done on time. When you’re at that point, you just finish it off and deliver.
2) STOP when you start making it worse rather than better. It is really important to try things in different ways but it is so crucial to realise when your changes are having an overall negative effect. Sometimes this is obvious. Other times, it is less so. For example, you may have a dull background in one shot and you want to brighten it up. Seems like the right thing to do, right? But what if the new saturated background now overpowers your final scene which was meant to look especially bright and colourful? What if people are looking at your background instead of your characters?
All changes will have a knock-on effect. Remember at the start of this post, I mentioned I decided to change a shot I was working on? That created a matching issue which led to the next shot needing to be changed too. Had that been the start of a damaging domino effect, the change would have created more problems than it would have solved. At that point, I would have to stop and step away from the fixes before everything fell apart. As it happened, in this instance that second fix brought everything together and it worked.
So if it can be made better, it should be.
But know when you’re going to damage your end product, either by missing a deadline or simply making your end product worse rather than better.
Whether you’re writing on your own project or for someone else, you will no doubt have a script editor. A script editor should be your greatest ally as a writer. I know it seems convenient that someone who is script editing would want you to think about how awesome script editors are (disclosure: I’m currently story and script editing a meaty 52-episode series) but I’m coming at this more from the perspective of a writer, having just completed the first scripts for Mooshku’s Millie and Mr. Fluff. I wouldn’t dream of writing a script and not having my editor, Hilary, have input. We need that external view, no matter how good our writing may be or even if we edit scripts too. Good script editors are essential.
This is the most important thing to keep in mind when you’re a writer working with an editor: your script editor exists to make your work look even better.
Your script editor maintains the distance and objectivity that you can lose when you get buried in a story. Your script editor is your advisor, your sounding board, your friend.
The best thing about a script editor is that they are usually (not always, but usually) untainted by any other part of the process. Think about it – the producer needs volume, an easy production and easy sales with minimal explanation. The director wants an episode that’s easy to make and can allow for performances. A distributor wants sales and license deals. Almost everyone on a production has a bunch of concerns that aren’t always about telling the best story.
A script editor, on the other hand, exists to make the scripts better. That’s it. So ideally the bond of trust between you as a writer and your editor should be unshakable.
If it is, here is what a good script editor will do for you:
They will make sure you are telling your story in the strongest way possible.
They will keep an eye on your flow, if you’ve lost sight of anything obvious.
They will listen to your language, make sure it’s correct.
They will look for the pitfalls, those pitfalls that you are better removing or patching before others spot them.
They will be there to nudge, to suggest and even just to talk things through in order to help you overcome any difficulties.
So value a good script editor, trust them and try your absolute best to make that relationship work for you. Try to find the right editor, one you favour and can recommend (I can recommend me and it’s a service we offer at Mooshku but I would also wholeheartedly recommend Hilary who made me a far better writer – get in touch if you’d like details). One you consider your best ally. Because really, out of everyone on a production, the script editor is on your side.
Here is a reminder I like to give when talking to people about making content for children, whether writing, directing, producing and across TV and other platforms. I call it The Barney Test. It’s very simple.
First, watch this…
Okay. I’m guessing you didn’t watch it all but that’s okay. Now the next part – answer this question truthfully: did you love it? Every minute of it? Would you love nothing more than to just keep on watching more Barney?
If you aren’t shouting a big happy “YES! YES! YES!” at the screen right now, you can rest assured that you are like almost all adults on this planet. Barney isn’t meant for you. It’s not meant for me. It is meant for children. And the thing is, children LOVE Barney. Most kids adore him. In spite of what we adults might want to do to the goofy purple dinosaur, Barney has given kids a lot of entertainment and good over the years
This is the point of The Barney Test: it illustrates just how different the tastes of adults and kids are. We are not the same, not even close. It’s great if you can make something you like but if you are guided only by what you like, you lose your audience and miss the potential children’s hit that you have to offer, whether Barneyish or more parent-friendly. And wouldn’t that be a shame?
So if you ever find yourself losing focus, veering towards self-indulgence, pop on an episode and take The Barney Test as a reminder of just who your audience really is.
On a related note, Dr. Maya Götz posted a link to this wonderful document on Emotions In Children’s TV. Download the PDF and give a read. It is a really important reminder of how children experience and process events in stories and the feelings that come from those. The point towards the end about how your work is biographically rooted is so important.
Development is easily one of the most crucial stages in any project. This is when you take an idea and turn it into something much, much greater than an idea. You make it real. Development leads to a sense of the finished product, it defines so much of the stages that will come later and, importantly, it gives you something you can sell. And if this stage does not get the care and attention it deserves, it is also where you unintentionally build in problems that may only become apparent down the line.
During development you look to change, to improve. You pull apart your concepts and try them in different ways. You try different characters and then change each and every one of those characters until the balance feels just right. You examine designs and styles. What if we try it this way? For development to truly work, you have to be completely open to change.
The hope is that through this process you will arrive at something much greater than the initial iteration.
But if there’s one lesson Gmail, Twitter etc. constantly remind me of, it is this: sometimes it was better the way you had it before.
The truth is, your work can get worse as well as better. It does happen sometimes that the initial instincts in certain areas were spot-on. When each new change brings a whole new set of problems to solve, it can be time to look back and ask, did we have this right before?
So be open to rewinding and taking your idea back to where you started. Keep in mind that this does not in any way mean the development process was a waste – you have to challenge these concepts and explore all other options to truly know it was right to begin with. Remember that if you go in deciding that you had it right the first time, then you’re not really open to change. Others will challenge your choices so be sure you challenge them first.
Push your development. Try different and make it better. Look for any direction you haven’t yet tried and apply it. Does it make the project better? Or worse? Development is one of the most crucial stages of any project so give it everything you’ve got.
Anyone who actually manages to make things happen will face resistance. It comes with the territory. We push past the doubters, the negativity, we persuade the gatekeepers, we build a strong case for each and every choice we make and we don’t take no for an answer. The ability to do this and continue doing it is essential to making awesome stuff happen.
But here is what is so often missed: the knowledge when to stop doing it is often just as essential.
Getting so used to having to push hard can lead to pushing out of habit. Someone questions your idea? You push harder. But hang on, what if they have hit upon something important? What if they are right? Even if you face very little resistance, is it possible you are just doing something under the pressure of your own momentum rather than because it is the right thing to do?
When pushing any idea through, it is so important to ask yourself: does this actually serve my core aims?
I was writing a story for Planet Cosmo which aimed to introduce children to planet Uranus. Uranus is pretty amazing because its rotation is at a whole different angle to the other planets, like it is tipped up on its side. Always looking for the character angle in the story, I ended up with Cosmo looking after a dog. Cosmo wanted to play planets by spinning around but this dog just liked to roll. Eventually Cosmo sees Uranus rolling and realises that the dog wasn’t getting it entirely wrong after all.
We wanted a lot of comedy in the show and this dog had so much potential for humour. One of the core rules with a dog is picking up its business, if you get my meaning. Dog poo. And Cosmo’s Dad not wanting to pick up dog poo and then having to do it led to a couple of very funny scenes in the early drafts. We knew kids would find it hilarious. Not all broadcasters would find it quite as funny. It could be dealbreaker for some of them.
And so there was resistance.
The question became: do we push this through or not? When pushing becomes second nature through necessity, the first reaction to resistance is usually to push harder. Think about the laughs we’ll lose. We should be going for edgy. Come on, it’s just dog poo. All dogs do it.
All these thoughts went through my head very quickly. I wrote an email to my script editor, Hilary, asking for advice on it. About a minute later, I wrote her another mail telling her to ignore the first email. In those 60 seconds, I had decided the dog poo was out. Why? Because it didn’t serve the core aim which, if you remember, was to introduce children to planet Uranus. It was as simple as that. If anything, the problems it would cause could reduce the chances of some children seeing the episode which would go completely against that aim.
If I had firmly believed that it would benefit children to see those dog poo gags, I would have pushed. But the truth is, to push here would have been pushing out of habit. Pushing for no other reason than I was facing resistance and I’m used to having to push in that situation.
As it happens, that poo-free dog story is still probably the funniest of the bunch.
Having the determination and the stamina to push ideas through is essential. But try not to push just for the sake of pushing. Always ask yourself: does this actually serve my core aims? If the answer is no, let it go.
Show, don’t tell – a storytelling guideline so often repeated. Rather than have someone tell us what a character is like, for example, show us a situation that illustrates that. Let the audience put it together themselves from the story you give them. It is an important guideline because, for good storytelling, it’s often right.
But is it right for young children? Not quite.
To be sure important information is coming across, you’ve really got to tell. State that important line, that key plot point, that crucial lesson. Research into educational media and children found very early on that young children will often miss inferences or more abstract thought processes required to put pieces together if the lesson is not directly stated. It has shown that you have to be far more explicit about your educational material to be sure children take it in. And if it works for educational material, it works for plot points, character traits and so on – it just happens that people have far more reason to study this in an educational context.
In short, the research says: tell.
From my own experience, it seems the difficulty is not that children don’t take in more subtle information or that they can’t put two and two together. It is that they are taking in so much information that we as content creators lose control over just exactly what parts they are retaining and processing. I have long maintained that everything a young child sees or hears goes towards forming their world view. The difficulty is that different children in different situations are taking in different things and applying them in different ways. So to control that, to make that key information clear, we must follow the guideline offered by the research: tell.
The ideal is to achieve both. Show first. This establishes context, which is so important for understanding. It allows for the possibility of some children putting the information together themselves. Then tell. Hit the information home by telling, as clearly as possible. Those children who were a step ahead of you will feel really good about that (give them a chance to get there first) and it will solidify the information for them. Those kids who weren’t quite there yet will already have the context so that, when you state the information, it makes perfect sense and falls into place instantly.
This way you are now in control of the information, be it an educational lesson or a key plot point. So show… but also tell.
Here is a tip for handling action in children’s media that I most often find myself giving to animators working on TV shows but it applies to many parts of the process including writing. It even applies well beyond children’s media. It’s such a simple thing and it will will have you thinking “well that’s just obvious” and yet it is so easily missed. Here it is:
One thing at a time.
One action at a time. So in animation, don’t have two important events happening on screen at the same time. Why? Because we can only look in one place at any one time. If you have two important actions happening simultaneously, it is guaranteed that one of them will be missed. In kids’ media in particular, clarity is key to engagement. If kids don’t know what they’re looking at, you’ll lose them. If they miss a plot point, you could kill the story.
So keep in mind that you may have a screen of 1920 by 1080 pixels and a lovely wide canvas to play with but we can only focus on one place at any one time. And if you’re clever about it, we’ll be looking exactly where you want us to by utilising momentum, action, composition and so on. So animators need to think in beats and look at their timeline and plot each main action across that. One at a time. Always one at a time.
But this goes well beyond animation.
This applies to writing. Plot points one by one, knowing that kids are taking the story information you give them in sequential order. If you hit them with two important points at once, you can be pretty sure they’ll miss something. It is crucial in making animatics and setting down your timing and, while plotting actions, you have to take it a step further – consider sound in those beats. One at a time. This is not just about the visuals. Often kids are focusing on watching or on listening and will do one better than the other. An important sound can be missed when it happens simultaneously with a competing action on screen. Dialogue can be missed while kids listen to the music. If you have a key line in your story, give it space. If there is a noisy action, give it space before a character speaks again. Use natural gaps in a voice actor’s delivery to punctuate the action.
Ideally, you should be able to depict your end result in the form of a horizontal chart divided by beats just like an animator’s timeline and each beat just has one thing in it: an action, a line, a sound and so on. That’s your focus and everything else in that beat should be constructed around that focal point.
In preschool, your story can be and should be very simple. Some people find coming up with stories very tough but the truth is, more often than not, the problem is not finding the story, it’s realising that you’ve actually got several stories in there. The focus to stick with a single, clear story is usually much harder then coming up with stories to begin with.
So why shouldn’t you have more than one story running through your preschool content? That’s easy: clarity. The more elements in your story, the more chance of it becoming messy. It depends on the length and structure of course but you can’t end up with a jumble of ideas. That’s true anywhere but especially in preschool. Your audience needs to be so absolutely clear on what is happening, what the core idea is, what the consequence of each action is and why every character is doing what they do. And you won’t be there to explain it to them.
Sure, you can have little asides. Little extras. But your core story idea? That’s a single idea.
A lot of us are what I call ‘kitchen sink’ writers. Everything goes in as we work up an idea. That’s fine as long as we have the focus and clarity to pull out the unnecessary as we work. Anything that does not serve that central idea should be removed. That can be a lot harder than it seems – preschool sometimes has this perception of being easy because the content is simple, and that’s exactly why it is anything but easy. Simple is hard to do. When I’ve seen writers struggle in preschool, it’s almost never because they can’t find a story. It’s because they’re trying to tell too many.
So pull your stories apart. Got something that feels like a second story thread in there? Great – pull it out and bank it, there’s a whole other episode for you to write later. Got a third story idea muddling things up? Take that out too. Now you’ve got three stories. Before long, you’ll have a series. And this is the real positive here, the one way to motivate yourself to really strip those stories. It’s not that you’re losing story ideas. You’re gaining whole new stories. Keep every idea. The more story threads you can pull out of your current work, the more stories you have banked for later.
Ideas aren’t the problem. It’s the focus to stick with just one. So pull the stories apart.
When creating content and particularly when developing characters, we can find ourselves looking for the hook. How do we draw children in? How do we get them to like this?
This is often seen as an additive process. This character will be cool so kids will aspire to be like her and also we’ll give her purple hair because kids love purple and she should be made of electricity because kids are all about the electronic devices and… and… and…
That’s not always a bad approach but it misses one key thing about kids (and often adults too): they go in wanting to be drawn in. They want to like it. You don’t always have to work so hard to pull them in. Instead, what you could look for are the barriers. What is stopping them from liking this?
I’m working on an interactive project right now and this is so easy to see with the mechanics in testing. If a character doesn’t respond the way a child wants, there is an almost instant disconnect. A barrier now exists between the child and the experience they want. The more bugs, clutter and barriers there are, the harder it is for a child to like what you are giving them.
The same is true for the characters and for narrative content, though it is sometimes much harder to see. Often those things you’ve added in your search for the hook can become a barrier – a disconnect between who the child is and the characters you are presenting them with. The more elements you throw into the mix, the greater the chances are that you will find the one thing that will sever the connection with some members of the audience. This is one of the key parts of my job when script editing: identifying those moments that will jar, taking kids out of the story. That is also why we can see a ‘blank canvas’ character do very well (what do we really know about Dora the Explorer?). A child can very easily project themselves on to a character if there is simply very little there to get in the way. And because we creators so often like to throw the kitchen sink into projects, that usually becomes a subtractive process. What traits can I remove from this character to reduce the number of potential barriers?
It can seem counter-intuitive at times. I want a great character, not a character who is barely there. Thing is, if you make it easy for people to see themselves in a character, you have a great character. This is especially true for young children.