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.
Whether you’re writing, directing, producing or any part of the process of making content, you will encounter difficulties. Some you see coming, others you don’t. Some are minor annoyances, others are catastrophes. They all have one thing in common: you don’t want any of them to negatively impact the finished product.
What you certainly don’t want is a big problem late in your production, when there are too many parts of the process finalised to go back a step and when any delay will push you well past your deadline. You must avoid a panic late in your project. Panic by definition involves a certain lack of control and this can happen so easily when a new problem hits just when you need it the least. Your aim must be to retain control. But can you really choose when problems will occur or reveal themselves?
Sure you can. You do this by making the decision to panic early instead. Get it out of the way.
Right at the start, work on the assumption that something will delay you. Take on that little moment of panic on day one. So now you can’t aim for on-time any more because, in reality, that will lead to you being late. Instead, you have to aim for early. That builds in a buffer for those problems that may arise (just like I suggested about writing in an earlier post). It also helps you get to those problems a little earlier which may well be just the extra time you need to deal with them.
Next: Call a crisis point the moment you get a feeling in your gut that something is not working. Declaring a crisis is not a negative. Quite the opposite. By recognising a problem as potentially damaging, it allows you to take the uncontrolled and form a strategy to control it. You can reassess your aims, you can pull apart your systems and rebuild them, you can shuffle your teams or replace people completely. Bottom line: you have to acknowledge the problem before you can deal with it. Don’t wait until that problem has snowballed and is out of control. This is as much a note to self as it is to anyone reading this because any time I have seen that happen it has bitten everyone involved in the ass every single time.
While carrying out both of these points, never assume it will all work itself out eventually. It never does. Problems must be dealt with head on.
And then: Enjoy a calmer ride to the finish line. If you got your panic out of the way right at the start, built in that extra time, tackled every problem recognising that you have a crisis on your hands, you will have saved yourself a whole lot of worry later in the process and will likely have a far better product as a result. It’s that age old homework comparison. If you leave it to the night before it’s due, you’re in for a night of panic and possibly scrappy work that you don’t have time to review. Do it early, on the other hand, and you’re relaxing that night as you pick off the last few typos on a great piece of work.
But… shouldn’t we all be aiming for processes and productions with no panic whatsoever? Sure. And that’s exactly what it looks like when you have taken control of your production and carry out these steps routinely.
1) Aim to deliver early. 2) Declare every crisis immediately. 3) Never assume it will work itself out. 4) Enjoy the ride.
I was asked a little while ago about how to approach writing a blog. My first thought was, well, you just think of an idea for a post and then you write it. But there is more to it than that and I realised the strategy for writing my little blog is not just about writing a blog. It’s about writing, be it posts, articles or TV episodes. So here is my little guide to writing:
1) Set a deadline
I always post here on a Wednesday. So I know for the rest of the week that, one way or another, I need a post ready for Wednesday. It must be posted. The same is true on TV shows or delivering content – productions are expensive and delays can cost serious money so you have to deliver on time if you’re going to remain working. Deadlines must be respected. Once you realise this, you will deliver. So there is nothing like a deadline to cure writer’s block. Just set one and then stick to it.
2) Jot down every idea
Ideas come and go so quickly. They’re like sparks. So don’t assume you’ll remember a good one and don’t judge a bad one too harshly early on. Note every idea down and come back to them later. This is especially important when writing on a series, where you often have to come up with a large amount of stories. When it comes to that next script, you’ll need a bank of ideas to draw upon. So create that bank – jot down all ideas as they come.
3) Search for ideas
Yes, many ideas just come to us but it’s not always that easy. There are times we have to actively search for them. How do we do that? Depends on what we’re writing. For blog posts, I often go through the process of what I do and I ask myself, is there something interesting here? Is there something I have learned that might help others? I write keywords and see if anything leads somewhere. For stories and shows, I take a similar approach writing lists of activities, places, events and seeing if they form together to become a story. If I get stuck, I’ll start doodling scenes. Often seeing your characters visually can lead to a moment that leads to a whole story.
Yes, you actually have to write. People write at different times of day. I tend to work best in very quiet places in regular hours free from interruptions, leaving the evenings free to clear my head but I know some people are night owls and do their best writing at night. Whatever works for you is fine as long as you do the writing.
It is rarely right first time (for me, it’s never right first time). Whether just a little blog post or a feature script, it’s going to need another pass. It could need several. If you’re on a regular schedule, this is important to factor in when getting close to your deadline – you don’t want to be clicking ‘post’ as soon as you hit that last word. Give it time so you can come back to it and do another pass.
6) Build in a buffer
I never deliver late and I feel uncomfortable even coming close. I want to deliver early or, if something goes wrong, at least on time. To do that, you have to factor in the unexpected. Something can delay you, stop you working when you need to work or you may actually really face a hideous case of writer’s block. So how do you still deliver on time? You build in a buffer. Write more than you need when you can. On my shows, I wrote furiously at the start so I was always a few episodes ahead of schedule each time. That way, if I needed to take a week off for any reason, I had scripts ready to go into the system and nobody was held up. Same is true for blog posts. Have a few sitting there ready to go in case you need them.
And that is how to write. Seems so simple. Of course the challenge is often not how to write, but how to write well. That is a whole other topic but the best way to get to a point where you’re writing well is to keep writing. So write!
Young kids like structure. You’ll hear it about parenting and it is true for content too.
Hollywood movies are generally very structured and they usually follow the same format you will read about in any number of scriptwriting books. Most regular adult viewers won’t be able to identify it consciously but ask someone 20 minutes before the end of a movie how long there is before the credits roll and most will be pretty good at guessing correctly. That is because they know where they are in the familiar traditional structure, having seen it play out in movies over and over across a lifetime.
When you are in the area of preschool content, your audience doesn’t yet have a clear preconception of how structure works. And they want to know. They certainly want to know when the story ends. It can be jarring for children when the end credits roll and it is a surprise to them – they didn’t quite think the story was finished. So you need to help them out with that.
This is one reason circular stories are great in preschool. End as you began but now with a new realisation or a key change. Bringing it back to the beginning can tie your story up very neatly and kids like that. It is also why a very clear format can help children. Dora the Explorer has the “We Did It” song towards the end of every single episode. As soon as kids hear that, they know the episode is coming to an end and they feel satisfied knowing they got the full story. Many other shows (including my own Planet Cosmo) now use similar song endings or key phrases that appear at the end of every episode. Many Peppa episodes end with the family falling over laughing or jumping in muddy puddles. That tells kids, okay now we’re done. Kids don’t want stories left in a limbo. They like their stories neatly packed away, as happens literally in the end sequence of Yo Gabba Gabba.
So no matter what form you are working in, when making content for preschool children try to signal your ending. End neatly and clearly. Leave them satisfied. Don’t leave them hanging.
One word of caution: don’t signal your ending too early. Once kids get it into their heads that the story is finished, they can disengage and go looking for the next story and your lovely warm epilogue will be drowned out by the argument of what to watch next.