In spite of the title above, I often find myself advising people to stop reading books or blogs about writing. Why? I find a lot of people do it instead of actually writing. I know I did, for a LONG time. It just becomes another form of procrastination – one we can fool ourselves with, remaining convinced that we are learning so much and our writing will be all the better for it.
That only works if you actually write. So the rest of this post assumes you are writing. If you’re not, start.
If you are, then your writing will benefit massively from reading about the theory. Story structure, movie structure, character. Read McKee’s Story, Snyder’s Save The Cat and anything that covers the basics of story theory. Knowing structure and the whys behind it will give you a fantastic set of tools with which to craft your story. It becomes especially valuable when pulling the ideas together and really shaping it into something you can present to others. It gives you an important checklist to test elements of your story once you’re close to being finished.
But I find that learning the basics once just isn’t enough.
Firstly, you can forget the details. You can forget the reasons behind things and certain parts can lose importance. As with just about any other part of the process of creating media, I love reminders. Going back to basics every now and again always helps me.
But more than that, I find keeping this information fresh can hugely motivate and inspire while I work. A sentence in a book might spark a scene idea. A page might use a movie reference as an example and I suddenly realise there is already a parallel in my story and I can use it in a much better way. Reading a page here and there can help keep focus and clarity while crafting a story.
And it isn’t just the basics. Glancing over at my shelf, I see a book called Between The Lines (about the subtle elements in storytelling). Your Screenplay Sucks – a very handy book on ways your script might not be as good as it can be and how to fix it. Directing Actors, The Writer’s Portable Therapist, Creating Unforgettable Characters and more. Each one offers insights into different areas and it all helps.
I haven’t read them all from start to finish. Often, I just pick them up and browse sections. Before I know it, my brain is finding ways to apply what I’m reading to my characters and off I go again, writing. It keeps me moving and, importantly, keeps those core storytelling goals in mind at all times.
So write. And read. And write and read some more, until you have created something wonderful.
Let’s talk about Paulie’s robot. Rocky was a film series that began with a very human story, about things we could all relate to. It had heart. It had truth. By film 4, it was nations versus nations, montage after montage and Paulie had a robot for some reason. It seems quite far from where Rocky started.
Now a lot of people liked Rocky 4. Rewatching it now, it has almost no movie there in between the fights. But people really liked it. Paulie’s robot, however, was what would later become known as ‘jumping the shark’. Named after an episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie actually jumped over a shark, the term has come to mean the decline of a show or movie series that can be marked by a moment of writing desperation to try to retain any sort of interest.
Rocky 5 attempted to undo the robot and take Rocky back to his roots by having him lose all his money and allowing the focus to stay with a more human story. It’s a lot closer to the original in most ways and yet isn’t all that popular among the Rocky movies. Rocky Balboa, the movie that eventually followed, would be better received. And yet Rocky Balboa couldn’t have been the movie it was without Rocky 5 trying to pull the series backwards. Rocky Balboa is a natural progression from where we left Rocky in Rocky 5. It moved forwards. It would have been a far harder movie to make if it had to follow Rocky 4 instead, if it had to build on a world that contained Paulie’s robot.
So what’s happening here? Why were we okay with Paulie’s robot in a series that began so grounded and yet not so keen on the next movie that tried to bring the series back to its roots?
There are a lot of factors but one huge one, in my view, is that a story or series must progress. It must move forwards. It is very difficult to successfully go backwards. Rocky 2 built on Rocky (barely, but just enough). Rocky 3 built on Rocky 2 and was already beginning to morph into something else. Rocky 4 built on Rocky 3. It’s a ridiculous movie and, put side by side with the original, it’s hard to see them existing in the same universe and yet it is a result of a move forwards. It built each time and we accepted that, robot and all.
Rocky 5 attempted a rewind. Now that’s not the only issue with that movie but Rocky 5 is incredibly jarring following Rocky 4. It feels like something broke Rocky.
Generally, you have to move forwards. You have to progress. If you don’t, you will very quickly find you are churning out more of the same, and the audience will drop away. Had Rocky not progressed, even while risking the ridiculous, I’m not sure it would even have made it to five movies. At a certain point, your audience will think, I’ve seen this already. This series has nothing more to offer. And when that happens, you will have a very hard time getting them back.
You move forwards and offer what the audiences expect plus something extra. Something new. Something that retains interest. And yes, sooner or later, maybe you’re going to jump that shark. You’ll give Paulie a robot. That’s a risk. But if you hadn’t progressed along the way, you may not have lasted long enough to write your wonderful shark-jumping moment.
Here is one thing to watch out for in your story when you move on to draft 2 and draft 3 and beyond. You, and likely most other people involved, know what happened in draft 1. The audience doesn’t.
Very often, remnants of draft 1 get left behind. Things that once had meaning now no longer have meaning. Setups that once paid off now don’t. Or worse, pay offs remain where the setup has been removed. A scene that demonstrated why a character is taking a particular course of action is now gone and the action no longer makes sense. Very often, it is the opening that needs the most tightening in a story and it is very easy to cut a crucial piece of information and forget to get it across some other way.
Thing is, they are like typos. Story typos, in a way – because they are often small and really hard to spot. As we go through our drafts, our brain fills in the gaps. Our minds tells us, yeah, I know why that’s there, just carry on. So you don’t even spot the hole. To you, there is no hole because you remember what happened in draft 1.
So you have to actively look for the connections yourself. Go through the story and ask yourself: does each setup have a payoff? Does each payoff have a setup? Do the details still matter? Are you missing an important detail?
And one of the best ways to catch these is to make sure someone new reads each draft, without the prior knowledge of what happened in the earlier drafts. With every revision, it becomes harder and harder for everyone involved to retain any kind of objectivity. Find fresh eyes.
Every single time I work on a project, I have one goal in mind: this will be the best thing I’ve ever made. This is true whether it is the start of a whole new concept or just one more episode of a continuing series.
Does it always turn out to be the best thing I’ve actually ever made? Not always. But having that as the goal always pushes me to make something better, try something different and give the audience something a little bit special. It prevents me from being overwhelmed by deadlines and letting something go that just isn’t ready yet.
This goal is its own quality control.
And really, why would you possibly want to do anything less?
So whatever you’re doing, whether you’re mid-production or coming up with something new, set a high goal. Make it the best thing you’ve ever made. Simply keeping that as your core goal will vastly increase the chances that it is.
90% of getting by in this business is doing the work – sitting down and writing that script or making that short or whatever it is you need to actually make stuff happen. The other 90% is selling your work or yourself. The remaining 12.5% is a basic grasp of mathematics.
I remember being told decades ago that there is no point in creating something and having it sit in your desk drawer. I listened to that. And I created stuff. I put in that first 90%. Then I chucked it into my desk drawer and wondered why nobody ever came calling.
So I spent many important years putting in the work and getting better at what I do, trying to improve in different areas. Actually being okay with telling people about my work was a very slow process. Learning to pitch was hellish… until it eventually became fun. And it would be many more years before I would overcome the even greater challenge: pitching not just my work, but myself.
Even now, I love to let my work speak for itself. But the reason for that is down to me having a hard time saying to someone: I am really great at what I do and you need to know that. I don’t know if that’s me as a person or a cultural thing but it’s a hard thing to do and I realise that there were times in my career that I could have let people know about skills I had… but I didn’t.
On the few occasions I did, good things happened. And so I’m a bit better about that now.
But I still know people who do the work and leave it sitting in their desk drawer (or computer folder) where it will do no good. You have to let people know what you can do. You have to tell them about your work. And yourself. And you have to keep doing it. That’s the second 90%. And in the end, it counts for more than the first 90%. So it’s more like 97%.
Actually, let’s just forget the percentages. Just go out there and tell people about your work and what you can do.
I have been knee-deep in writing live action children’s TV shows and features for the last while. The Gråtass children’s feature film released earlier this year in Norway was what started this journey and there is more Gråtass on the way. But this post is about a gorgeous Norwegian series called Karsten and Petra. Based on children’s books, the series is about two little children, Karsten and Petra, and their everyday life at kindergarten and with their families and with their talking toys, Lion Cub and Miss Rabbit. It is already a massive hit in Norway with a 12-episode TV show and four hugely successful theatrical movies.
After writing Gråtass, the production company Cinenord asked me if I would write on their new Karsten and Petra – 20 more TV episodes and a new movie. When I watched what had already been made, I felt I was discovering something truly magical. A perfect preschool children’s series, with the movies reaching a little beyond but always right for a very young audience. Charming, sweet and adorable. Full of warmth and love and yet not shying away from reality. Seemed just right for me, given my preschool focus.
But the pressure of following up the original work was immense. To live up the charm in the writing? To make it feel right, to do it all justice when the work was already so good? That was a heavy weight.
Thankfully, we began on the TV scripts. I know how to make TV work and I suspect some of what I loved about the show was seeing what I would have done with it. It matched my preschool aims in so many ways. Yes, I spent the early part endlessly second-guessing myself but thankfully Cindy Hanson, the script editor, was always there to guide me – as much a writer’s therapist as a script editor (as I feel a good script editor should be). Soon, I got into it. But I felt even more pressure on the feature film. Feature films are hard. I had to follow some really lovely movies and I had given myself a seemingly impossible goal: live up to the charm of the previous work while also building on it. Basically, offer more of the same without being more of the same.
Can that even be done? It seems it can. I think we achieved exactly that. And it really is we. So many people have been essential to getting that right.
At the weekend, I travelled to the set to see the crew filming the episodes I have written and prepare for the brand new feature film. A wonderful new Karsten and Petra (the original kids grew up!) and everything else just as I had seen it when researching the series last year. And wow, it was special. The sets are stunning, the children are ADORABLE, the rest of the cast fantastic and I could see Arne Lindtner Næss, the director, bringing the magic that captivated me when I was first introduced to this world.
I didn’t feel like I was watching my scripts being shot. They weren’t mine any more. I was simply watching Karsten and Petra, looking just as it should. I even got to meet Lion Cub! He’s shorter in person but just as nice as he seems on screen. That lion has some funny showbiz stories to tell.
If you’re interested in work for preschoolers at all, you should check out what they have already produced on Karsten and Petra. You’ll find something sweet and really quite special. It is a joy to work on and, thankfully, it’s not over yet!
I’ll leave you with a couple of articles on Karsten and Petra coming soon:
I remember when directing animated shows that I would sometimes see characters moving around for no reason while other characters talked. Some animators have a need to fill the space. They’re thinking they can’t just let the character stand there and blink, can they?!
Yep, you can. And you can go further. Every now and again, I would make the listening (or watching) character the focal point of the scene. And again, even when they are the focus, we just need to see them taking it in. The expression is important. Lots of movement isn’t.
As my friend Simon Crane and I would say: animation is not about making your characters move, it is about making them think.
This applies well beyond animation. Seeing characters take in a moment can have more emotion, more drama and more comedy. Remember The Office? Gareth (or Dwight) would do or say something ridiculous. Where did the camera spend most of its time? Watching Tim’s reaction. Or Jim’s, depending on which version you’re watching. Comedy can come from someone doing something funny. But better comedy can be seeing a character watching or listening to someone doing something funny.
When we write scripts, we’re often into the back and forth of lines. Character says A, next character says B and so on. We can get so caught up in what they say that we can miss what might be more important: what they hear. Or what they understand. Some actors are known for trying to reduce their lines in order to give them more time to listen and to react. Because it’s like animation – it’s not about making your characters say stuff, it’s about making them think. And making them feel.
So when you’re thinking about your scenes, playing them out in your mind and writing them down, think about the reactions. No, not the outbursts. Just those little moments of listening, of taking it all in. Of thinking and feeling. That’s where your character is. That’s where the drama is, the comedy or the heart of your scene. Let your characters listen.
Stories: the status quo, something changes that throws everything out of whack. That’s the main idea. Take a happy person, make them sad. Maybe build them back up to happy again. Take a comfortable person, make them uncomfortable. You shake up the situation and that makes a story. Like some sort of snow globe.
I find that gets much harder to sustain at feature length. Especially when I have spent so much of my career writing stories as short as 7 minutes. I start, I change the situation and now… what, I have 75 more pages to fill?! Gah! Can I just doodle in these? How about a really long song?
So how do I sustain a story across that? Well, essentially it’s the same idea but my next step is to look at the sequences and the scenes.
For me, every scene is a tiny little short story. Status quo, something changes. At the scene ending, the feeling should be “wait, what happens then?!” Until the very last scene, where the feeling should be, “Ahhhhhh… that was good!” (if your last scene ends with, “wait, what happens then?!”, we are no longer BFFs).
Others will refer to these as emotional turning points. Your script needs them. If you open your scene on a high, you might end on a low, or the other way around. For me, they are little stories in themselves and that amounts to the same thing, with the added bonus that you take on extra responsibility to make the individual scenes interesting and fun all by themselves.
This way, your story can stay clear while keeping everything moving, fun, interesting, gripping and/or emotional.
I was asked a while back about how I approach writing outlines. Just getting the first shape of the story together. Well, my own approach is relevant to more than just the beginnings of stories. This applies to much of my writing process. And here it is:
Write fast, write furiously, send nothing.
I just throw the ideas down as quick as possible. You would be shocked at how messy and nonsensical my early documents are. It doesn’t matter. Nobody will ever see them. The idea behind this very first stage is simply to make the ideas real.
They now exist somewhere.
From here, I don’t go in and edit them. I don’t tidy them up. I send them to nobody. I simply think about them. Something about the fact that some ideas are down and there is already some sort of framework gets my brain working. Other ideas come. Scenes appear. And often a whole other framework for the story begins to form. I make notes of any thought or idea that comes to me during this time.
Usually, these thoughts are disconnected. Put them together and it might almost feel like a trailer. But you know how it is – watch enough of the trailers and you can often piece together the entire story of a movie. And this is what happens with these ideas. Eventually, the scenes are filled in and there aren’t all that many gaps any more.
And then I write the first draft of the proper outline.
I do this just using the original document as notes. I don’t go in and edit it because it then is all too easy to get locked into unfinished ideas. Best start it fresh now that there has been some time to see it better. And this time, I’m thinking about a beginning, middle and end. I’m actually telling a story. This is the version that will now be edited and, likely at some point, sent to someone. It will be the template for the script.
But it almost never happens without that first fast, furious and never sent version.
Distilling a character down to the core is a very important part of my process. I find complex characters are often just characters we don’t know well enough yet. In order to write stories for them, especially children’s stories, I think the main traits of any character should be simple and clear.
But here’s something to keep in mind: so often, it is the exceptions that can make our characters interesting and real.
An adventurer who wants to explore! Except that dark shady bit of the forest. We’ll stay well away from there.
A character who just LOVES everyone! Except that Mrs. Hoofpoke who lives on the corner.
A character who is constantly grumpy. But secretly leaves gifts for neighbours when they aren’t looking.
Adding an exception to a dominant trait adds interest and story potential. The trick to making that exception work comes back down to the simplicity of the trait. You have to stick to your own rules. Too many exceptions, some inconsistencies in how you apply it and your character just slips away from you.
Get your core traits clear. Then play with an exception.