My path to writing stories for children has been a very visual one – animation, storyboarding, directing. Along the way, I have seen some wonderful scripts and have been very fortunate to work with some excellent writers. But I have also seen many submitted scripts that would be almost impossible to produce, some that make little sense and I have heard numerous complaints from animators about writers who just don’t think visually. Many on the animation side, for example, preach the value of forming the story through storyboards rather than words on a script.
Even with my visual background, when I moved into writing I embraced the words. The language. I love language and the flow and the rhythm that words can bring and I have done since long before I got into television. I don’t believe the value and power of words should ever be underestimated, even in preschool entertainment.
But early in my career, I was writing a script and something went wrong. Something was missing. I didn’t quite know what it was. It was while working out another basic story problem, remembering that a character could use a wrench left in an earlier description, that I realised what had happened.
That wrench had been there all along. But I didn’t see it. I didn’t see anything. I had lost the picture. I was now dealing in just words. Oh there were descriptions but I was no longer really seeing anything. It was a whole lot of spoken dialogue in darkness. The actions seemed abstract, lost in the darkness, and even the characters were nothing more than mouths to deliver dialogue.
I was not writing visually.
I have since seen that same thing happen in the scripts of others and even in books and what I have found is this – the more words we write, the more risk there is of losing the picture. You can have great dialogue and really play with those words and that’s great but you have to have a complete visual picture. More than that, you have an opportunity to create something wonderful with those visuals, an opportunity that should not be wasted. Think of some of the defining imagery in movies – the long spacecraft Discovery in 2001, getting the yellow bus moving in Little Miss Sunshine, pushing into the wind in Babel. Imagery so iconic, it often feels the rest of the movie is built around it. It is no surprise so many of those moments end up on the posters.
Does it happen in preschool? Sometimes. It does now when I write it.
Almost all of the series 2 Fluffy Gardens episodes are based on a single core image – a huge field of flowers, cycling over a hill framed by a rainbow, a little boat sinking in a vast ocean. The same is true for Planet Cosmo. If you know the episodes, you’ll recognise some of the scenes in the sketches above, done before the stories were ever written. And it has value to young children as each episode becomes special, a completely unique event even in a format as structured as Planet Cosmo – the episode with the tiny pieces of ice floating in space, the episode with the raging red storm, the episode with the room full of glowing stars. Iconic visual moments unique to those episodes.
So how do you stay visual while writing, dealing with just words?
Well, my advice is: don’t deal with just words. Sketch and doodle as the story forms. Try to define some of those key moments in advance. Keep those drawings close. No matter how good or bad they are (nobody ever has to see those drawings), they will help you keep your visual picture. There are other ways too. You could trawl Google Images for locations similar to those you’re writing about. Print them out and place little cutout characters on them. For one feature script (keeping in mind that the more we write, the more the risk of losing visuals increases and a feature requires much more writing), I actually made myself a little playset, customising figures to match the characters in the story and building a basic set from cereal boxes.
You don’t have to go that far. But do whatever it takes to keep hold of those visual images and create those iconic moments. That way, you’re taking the best of both worlds – staying visual like those who create their stories through storyboards while embracing your passion for words and language.
Be wary of getting lost in the darkness. Stay visual.