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Screenwriting for Children
Guy Halifax

(reprinted with permission from Scriptwriter magazine)

  'Oh, you write for children, do you? And when are you going to do some real writing? You know - for adults?'  
  'My daughter has those children's characters all over her duvet, her writing-case, even her fruit yoghurt. Is that what you do?'  
  'My kiddies love the stories I tell them. I'm sure there's a market for them somewhere.'  
  'When are you going to get a proper job?'  

All right. That last one was from my Mum. The rest of the apocryphal quotes above are typical of the misconceptions that surround the world of writing for children's television. The most annoying suggestion to professionals working in this niche area is that children's writers are only doing it until they somehow graduate to writing for grown-ups, because children's writing is easy, isn't it?

Not so. Writing for children is a specialist job and I would argue that if anything, it's harder than other writing. OK, so how do I justify that statement?

The first thing to ask when writing for children, whether it be live-action drama, animation, puppets or Jackanory stories, is who is your audience? Children are divided by commissioners and schedulers into age groups that represent average levels of intelligence, education and experience. Roughly these are 2-5, 6-8 and 9-11 years. (Above that is designated as family programming.) These age groups are of primary importance to the children's writer.

Children learn about the world very quickly, but there is just so much to learn that even by the time they attain their majority, there is much they don't know. I mean, most of us would not actually discuss current affairs or indeed anything beyond favourite flavours of ice cream with a 5-year-old. Or even perhaps a 10-year-old. No, you expect to give them information and explain things to them, certainly for as long as you have to bend down to match their eye-line. At least when talking to an adult for the first time, or when writing for adults, you have some expectation of common knowledge or experience.

That's in general terms. Now let me be more specific. There are certain obvious things to which you pay more attention when writing for children within their age groups. Use of repetition is good for the very young, such as frequent use of character names. Then there are length of line, complexity of sentence construction and use of language, meaning choice of vocabulary and idiom. You keep these things simpler the younger your audience. Personally, I like to challenge them. There's nothing wrong with using the right word provided that if it's not one that my audience is likely to know, I make sure that it is understandable by its context. Or I might have another character ask what it means. However, I then have to find a way of doing that, probably subvert it within an action, so the pace doesn't slow to a crawl and the children zap me.

It's no use writing about a bank manager, let alone an investment banker, in a story for a pre-school audience. These jobs are simply outside their experience and certainly outside their interest. So you have to consider the suitability of the material for the audience. You don't have time to explain all your terms of reference if you only have ten minutes to tell your entire story. If you write any boring exposition, it kills the child's interest and loses its attention. Being addicted as they are to the remote control, the minute you start to preach, explain or patronise then Zap! You've lost your audience.

Another thing is the educational content. There is educational TV and there is entertainment TV. Now much educational material is also fun but the reverse is not true at all. There is no requirement for entertainment shows in the UK to teach anything. So here is one similarity with writing for adults. A negative, maybe, but still something in common.

Back to the misconceptions, and the next one is that almost any story can make a children's show. I find myself a magnet for scripts, ideas, illustrations and the like from wannabes who are convinced that they are sitting on a gold mine and have the best idea for a new children's show since.. (insert your favourite classic show here; for me it was Jim Henson and the Children's Television Workshop's Sesame Street). I find such new ideas usually fall into two categories - the re-hash and the uncommercial. The former is the worse. With a vague but fondly-glowing memory of Kenneth Graham's Wind in the Willows or Arthur Ransom's Swallows and Amazons or even Oliver Postgate's Noggin the Nog as an inspiration and influence from their own childhood, people seem driven to produce awkward clones of these classic characters or tales.

While I am delighted to find anyone taking an interest in children's entertainment in whatever medium, and believe that we must always try to encourage people to put pen to paper, there should be some originality in what they write. It's from there that tomorrow's classics will emerge, not from clone shows.

For example, I had a really charming and persuasive young American approach me with his new project. It was an idea of his Mother's to which he was devoting all his not-inconsiderable energies. He had some illustration work and now needed words. I turned him down, and not just because he wanted me to work on spec. (How am I supposed to pay my mortgage while I do that?) I simply didn't rate his chances.

His problem was that his heroes were bears and there are already loads of bears out there. Rupert, Paddington, Forever Friends and the Care Bears spring to mind. Then I looked up the offerings at last year's Mipcom television programming trade fair and found old bears, coloured bears, tiny bears and others including The Upstairs Downstairs Bears, The Little Flying Bears, The Three Bears, (yes, with their little, golden-haired friend), Petzi Bear, Max Bear and one called Corduroy. (No prizes for guessing what he looks like.) The point is that no matter how cute or how different your bear design, or how novel your high concept, or how original and catchy your music, another bear show is no more than that - another bear show. Compare that with John Webster's Hamilton Mattress, the drumming aardvark. Even if you have yet to meet Hamilton, I'm sure you can believe me when I say he's original in concept as well as design!

As for the uncommercial ideas, I find part of the problem is a lack of understanding of genre and part is a lack of understanding of technicalities. I read a delightful story recently by a housewife (pressed into my hand by her husband with whom I was working) which was a classic example of both problems. It was about a group of animals putting on a play. The problem was the writer had tried to keep all the natural characteristics - and sizes - of the creatures which she was anthropomorphising (more a University Challenge than a pre-school word). With the best will in the world, a 2-shot between a badger and a bee will never work, let alone anything wider. So there was that fundamental technical problem with the piece.

The other problem was she had humans in the equation, and the writer tied herself in knots justifying how her animal heroes could use a real theatre to put on their play without the humans finding out. She was also trying to maintain her idea that all animals and insects can communicate with each other, but communication with humans is impossible. I didn't buy it. At its heart, here was a very sweet story about personal growth and teamwork that I think may well make a pleasant book or maybe a short series of books or just possibly, a Snowman-type one-off animation. That's as far as it goes because in modern TV commissioning terms, it is uncommercial.

That's when we come up against the other big question when looking at a new idea - does it have legs? Nowadays children's series are not commissioned as short runs. Gone are the days of six or seven episode first commissions. Lucy Daniel Raby's Big Kids was first commissioned as 13 half-hours. Most animation shows are commissioned by the 26. The replacement for Teletubbies will be an initial commission of 130 episodes. How would a writer of grown-up drama feel about that? Daunted?

Now let's look at the final myth - about merchandising. Even if your show has legs and ratings, it doesn't necessarily mean it will be able to break into the world of merchandising. It's a crowded market with some big players and when I say crowded, I mean that literally. Think shelf-space. In a toyshop, even one as large as Toys 'R' Us, the reality is that there is only room for about five different character-branded goods in one range, let's say lunchboxes. Now with Thomas the Tank Engine, Bob the Builder, My Little Pony, Postman Pat, Winnie the Pooh, Paddington, Miffy, Barney, Tweenies, Bill and Ben, Clangers, Noddy, Sooty and Pokemon (to name but a few) all out there, why would the retailer want to make room for your new product? It has no realistic chance until it's established as a brand and acquires automatic entry to the list above. Not all the listed brands will make it on to the shelf because not every TV show or even character is suitable as brand material.

But don't let that stop you trying. Every market is always looking for the Next Big Thing. They realise that even successful classic characters have their limitations. They cannot explode and grab the market in the way that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did in the 1980s and Harry Potter is doing now. Not all the brands on the list are over 25 years old. Just most of them!

So what are the other differences between writing for children and writing for grown-ups? As well as the focus on the age-groups as described above, there are the no-nos. Think film classifications 'U'. 'A' and 'X' here. There are certain things that are simply verboten in the world of children's TV writing. Obviously sex is right out. (Well, the night before starting a script, anyway.) You can't use foul language or show direct violent action such as one child hitting another. You cannot show children using weapons or any action which children could copy and thereby hurt themselves, such as poking a toy into an electric socket. No matter how much the plot screams out for it, you have to devise another way. Those little grey cells have to work that much harder.

To illustrate this point, I have just done a consultancy job for an Estonian production company that was adapting a series of children's books from Eastern Europe for world-wide animation. They were amazed when I told them that most of their storylines were no-nos. I pointed out that in the UK (their target market along with the US), a five year old cannot go into the park alone. He should never approach a male stranger and call him Uncle and under no circumstance should he buy a dog from the stranger using money taken from Mum's purse. Nor should our five year old attempt to cook if he should be left alone in the flat. Furthermore, under no circumstances should he help the little girl from upstairs to pierce her ears using a hammer, a nail and the breadboard… I'm not kidding. These were all in their draft bible. In case you're wondering, we did eventually find 26 storylines that satisfied both producer sensibilities and market restrictions.

There is otherwise no difference at all between writing live-action drama for children and adults. Same work on the story structure, same depth of characterisation, just generally far lower budgets. Ah, the B word. Don't get me started on budgets! Oh all right, just the one anecdote. Peter Corey tells a wonderful/awful story about a script he wrote involving a fish-poaching scene with classic river bank torchlight chases in the dark. He was asked to re-write it because it seems they didn't have the budget for a night shoot and it would have to be done in the day… Oh, and just one more. Richard Carpenter had a call about a dinner party scene. He had written it for four people and the accountant explained patiently to him that there was only enough budget for three chairs, so was there any way Richard could rewrite the scene? I wish I'd been a fly on the wall to hear him expand on the word 'no!'

Animation is very different. As well as all of the above, there is even more to consider in writing animation for children as here you have to write for the world market. Foreign-language versioning of your words is the norm because shows need to sell world-wide to make their money back. You cannot use any parochial terms, indigenous creatures or even the best-known of local landmarks. The child in Kenya or Kansas or Kyoto each has a very different knowledge of the physical world around him or her compared with a child in Milton Keynes (he said, struggling to keep within his self-imposed alliterative restriction), and you have to work within their limitations. Cats are universally recognised and understood by children, for example, but hedgehogs aren't. Even such things as police uniforms are far from uniform in colour from country to country.

The biggest difference however is that the animation writer has not only to write the dialogue, but has to direct the whole script on paper. For those of you unfamiliar with the mechanics of animation production, here is the sequence of events. The writer writes the script, then the actors record the voices, the storyboard is drawn, and then at last the animators start work. Although it is likely that the director will have had a look at the script before the final polish, the actors do very little more than turn up and read the lines. On a long-running show where they become very familiar with their character's catch-phrases and delivery, they may tweak a word here or there and certainly add the odd cough, laugh or vocal ad-lib, but they have nothing to do with the action. They don't worry about the blocking or the camera angles or precious close-ups, or any of the usual stuff of live-action drama rehearsals because after they have finished reading their part, they just go home and await the cheque. All right for some.

The director's job is mainly at story-board stage, the story-board being drawn following the stage directions in the script. It is the writer who has the big picture and has the responsibility of putting it all down on the page in the first place. The rule of thumb for writing animation is to write no more than three lines of dialogue between each stage direction. (Theatre writers are fainting now.) This means that you really have to work hard to visualise the scene and make sure that there is plenty of action to keep the eye candy stimulating.

As an audience, children are far more demanding than grown-ups. Child viewers are sponges, soaking up all the signals you can give them. They are so quick. They pick up information at the speed of lightning. When Steven Andrew, the Head of Children's at Granada, was market-testing the brilliant live-action comedy series My Parents are Aliens by Andy Waller, the grown-ups who saw it didn't understand the premise at first and requested an introductory, scene-setting episode. The kids understood it immediately because it had been covered in the animated title sequence.

They become bored equally easily. Tim Firth (Preston Front and many other gems) recently described how his children's writing has come to improve his adult work. For example, he wrote an episode of The Rottentrolls that started in the middle, jumped back and forth in time, had fantasy cut-aways, dream sequences and even a false ending for good measure and all within a pre-school ten minute puppet show. It was a particularly silly one, granted, but very funny and a major ratings-winner.

Now compare that with writing for EastEnders where the script is linear, the plotlines are written for you and all you have to do, in the words of Alan Plater, is 'the colouring-up'. Tim Firth says writing the children's series opened his eyes to new possibilities and now he challenges himself to make viewing more involving for whichever audience he is writing.

I can't end without mentioning one final misconception: that children have short attention-spans. Well they don't. At least no more than adults. They're just not prepared to sit there and wait for the programme they are watching to grab them or improve or whatever excuse we grown-ups use for not reaching for the remote control and zapping. They may be a far more demanding audience than grown-ups, but they are far more rewarding to write for when you get it right. I recently saw a theatre-full of a thousand 8-16 year-olds really enjoying a production of Macbeth written for Shakespeare4Kidz by Julian Chenery. For two hours they sat riveted and came out buzzing. How come? The characters were strong and the well-structured plot bowled along and the kids weren't bored. So if Shakespeare (via Julian) can hold their attention for two hours, there is no excuse for any of us not to make our animation scripts, which are mostly between 10 and 22 minutes, just as involving, rewarding and fun. As I hope you've gathered, it's no easy option.

There's just one more thing before I return to writing 'Splat' and other such stage directions. It may just be the reason why more real writers don't write for children. The B word again. It applies to script fees as well. I may write for children but I think it's high time I was paid as a grown-up.

  Guy Halifax

Guy Hallifax was first paid for writing in 1979 - a sketch for CBBC's Play Away, and has been writing for children ever since. His big break was in 1984/5 writing all 26x10' episodes of the cult puppet show Orm and Cheep. He now creates characters through his company Phew!! and writes for a wide range of children's animation including Bob the Builder. Guy is an active member of the Writers' Guild. He is married, has two large boys, a dog and a tortoise.

This article was originally published in Scriptwriter magazine and is reproduced with permission.


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