So my sister and I were watching this gritty British underworld drama on Movie Central. You know the kind – where everyone talks in a Cockney accent and swears, and people get beat up a lot? Suddenly, all the main characters were dead. The End. “Two hours of my life wasted!“ my sister groused as the credits rolled. “What was the point of that?“ I demanded angrily of the gods of Unsatisfying Endings.
Right up to the end, the writer seemed to have something complex to say about a hero trying to protect the prey from the predators while on a mission of personal vengeance. But the “everybody dies” ending left me wondering what the message was supposed to be. Crime doesn’t pay? Live by the sword, die by the sword? Lie down with dogs, get up with a really fatal case of fleas?
Not that there’s anything wrong with those messages. Lots of books and films have explored those themes to great effect. My point is: as viewers, we shouldn’t have to work too hard to figure out what the writer is trying to say!
On the other hand, as writers, we should work hard so the viewers can figure out what we’re trying to say! So in honour of Labour Day and Back To School Week, here are some thoughts about the never pointless job of animation writing for kids.
When it comes to a children’s series, the person who hires you to write a script is going to want to know what your point is right from the pitch stage. You can call it the theme, “the learn,” the life lesson, the takeaway message, or to get all Aesop on you, the moral of the story. It all means the same thing: that special insight that your audience is going to get from watching your story.
“For God’s sakes, somebody teach me a lesson!” ~ Leela, “Yo Leela Leela,” Futurama.
They may not ask you to state it explicitly, but whoever is catching your pitch should be able to tell what the point of your story is from the emotional arc of the characters and outcome of the plot. Every series has its own overall message and the producers and broadcasters need to know if your message fits in with theirs.
The Chicken or the Egg?
So when you’re generating pitches, which should you come up with first: the message or a plot idea? Either way can work.
Maybe you know from the get-go what point you want to make and you come up with a story to illustrate that exact point. Author Suzanne Collins wanted to criticize the way that television news coverage of the invasion of Iraq had come to resemble reality show-style entertainment. The result was the dystopian-future young adult novels of the Hunger Games trilogy and an increased demand for archery lessons from teen girls.
Or you may just have a notion that you want to do something with, say, pirates or a big hockey game. You can reverse engineer a message that will turn your vague idea into a solid story. Your pirate story could be about not letting greed destroy a friendship. Sports stories are always good for themes about working as a team, or not cheating, or how winning isn’t everything. (Although between you and me, in kids’ programming, the heroes end up winning a high percentage of the time.)
But if you go that second route, it’s best to nail down the message early on so you can choose the best way of communicating it. Knowing what you want to say will help you decide what characters to use, what story beats to hit and what dialogue to write. It’s especially useful when you’re editing your drafts and trying to figure out what to cut and what to tweak. Any bits of dialogue or action that don’t support the theme can be slashed, or should be reworked to contribute to the overall message.
In Your Face!
Some broadcasters and producers want you to spell out the message out for the viewers so they can’t possibly miss it. You may be asked to take a very in-your-face approach – a style amusingly spoofed on South Park with their end-of-episode “You know, I’ve learned something today…” sequences.
“You know, I’ve learned something today. Family isn’t about whose blood you have, it’s about who you care about. And that’s why I feel like you guys are more than just friends. You’re my family…except for Cartman.” ~ Kyle, “Ike’s Wee Wee,“ South Park.
This tactic is often used when the creators of a series are keen on providing moral or spiritual guidance to their audience.
In the VeggieTales videos, at the end of each comic retelling of their bible stories (performed by fruit and vegetable characters), Larry (the cucumber) and Bob (the tomato) talk to the viewers directly to let them know the religious message of the story. Eg. “What Jesus is telling us in His little story of a father and son, is that God’s love has no limits. It goes on forever!”
Back in the 1990’s, one version of the Sailor Moon anime series as dubbed for Western audiences had an “educational” segment tacked on to the end of each episode. It was known as “Sailor Moon Says…” In the segment, Serena states the life lesson of the day. Eg. “Sometimes the hardest thing in the world is believing in yourself, especially when your grades are, eh, less than stellar, or you’re kind of clumsy. But you never know what the real you can do. Set your mind and heart on it and anything is possible!” Hey, if Sailor Moon says it, it must be so.
These days a more common, less overt way of stating the message is what I think of as the “thesis statement” approach. Somewhere in the dialogue, one of the characters drops the “learn” into the dialogue, perhaps during an “aha” moment when they realize the impact their actions have had on themselves and others.
This doesn’t have to be as clunky as it sounds. Some memorable movie lines have resulted from the screenwriter slipping a “topic sentence” into the script. “With great power comes great responsibility.” “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” In a kids’ show, it would probably sound more like, “Gee, I should asked for help right away instead of trying to defeat that giant purple space squid all by myself.”
One series I wrote for went even further. Towards the end of the episode there’d be an exchange of dialogue that would provide a “script” young viewers could use in real life when faced with a similar situation. It would go something along the lines of, “I’m sorry I snuck off instead of telling you I’d rather go to the concert than hang out with you.” “Hey, that hurt my feelings. I’m your friend and friends tell each other the truth!” “You’re right. Next time I’ll let you know what I really think.” The series also had seven main themes to choose from such as “Work Hard” or “Believe in Yourself.” At the top of each pitch, you had to state which theme your story would use. While it may sound a little restrictive, it did take the guesswork out of knowing what messages the producers would greenlight.
With other series, the producers and broadcasters may want you to be more subtle and let the audience draw their own conclusions from the animated characters’ wacky or heroic antics. But even if said viewers don’t have the analytical skills to articulate what “we’ve learned today,” your story will be stronger if you know what is the point of it all.
So take a moment to think about your message before you write your next pitch or outline and look before you leap because haste makes waste and a stitch in time saves nine. Then strike while the iron is hot because he who hesitates is lost…