Friday, 7 May 2010

PUNKY, Pettigrew the snail and the challenge of writing for pre-schoolers

The snail Pettigrew, is behaving herself. She now has a nice shimmer of purple (nail varnish) and sunset kiss (lip gloss) on her shell and seems to be adapting well to life in a flowerpot.

That the selfsame flowerpot got flooded at the weekend while my daughter was at cub camp and despite my being given strict instructions on The Care of Snail Farm While I’m Away this doesn’t seem to have fazed either it or my daughter. She just shook it out, touched up its shell and put it in another pot. Makes me wonder what these poor snails did in a previous life.

Meanwhile, I’m adapting to Punky. Writing for 3-6 year-olds is a challenge. Yes, we are aiming at the top of that age range but I’m not an animator and this, I’m learning, is a big disadvantage when writing for this target group.

For a start, stories have to be simple, which is good. (Forgetting for now the great stories that worked when Punky was a longer form for an older age group. Muffled sob stage left). In addition, this age group tend to listen more than watch, so everything important has to be said as well as shown, in case they miss it. So I’m writing lines that in any other form would be redundant and ‘on the nose’. But they work.

Events have to be perfectly linear. If Punky decides to do something – aloud – then she does it and then we have to see the result in the next scene. There’s no opportunity to let several events build up and bring everything together in a climax. It has to be cause and effect every step of the way or they’ll miss it and it won’t make sense.

Transitions are another one. Time passing, location hops that an older audience would comprehend, just don’t work. For example, if a character is upstairs, they can’t then be downstairs in the next scene. Either we see them leave the room and head down or, if there is a significant change in time, we have a transition. This means, we show time passing.

Only we can’t have anything written because this is for children aged 3-6. So we have the classics of a sun moving across a sky, a clock's hands spinning or, ideally, someone going to bed and waking up but that takes longer.

Oh and scenes are more static, of course. At its simplest, every angle is a different drawing. You can’t turn the camera around and look upstairs so the less of this that is needed, the better.

Scene set-ups need a visual clarity too. You can’t simply have


The alarm goes off, startling Punky. Her hand reaches out to turn it off.

You have to say at the top of the scene that Punky is in bed, not assume they will know. This comes down to not being an animator. If I was, I’d think in terms of the visual set up and what we need to see drawn, and then create the flow of the scene from this. One suggestion has been to make a little set and move the characters around to give myself a sense of what the animators need to see on the page. Everything they need to draw for the scene to work has to be spelt out at the very top of the written scene.

So the word now is that we really only have story room for Punky and her dog; yes, there are other characters but the focus has to be her point of view. Insistently so. Because this is what makes it original. It is also what I always intended for the series. It’s the old adage – let your main character drive the story.

So, at its most basic, I am being driven by Punky back to the root and core of all storytelling and all screenwriting.

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