Scriptwriter Paddy Kempshall provides an insight into how to get into, and succeed in the world of writing for children’s TV.
a is for ‘adaptable’
Unlike the world of scriptwriting for drama or other ‘grown-up’ television, a children’s scriptwriter needs to understand that their word is not necessarily sacrosanct.
In writing for children’s TV, you’ll find that the process is much more collaborative. If it’s one of your first commissions or the script is for an established programme, then in all likelihood production team all know a lot more about the characters and programme than you.
While you might have some insanely creative ideas, you can’t have an ego about your work – what you write WILL change. It’s inevitable and as soon as you get over the misconception that your first draft is televisual gold, the better a writer you’ll become and the more likely you’ll pick up more commissions in the future.
a is for ‘audience’
As a children’s writer, the audience is at the heart of everything you write, and you can’t ever forget that. It might seem obvious, but it’s vital none the less.
Writing for children is a lot more challenging than a lot of people assume. You need to say what you need to quickly and simply. Some sketches give you 60-90 seconds to get everything done – and be funny at the same time.
Not only that, the differences between abilities, attention span and sense of humour of different aged children is vast. If you’re writing for a wide age range, then you need to make sure that there’s not only something in there for everyone, but that the main thrust of things is accessible to your youngest demographic without alienating the oldest.
If you’re asked for a 10-minute script, don’t submit an 11-minute one. There may be a Script Editor on the staff, but it’s not their job to do yours. You are being paid to provide something specific, so make sure that you do.
A Script Editor I worked for gave me some very good advice about the amount of material you provide – especially for a sketch show. Sketch shows can be incredibly wasteful and for one reason or another, a lot of material never gets broadcast. So, if you’re commissioned for five minutes of work, for example, you should be looking to get five minutes of your material on screen.
Therefore, it could well be in your best interest to submit more than five minutes of sketches (though they should all still stick to the brief in terms of sketch length – you just submit more sketches). This means the production team have more to choose from, and so increases the likelihood of you getting a full amount of work on screen.
They will in all probability also remember you if more commissions come up. Or course, you’re under no obligation to submit more than you are commissioned for, but it never hurts to be generous.
You’re not writing for Hollywood. Children’s programmes work on insanely tight budgets and schedules, so keep that in mind when you’re writing.
Don’t call for an army of extras, esoteric props or special effects. Especially in sketch writing, that’ll most likely see your script fall along the wayside for budget reasons.
With CGI this can be even more important. Animation is extremely expensive and time-consuming to produce. If you’re writing for a show that has already been broadcast, then think about what animation they could reuse. Writing about caves is good – especially pitch black ones…
b is for ‘big bucks’
I personally don’t know a single children’s script writer who earns a living doing solely that. They either write a lot of other things, or they have another full-time job and write as well.
Don’t expect to quit your day job, especially if you’re only starting out. Some shows may offer the option of paying repeat fees (joining the ALCS will help you out with this as well) but there will probably be stipulations on what counts as a repeat fee. Make sure you read the contract!
c is for ‘cinematic’
TV is a visual medium. You’re not writing a book, so you don’t need to spell everything out in the dialogue.
Think visually, a look from a character or even the tone of their voice can convey a lot more in a few words than a whole paragraph of ‘straight’ dialogue.
Children are also very visual, and they like dynamic television. They’re not going to sit and watch tense dialogue.
c is for ‘contacts’
I was very lucky to have some very good contacts in TV from my previous job in magazine publishing. You can’t underestimate the benefit of having a relevant name and contact in the production team that you want to work for.
Do your research and make sure you know who actually makes the programme that you want to write for. Many shows on CBeebies are made by independent companies, so bombarding someone there for requests to write for Bob the Builder, for instance, is unlikely to get you very far.
If you don’t have any scripts to show, then offer to write something on spec to show your abilities, or provide them with something else you’ve written that’s relevant – perhaps you’ve done some writing for children’s books or magazines?
Many thanks to the BBC for providing the Gigglebiz images used in this post.