Creating Great Children’s Content – Episodic Structure 1

This blog series follows on from the last of a series of development frameworks for narrative screenworks from mobile and short films to long running TV series.  The aim of this blog is to look at the structure for children’s television both live action and animation. It is relevant for work intended for everything from traditional broadcast  to self-made web series..  Structure is often discussed wit respect to feature films but few books or courses address the structure of an episodic series – let alone a children’s for family series. Note: Series are based on contained story episodes. Serials, where the main stories run over  a number of episodes will be dealt with in another blog.

Two Stories

The vast majority of episodic series work on the basis of two stories/storylines, the exception to this rule are very short episodes e.g. under 2 minutes. An example of this is ‘Morph‘. These episodes work on the ‘Jack in the Box’ principle outlined in the blog on short films and so I will not dwell on them here.

The need for two stories/storylines can be seen from everything from the five minute episodes of series like ‘Pepa the Pig‘ through  to the 30 minute episodes of ‘The Dumping Ground‘.  However, before looking into how the two story approach works in children’s episodic series there are a couple of other points about the structure of these series which mark them out from contemporary screenwriting theory.

‘The Gang’

The first of these is the dominance of a ‘gang’ as the central dramatic characters, rather than a single protagonists.  This varies from families as in ‘Outnumbered’ to groups in ‘Tracy Beaker‘ to  friends in ‘Roy‘ .  This means that in developing a series one of the first elements is to work out a group of characters rather than a singe central protagonist – more on this in a later blog. However, from a structure point of view it also means that often the central character/s react to what other characters pose as a problem, rather than instigating action themselves.

Episode Breakdown

This can be clearly seen in the episode of ‘Pepa and George’s Garden‘.

The episode opens with Pepa’s father relaxing in the sun with his paper . He goes inside the house for a cup of tea.  This is the the set up for storyline one.

Storyline two starts with the arrival of Grandpa Pig and his suggestion to Pepe and George that they create a flower garden. Neither Pepa or George expressed a desire for the garden, it is produced by the Grandpa. This use of a character other than the main character to motivate a storyline is common in episodic series.

The two storylines collide when father returns with his cup of tea, which is drunk by Grandpa Pig, and he discovers the flower garden is where he normally sits to read his newspaper.  However, he concedes to Pepa and George having the flower garden and even protects it from seed hungry birds.

When the flowers finally bloom,  everyone is really pleased. However, then Grandpa Pig suggests they start a vegetable garden, right where Pepa’s father has now moved to read his paper etc..This repetition of the conflict is a useful device when working with pre-school children, as they appreciate the return to an idea/action.

Eventually, Pepa’s father concedes again when he realises he also loves potatoes, which makes them all laugh – the end. This reflects the point made in the earlier blog about the establishment/restoration of  ‘order’ being a major theme for younger children’s work.

These two storylines, the father’s desire to have a nice place to read his paper, and the Grandpa’s desire to create gardens with Pepa and George, provide a solid basis for creating a dramatic plotline.

Whose Story Leads the Way

The creation of two stories/storylines is essential development work in series episodes. Realising that they do not have to be motivated by the central characters is one of the key freedoms this type of construction provides.  However, these storylines are often generated by characters ,who are ongoing within the series. The exception to this general approach is the action adventure based series e.g. Thunderbirds.

In this latter type of series the major storyline is generated by an incident or major antagonist, which is then dealt with within the episode.  The antagonist often returns for future episodes, but not necessarily so.

It is also worth noting that within pilots, or first episodes, it is wise to motivate one of the two stories/storylines from a central character, in order for the audience to focus on them. This is because the audience has not yet had time to engage with them in the role and therefore may not identify with them if they are a secondary character in this episode.

The structure of serial episodes will be explored in the next blog., while the development of a ‘gang’ of characters will be explored in a future blog.

 

 

 

 

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