What’s A Story And What Isn’t

One of the things about creating a show with a lot of young fans is that you get a lot of messages from those fans suggesting story ideas.

In one way, this is catastrophic – I can’t read any of those story ideas, because if I do and we’re already doing that story, the fan could sue the show for ‘stealing’ their idea. Because of that, I actively discourage people from sending me ideas, and block anyone who persistently does so.

However, unfortunately, a few one-sentence ideas inevitably slip through – mostly on Twitter, where you read things almost before you realise what they are. Luckily, any one sentence idea is so vague and generalized that it doesn’t present a real legal problem –

But what I have noticed is how many of these ‘story ideas’ are actually not stories at all. And that holds a lesson for us as writers.

A lot of these so-called story ideas are actually locations. “What if the gang went to the seaside?” or “Maybe they could visit a theme park.” These kinds of stories sound attractive at first – a new location must lead to fun and adventure, right?

Strangely, no. Stories are about character and conflict – a character wants something, another character either wants the opposite or wants that same thing instead of them, and that’s where the story comes from. And it’s very rare that a location will create genuine, character-revealing conflict.

Yes, you can choose a location that complicates and worsens the conflict of the episode. For example, the Wolfblood episode where Maddy has her first full-moon transformation takes place on an island that can only be reached when the tide is out. But the story conflict isn’t “We’re on an island” or even “We’re trapped on an island” – it’s “We’re trapped with our schoolmates and teachers and we’re about to take wolf form!” That story could have been done in a bus on the motorway, in a cave, or even in the school, and still been essentially the same.

Many other “stories” that viewers suggest are about significant days. I regularly get begged to do an episode where it’s this or that character’s birthday.

Okay, say it’s their birthday. And then what?

Again, a birthday doesn’t create conflict. You could impose conflict onto it – say, I don’t know, it’s Kay’s birthday and Katrina has dropped the cake an hour before the party – but actually, the story there isn’t ‘It’s Kay’s birthday’ but ‘Katrina ruins something and has to find a replacement’. So what is the birthday adding? It’s set dressing. It may be useful to add some colour to the story, but it’s not actually the story.

I completely understand why viewers look at episodes in this way. “The episode where it was Jenny’s birthday” is an easier way to describe an episode to your friend than “The episode where Jenny and Matthew argue about his commitment to their marriage”, for example. The big flashy details stick in our heads, even when it’s the interpersonal drama that’s actually caused us to bond with the show.

But my point is, we as writers must train ourselves to look at story more deeply – particularly when we go in to pitch ideas for other people’s shows. It’s way too easy – and I’ve done it myself! – to go and pitch “The school catches fire” or “The central character’s estranged parents turn up” rather than going in with a story that arises from character.

If one of the characters is terrified of fire, then the school catching fire becomes a real story. If the central character has spent years refusing to talk about their parents and reacting badly to any mention of parenthood or family, then you have a real story. But if there’s no connection between the event/location and the characters, then you’re pitching set dressing, not story.

So the takeaway here is – before you pitch a story, ensure that it arises from character. And if you’re looking to whip up some episode pitches before a meeting, don’t think “What could happen?” Think “What would this character be most delighted about/ afraid of/ challenged by if it happened to them?”

Wolfblood BAFTA Nominations

Wolfblood season two has been nominated for two awards at this year’s Children’s BAFTAs – best drama, and I’m nominated for best writer! The awards will be announced at a ceremony in London on Sunday 23rd November.

None of this would have happened without our fantastic team – production staff, crew, cast and writers – and I’m hugely grateful for all the hard work they’ve put into the show.

However, we’re also nominated for another award – and that’s where you can help! The BAFTA Kids Vote is a separate series of awards that are voted on electronically by kids aged 7 – 14. And you can vote for Wolfblood in the TV category! Go to http://www.baftakidsvote.org/vote/ to cast your vote for Wolfblood, and all the other categories too…

Keeping Things Fresh

Another subject that people on Twitter have asked me to cover in the blog is how to keep a long-running show “fresh”. After three seasons of Wolfblood, I suppose I should know a few things about that…

One of the things that CBBC have always pushed us to do is never repeat the same theme or story engine from season to season. The first season of Wolfblood was driven by the jeopardy of discovery: “Will the people around us find out our secret?” It would have been easy to repeat that threat in the second season – after all, it’s the obvious jeopardy in this kind of story, and there were still plenty more people to discover the secret! But it would have locked us into telling the same stories with different characters. So we moved away from that, exploring the wider Wolfblood world instead – and in season three, drawing our characters into a conspiracy on a scale they’d never faced before.

Another key to keeping the show fresh is to develop the minor characters. While the K’s as a unit function as fantastic comic relief, when we get one of them on their own, we can tell terrific character stories with them. The same applies to Jimi, Liam and Sam. The whole ‘werewolf hunter’ plot in season two began as a subplot to develop Liam’s character, and evolved into a key story element for the whole season.

Finding ways to use the adult world in a story without diminishing the child characters also gave us new stories and new emotions to explore. Tying the new characters strongly to the child characters – Rhydian’s mum, Jana’s father and pack – made them part of the regular characters’ stories, but great performances have made them popular characters in their own right.

It’s also easy to get stuck using a character in the same way all the time. Alric, Jana’s father, worked fantastically for us as a threat throughout season two – but the last time we brought him back, we decided to reverse all that and show him as a broken man who’s lost everything. Immediately everyone’s relationship with him changes and there are new stories to play. So look for logical, compelling ways to use characters in different ways.

Finally, don’t be afraid to break the format now and then. The season two episode “The Mottled Poppy” was essentially a haunted house story, completely different to anything we’d done before, and I think it helped show aspects of the characters and elements of our world that we wouldn’t have been able to show in a ‘normal’ episode. We couldn’t tell those kinds of stories every week, but once in while, they help keep the show interesting and dynamic.

Anyone else have any tips? What great techniques have you seen your favourite shows use to stay fresh and exciting?

Wolfblood Season Three round-up

It’s almost time for Wolfblood season three, so let’s have a quick round-up of what’s happening…

Season Three on CBBC –  episode one shows on CBBC at 5pm on Monday 15th, episode two on the 16th, continuing Mondays and Tuesdays thereafter.

(Overseas viewers – as always, I don’t know when season three will be on your country. You need to contact the appropriate TV channel in your country  – usually ZDF or Disney – and ask them. And contacting them instead of contacting me also helps the show – the more people who ask the TV station when it will be on, the more likely they are to show it soon!)

The CBBC website is doing a countdown to the first episode: every day, by answering a simple question, you can unlock special content (including the first of the webisodes written by Neil Jones and starring Jana and the wild pack!) Go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/cbbc/shows/wolfblood

(Some content may not be available to overseas viewers.)

The Wolfblood seasons one and two re-cap in rap!  This may be my favourite extra ever… If your memory of what happens in previous seasons is a little hazy, why not remind yourself with this handy rapped summary? Available on the CBBC website – and there’s a legitimate, all-regions version on YouTube at

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iZTcXMYamk

Wolfblood Magazine!  Titan Magazines are producing a one-off Wolfblood magazine, full of pictures, interviews, articles and other fun. This will be available from all good newsagents from October 16th.

The Mayhem Teen Festival –  I’m going to be at a special Wolfblood event at Teen Mayhem, the young people’s event of the Mayhem Film Festival in Nottingham. The event will be on the 25th October, and hopefully some of the cast will be there too: Kedar Williams-Sterling (Tom) is confirmed, and we’re hoping for more confirmations soon! Details at http://twitchfilm.com/2014/09/mayhem-film-festival-unveils-teen-mayhem-and-mayhem-certificate-x-programs.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+TwitchEverything+(Twitch)

I was a guest on the YouTube channel Media Madness, talking all things Wolfblood…  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4HEawf1CJo

The Annos Africa charity auction –  lastly, if you can spare a few quid for an excellent charity, how about putting in a bid for a lot in the Annos Africa auction?  There’s a Wolfblood lot comprising an adult cast & crew hoodie, and a gold umbrella with the Wolfblood logo – these aren’t merchandise, they were made only for the crew and cast, and so are a bit of collector’s item!

There are also fab items donated by Benedict Cumberbatch, Alan Rickman, Jane Birkin, and Being Human creator Toby Whithouse, among many, many others. Hurry, though, the auction ends Sunday 14th! Full list of lots, and more about the charity, at –

http://www.ebay.co.uk/sch/annos-africa/m.html?item=261582928459&hash=item3ce78eba4b&pt=UK_DVD_Film_TV_Autographs_CV&rt=nc&_trksid=p2047675.l2562

Tumble –  and of course, huge congratulations to Bobby Lockwood (Rhydian) on winning the BBC gymnastics competition Tumble!

I look forward to hearing what you make of Wolfblood season three!

Writing High-Concept Television

Recently I had a question from blog visitor petergosiewski about how to go about writing high-concept television, and I thought it was probably deserving of a complete post. So here we go…

In many ways, writing and selling high-concept television is like writing and selling any kind of television – it’s a combination of novelty, familiarity, clarity and luck! But there are specific difficulties with trying to sell high-concept ideas, and specific strategies that might help.

Be simple. In Inception, Eames says that in order to incept an idea into the subject’s head, you have to implant the simplest form of the idea. And pitching an idea to a producer is very much like performing inception. Until you have the simplest form of the idea, you won’t be able to sell it, and you probably won’t even be able to write it.

Wolfblood has evolved a fairly complex mythology, with wild packs, ancient traditions, ‘fixers’ helping out their fellow Wolfbloods, and all kinds of other rich details. But none of that was there at the beginning. The simplest form of the idea – the thing that sold – was basically  “A teenage girl who’s secretly a werewolf meets a boy with a very different view of their shared secret”.  In order to create the richness, we had to start with a simple foundation and build our way up from there.

As always – if you can’t describe your idea in one sentence, it isn’t ready yet…

Be character-focused. Whatever your concept, it has to be grounded in specific characters in order to be relatable. It’s how the concept affects those characters that will keep people watching, not the concept itself. No one watches a soap opera because they’re interested in (for example) the moral complexities of euthanasia: they watch because they want to see what lovely kindly Joan will do when ailing husband Fred begs her to help him die.

This means you want to find the characters who are most affected by the concept, and who are put through the greatest physical and emotional stresses by it. In the earliest version of Wolfblood, there was no Shannon – but we quickly realized we needed a character who would be profoundly affected by the secret Maddy had been keeping, someone whose whole life had been shaped by their secret, even though she didn’t know it yet…

Be sure that your concept will sustain a series. This is partly about the ‘story engine’ of your series: is there a murder each week, a secret to protect, a new enemy to fight, a life to save? Producers sometimes ask something like  “What’s the plot of episode two of season three?” – in other words, will we still be able to generate stories out of this universe at that stage?

But it’s also about finding a concept that has enough richness and flexibility to grow across series after series, and for each character to react to it in unique and interesting ways. This will sometimes require a radical shift in your story universe: Battlestar Galactica discovered new stories and new sides to its characters when it stranded most of the human survivors on a planet under Cylon rule for several episodes, for example.

Avoid the traps of destiny. Beware the ‘chosen one’ as a concept: you’re then completely at the mercy of your lead actor. If he or she decides to quit, your show’s over. Destiny and fate are probably also best avoided in any form –  audiences warm to heroes who forge their own path, not simply do what destiny has already predicted that they will…

Make sure your idea can be achieved on a budget. In Wolfblood, we can’t afford to show the characters in wolf-form every episode. What we can do is show them using their ‘wolf powers’ – sight, hearing, sense of smell – to overcome problems and save the day. That’s basically what makes the series achievable on our budget. So where are the low-budget elements of your idea that you can achieve every episode?

Appeal outside your genre. I know every nice girl loves a vampire these days, but there was a time when teen girls wouldn’t watch supernatural drama. But they watched Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Why? Because it had a competent, witty heroine who was kickass in the face of danger, yet struggled as much as they did with family, friends, school, and love life.

So how can you use casting, humour or subplots to expand your audience beyond the usual fans of your genre? The wider your appeal, the longer you stay on the air.

If anyone has any other thoughts on high-concept television, feel free to chip in…