Writing for TV and children's books – what's the difference?

Writing for TV and children's books – what's the difference?

Cas Lester, author of the Nixie the Bad, Bad Fairy series (Oxford University Press) and former head of drama development at CBBC, talks about the difference between writing books and TV scripts.
 
I spent many years in children’s television drama making programmes like Jackanory and The Story of Tracy Beaker.  But when CBBC went to Salford, I didn’t. 
 
I’m now a children’s author and I positively wallow in the greater creative freedoms that writing for the page rather than for the screen offers. The shooting schedule, the impact of child actor’s hours, the length of programme, and above all the budget, all inevitably constrain creativity in children’s television drama. 
 
It’s fabulous to be free from the limitations of a budget. For example, I can write anything into a storywithout needing excruciatingly expensive CGI to put it on screen. In my new Nixie The Bad, Bad Fairy series, fairy coaches can accidentally float away inside giant bubbles, Nixie’s mischievous fairy wand can crack the turrets in half, and her rival can roll down a snowy slope and end up as an enormous fairy snowball. And Fairyland doesn’t have to be physically built (although the illustrator, Ali Pye, has constructed a most magical version of it). So I can have as many sets and locations as I like.(‘Yahoo! Bumblebees’ bottoms!’ As Nixie would probably say.)
 
I’m free to feature Nixie as much as I like. The laws governing child actor’s hour dictate how many scenes in a drama can include the central child character. And, since I’m not locked to a summer filming schedule I’m not limited by the impossible logistics and cost of making it snow - in August.
 
Animation writers are similarly free from the constraints of turning a script into reality. But there’s still the ruthless rigidity of length. As an author I’ll be given an approximate target length (to the nearest 1000 or 5000 words or so) but I don’t have to make the story exactly 29minutes long – or however long the slot is. Having said that, the chapters in the Nixie books are all around the same length, i.e. about as much as I’d want to read to a child at bedtime each evening!  As a working mum reading to my children, I’d foolishly agree to ‘just one more chapter’ only to discover it was thirty pages long . . . and way past my bedtime when I’d finished it.
 
And has it ever been more fun to put a children’s story on a page?
Children’s books have turned playing around with text sizes, crazy fonts and anarchic page layouts into an extreme sport. Narration, meanwhile, is my new favourite toy.  If television is ‘broadcasting’ then narration is surely the ultimate in ‘narrowcasting’. Intimate and direct it’s like sharing a story with individual child.
 
Books ‘broadcast’ by appeal.  But maybe this is one area where television writing is less restrictive than books. In CBBC we didn’t target shows at seven to nine year old boys, or girls aged nine and over, we targeted the entire CBBC audience.  Partly because we weren’t limited by their reading age but also because programmes were non gender-specific. That’s what inspired me to create a tomboy character in Nixie, and why I want to write for girls andboys.
 
 
Nixie The Bad, Bad Fairy is out now.