WHAT WRITERS CAN LEARN FROM “THE WIGGLES”
The world of children’s television was rocked this past week by news of a major cast shake-up for the famous Australian group “The Wiggles”. The group has been around for more than twenty years, singing, dancing, having adventues and generally enthralling toddler and pre-school audiences everywhere. Now, three of the four “Wiggles” – Murray, Jeff, and Greg – are retiring, leaving only one original “Wiggle”, Anthony. He will be joined be three new Wiggles – including the first woman to don one of the signature, colorful shirts (she’ll be the new “yellow Wiggle”)
This is huge news.
Who gives a fat fig, you say?
Their audience does. Big time.
Their audience is HUGE. Tens of thousands. All over the world.
People really do care about this. Just like they cared when Mr. Rogers retired. Or Mr. Hooper on “Sesame Street” died. Or when “Barney” got cancelled. (It did get cancelled, didn’t it? Maybe that was just wishful thinking.)
Anyway, these shows matter to people. Sure, you can explain part of that because the audience is largely kids who get attached to things. But it’s not just kids out there watching. It’s their parents, their baby-sitters, the teachers who use their spin-off materials (videos, books, games, etc.) in school. Kids don’t write angry letters and quit buying videos, books and merchandise. Adults do. “The Wiggles” are important to them too.
And “The Wiggles” are important to writers. Whether we write for kids or adults, we can learn from them. And I don’t just mean the lyrics to “Big Red Car”.
You really want to know those lyrics now, right? Go here, then come back. I’ll wait.
Feel better? Right, here, then, is what writers can learn from “The Wiggles”:
- CHARACTER MATTERS – The fact that the yellow, purple and red Wiggles are all leaving wouldn’t be news if people didn’t love those characters. If not, they’d be like the red shirts on classic “Star Trek”, totally interchangeable and expendable. There would be no emotional investment. Everyone would just assume that Purple Wiggle was gonna get phasered in act two and his carcass fed to some Tribbles after the Big Red Car (“Toot toot chugga chugga big red car.”) backed over him a few times. But that doesn’t happen, of course. Purple Wiggle oversleeps and the others help him, or whatever. They segue into another song, or a story, or throw it to Captain Feathersword to sign about pirate life, or something. Every episode, to a kid, is like hanging with some friends who will always be there.
WRITERLY LESSON: Make people love your characters. Even if they’re meanies like Oscar the Grouch or Hannibal Lecter. (Somebody really needs to write THAT movie.)
- STORY MATTERS – Okay, so a typical Wiggles concert or TV episode isn’t big on plot. But still, if all the Wiggles did is stand around, the tiny attention spans of its audience couldn’t handle it. Thanks to coffee and Twitter, the kids’ parents aren’t much better. The Wiggles manage to tell simple little stories about going to bed, playing nicely, and, yes, travelling in that BIg Red Car (“We travel near and we travel far.”) that get to the point without a lot of extraneous detail. When the actor who played Mr. Hooper on “Sesame Street” died, there was a lot of hand-wringing and worry about how to handle this. The “Sesame Street” writers stepped up and used the opportunity to teach a very difficult lesson about life and death; earning the thanks and praise of appreciative audiences and critics.
WRITERLY LESSON: (A) Your audience is fickle, easily bored, and easily distracted. Keep your plot tight. (B) Writing is about taking chances. Don’t be thrown by curves in the road. Go with them and see what comes of it.
- AUDIENCE MATTERS – Why are you building your stories, developing your characters, reading this blog, if you don’t care about the reader/viewer/listener? The people in the seats, in front of the screen or in the bookstore, cash in hand, are who you’re doing this writing thing for. Children’s programming gets knocked for being merchandising mills for toys and books and games. There’s some validity to that with some shows, and those shows burn out after a few years. However, shows like “The Wiggles”, which has been around over twenty years, or “Sesame Street”, which is more than forty(!) years old, don’t last because kids like the toys. They survive because their writers and performers respect the audience and put out the best programs they can. They know that their product is for the audience and want the audience’s respect and devotion.
WRITERLY LESSON: Do your best. Always.
Shows like “The Wiggles” and “Sesame Street” are ground-breaking. This advice, is not. You’ve heard all this before. But here’s the thing: it’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day of word counts and plot outlines and query letters. It’s easy to forget the big picture of what you’re really doing, which is trying to tell a good story, the best way you can tell it. It took a red wiggle to remind me. Let me big your red wiggle.
That didn’t come out right.
Well, you get the point.
NEXT WEEK: “I love you. You love me…”