My son is nearly three and, although we don't have a telly, he watches DVDs of the all-new Postman Pat: Special Delivery Service series on my laptop. Pat's 21st-century incarnation is brilliant – each episode is action-packed, with a race against time, a heart-warmingly positive message, and a catchy soundtrack.
For those unfamiliar with Postman Pat: SDS, a quick description of the average episode might be in order. Pat is talking to his son Julian, when his mobile phone rings and poor Julian faces the potentially life-scarring knowledge that his dad's job is more important than he is. The caller is always Pat's boss, Ben, asking him to do a Special Delivery – and this one's urgent! All deliveries are somewhere within a one-mile radius of the mail centre, so Pat and his black and white cat, Jess (still sprightly after nearly 30 years), set off in one of their vehicles – van, motorbike or even helicopter. A variety of mishaps conspires to stop Pat reaching his destination (more often than not, involving a certain amount of incompetence on his part) but the Special Delivery Service ALWAYS gets through. Pat delivers the parcel with seconds to spare, and is everybody's hero.
So what does this have to do with writing?
The episodes aren't realistic – as far as I know, small Cumbrian towns don't have Flying Machine competitions involving a rocket that can be accidentally launched by a sheep, and if real postmen got into half the scrapes Pat lands in, they'd get the sack – but the stories work within their own logic. The plots are well thought out and even the unrealistic events are believable because they are set up well in advance – something I believe is vitally important in a novel.
When Pat needs a fishing rod to rescue a lost teddy bear from the river, you can be sure that a few scenes earlier we'll have seen Ted Glen fishing further along the bank. When a magpie needs to be tempted with food, there will already have been a character munching on a sandwich. Such tiny details appear insignificant while they're happening – but then they suddenly have a bearing on the plot. When they're needed, they are in place – we don't get jolted out of the story by Pat announcing that he just conveniently happens to have a fishing line in the van.
The world of a novel doesn't have to be realistic either, and it could be argued that it shouldn't be. Real life, after all, doesn't have a plot – it's just one damn thing after another. Fiction is different. It needs a greater intricacy, and part of that intricacy involves making the reader look back and think – 'of course! That's the parcel that was on the sideboard in the first chapter!'
I find even unexpected events more satisfying if they evolve from what has gone before and aren't just parachuted in from nowhere. A surprise can be even more of a surprise if the reader is given a clue but doesn't pick up on it at the time. Children's TV writers know this, and there's a lot we can learn from them.
With thanks to RottenLittlePony on Flickr for the image, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.