Writing content for children can be intimidating. Extra expectations may be forced upon the writer. Does your script have a clear moral for your audience to learn? Will an eight year old “get” the joke you wrote about pineapples? Is the exposition too dry or uses words you can’t expect a 3rd grader to know? The art of writing is a favorite topic on Darby Pops Off and I’m happy to welcome writer/director Janna King as this week’s guest writer. She brings with her several tips on how writing for children isn’t so different from writing for anyone else.
Until next time,
“Diversify.” That’s the financial advice everyone gets when making investments. I’ve invested in a writing career, which is a notoriously risky venture. So, creative diversity has been my way to stay in the game. I’ve written for animated series and live action series, often at the same time. My kids’ stuff is usually for very young children and my adult stuff is generally “for mature audiences only.” Asked how I write about cute dragons and sweet bears while writing about cheating spouses and serial killers, I answer: With a strikingly similar process. Here’s the method mutuality:
Outline Like Crazy – Children’s television, especially preschool TV, mandates extensive outlines. At first, this was daunting and I didn’t understand why an outline needed to be almost as long as a script. I soon realized that a thorough outline basically IS the script and makes the next writing step so much easier – in both genres. I end up much more prepared, the process is efficient and dreaded writer’s block is virtually eliminated.
Talk Normally – How much does it annoy you when the characters you’re watching speak like aliens… unless of course, they are aliens? In real life, people think about what they’re going to say, so they pause. They stammer or words don’t come out right. They interrupt each other. An ear for dialog comes from listening. Does that mean I eavesdrop? You bet it does. You can’t write about people (or anthropomorphic animals) if you aren’t a keen observer of people.
Kill Your Darlings – This was the best advice I ever received from a college screenwriting professor. There are scenes in a script that you might LOVE, but they don’t move the story forward. Kids’ television has zero room for fat. A lot happens and even if it’s madcap action, the plot in the best shows always pushes forward. Economy is necessary in grown-up TV and film, as well, because progressively-dwindling attention spans tend to wane when a story meanders. But don’t worry, those adored scenes usually make their way into another script.
Learn Something – In preschool television, there are “teachable moments.” They’re pretty obvious – about shapes, the alphabet or how to brush your teeth. With my grown-up projects, I don’t set out to write morality tales. That would be presumptuous! But when I’m not afraid to look closely at human darkness or allow myself to feel uplifted by resilience and optimism, a story transforms into more than a “sexy thriller” or “relationship comedy” where characters merely talk at each other and do stuff. I believe if I’m learning from these characters, then the audience will, too.
Have a Sense of Humor – Everyone enjoys a good laugh. For kids, guffaws can be inspired by farts (though I personally find farts hilarious, too). For adults, the scope is broader. Even in my most dramatic projects, I manage to find humor. Sometimes unearthing the absurdity in a challenging situation can stop a scene from being cliché or maudlin.
The biggest unifier when it comes to working in either arena? My passion for writing. To me, telling stories is the best job ever, whether these tales take place in a fantasy world or the real world. I couldn’t be happier that my mind is home to both.
About the Author
Janna King is a writer/author whose musings can be found on Twitter at JannaKing(@amiwriteJK) and Instagram at JannaKingK. She recently segued into directing, so check out her short films, MOURNING GLORY and THE BREAK UP on www.funnyordie.com.