So You Want To: Write A Teen Drama
Ah, so you want to write about the trials and tribulations of the teenage years, huh? You want to cash in on all the Angst and drama that always seems to come with it, huh? You have come to the right place! First, be sure to check out Write A Story for basic advice that holds across all genres.
Necessary TropesTeen dramas are all about choice. The archetype of childhood is that they do what their parents tell them. They put their trust in Mom and Dad, obey whatever rules are handed down, and don't tend to question those rules. This is why childhood is so often characterized as an idyllic refuge from the tyrannies of the world: children aren't responsible for themselves. They have Freedom from Choice and can simply hang out and play with their toys. They are who their parents made them. But as you grow up, you start taking more and more responsibility on yourself. You realize that some of what your parents told you to do and be is... well, it doesn't sit right with you. You don't want to be your parents' People Puppets anymore—you want to make your own choices. You want to have your own hobbies and personality and talents and motivation. You have realized that, in the words of the venerable Socrates, "The unexamined life is not worth living." You want to, in short, be a person. And that's where the drama starts. First off, Growing Up Sucks. Being your own person is scary. The Evils of Free Will mean that you can very easily be led off the garden path, and make mistakes that will haunt you for the rest of your life. Navigating the pitfalls of society is not easy, and can only be learned by Trial-and-Error Gameplay. Second off, your parents love you and don't want to see you hurt. So they may go into overprotective mode, trying (with all the best intentions) to control your actions For Your Own Good. (Your parents, unfortunately, have facts on their side: the frontal lobe of the human brain, where the faculties of judgment are primarily stored, don't finish developing until your 20s. This does not mean that teenagers can't have good judgment, it simply means that there are physiological factors that make it hard for them to do so.) And thus we get the business of teen rebellion, in which a teenager overreacts and throws tantrums—not just because s/he wants to be his or her own person, but also because s/he needs the freedom to try. Does this all sound like interesting drama? Well, good, because you've come to the right place.
- The number of characters in your cast is very important. A lot and you'll have a great variety for your audience to identify with. Too much and the audience may get confused. If you are just starting out, maybe start with a small cast of four or five. Enough so you won't overwhelm yourself but still have the possibility for drama.
- Related to the above, will your show focus on one person in particular or a whole group (Or groups of people)? Why should you focus on this character instead of say, their best friend?
- High School seems to be the most common setting in this genre. Why not a mall? Or someplace where the main character works with their coworkers? There are plenty of options. (You don't even need teenagers for it! Calvin and Hobbes was essentially a teen drama starring a precocious six-year-old. And his tiger.)
- Coming-of-Age Story. Teen drama is arguably a sub-genre of it, which is part of why they often star multiple characters: by splitting the narrative arc up amongst several people, you can cover it all without having to do Time Skips. This lets you keep a relatively compressed time frame, which seems to be a genre staple, particularly on film where it's hard to guarantee your young stars will age the way you want them to.
- The Teen Pregnancy trope has been used in this genre time and time again, so much that most audiences expect it. Most teenagers, save for one living in isolated areas and being raised by overprotective parents, know about condoms and birth control.
- Wangst, and angst in general. Yes, teenagers can be angsty, but there's a fine line between being upset about personal problems and doing nothing but whining incessantly. If a plot point requires your character(s) to be emotionally overwhelmed to the point of breakdown, keep in mind that you have to make the audience actually sympathetic to the character's cause. And try not to pull out the "angst" card too much in general, or else the audience will get so used to it that they simply won't be able to care about the characters.
- Sex. Teenage-dom is linked to physical maturity, which is linked to sexual maturity (if it's not "identical to sexual maturity"), and Sex as Rite-of-Passage is a natural evolution of that fact. (Heck, if you go to the pr0n sites, you'll notice that the Coming-of-Age Story is a time-honored plot structure.) The problem is, there are a lot of Moral Guardians out there who don't want their teenagers thinking about sex, on the grounds that discussing it gives tacit permission to have it. Regardless of the wisdom of that position, this means that if you want to address sex in your teen drama, you will need to do it carefully. Notice that one of the most popular Teen Pregnancy films in recent memory, Juno, still glosses over sex a great deal, even though anyone with a brain knows that, to get knocked up, Juno's had some! It's dangerous to present a sex-positive message in any media that people under the age of 18 are going to be exposed to. (Even though, of all people, teenagers are who most need such an aesop.)
Potential SubversionsThe original [Trope Name] for "teen drama" was Pretty White Kids With Problems. That should suggest a few subversions right there. Much has been said in the last twenty or thirty years about clinical depression, anxiety disorders, Self-Harm and suicide in the teenage population—The Virgin Suicides, Prozac Nation, Girl, Interrupted. You'd be forgiven for thinking that, from The Eighties onward, the business of growing up has just mysteriously encountered a Difficulty Spike. In reality, that's probably not true. It's partially that science was desperately behind the times; psychology itself as a discipline was only invented in the 1870s, and depression as a physical ailment—as opposed to a spiritual malaise, or a misalignment of the four humours—was only "discovered" in the The Fifties; even if teens had gotten depressed before then (and they probably didnote ), it wasn't recognized as such. But it's also that America wholeheartedly embraces the Therapy Is For The Weak trope, and anyone who has mental illness is automatically flawed and defective. It's only very recently that media have started to broach this topic—Girl, Interrupted was considered extremely ground-breaking when it came out in 1999, because it dared show its protagonists as fundamentally normal people who just happened to have different challenges than, say, not having legs. Of course, that is what a mental disorder is—lacking something physical—but fat chance on getting Hollywood to catch up with that fact, since the missing element (neurotransmitters) is too small to see. The point is, you could have a field day with this topic, and there's plenty more to say on it.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
Set Designer / Location Scout
Costume DesignerThis depends on the characters. Shirts, jackets, and jeans in general will fit any character.
- For the Alpha Bitch, check the latest fashion magazines as often as possible and design something similar. Short skirts and high heels are recommended.
- Sweaters (particularly turtlenecks), glasses, and vests are typically used for nerdy and otherwise geeky characters.
- Part of the trope definition of a "Teen Drama" is that it's a series, but that doesn't mean one-shot dramatic stories with teenage leads can't inform you. Start with Romeo and Juliet.
- Getting into modern TV series;
- Degrassi Junior High, the Trope Maker. Degrassi The Next Generation, too although YMMV on certain seasons.
- Beverly Hills 90210, the Trope Codifier.
- My So-Called Life
- Freaks and Geeks