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Breaking In: Tips for Writing Children's Films

There’s really no such thing as a children’s film or a kids' book. There are just good movies and bad movies, good books and badly written books. And that is the most important secret of writing movies or books that children, tweens, or teens can enjoy. If you want to write this kind of entertainment, here are some of Staton Rabin's best tips.
Disney Pixar's Cars 2

Disney Pixar's Cars 2

When I’m not reading scripts for writers like you, I’m writing screenplays and books of my own. Several of these could be categorized as “family films,” or books for kids or teens. But I find those designations not very useful at best and slightly demeaning at worst. There’s really no such thing as a children’s film or a kids' book. There are just good movies and bad movies, good books and badly written books. And that is the most important secret of writing movies or books that children, tweens, or teens can enjoy. If you want to write this kind of entertainment, here are my best tips:

1) Don’t “write down” to children or teens. There is no difference between writing a book or movie for adults and writing one “for” children -- except that, in the latter, a child or teen is usually (not always) the main character. Ask any successful author who writes books or movies marketed mainly to children or teens. They will tell you that they don’t write “for” young people. Pay attention to Pixar’s movies if you want to know how to write scripts that respect children’s intelligence and appeal to entire families and not just “the kiddies."

2) Remember that most scripts that get optioned or sold in the children’s or “family film” category are based on successful franchises: best-selling graphic novels, comic books, novels, or the like. Harry Potter films and the Narnia films are two relatively recent examples of this. If your script is children’s fantasy material and it’s not based on an already-proven best-seller, you may have a difficult time selling it.

3) Watch recent, successful children’s or teen movies if you hope to write films that will be marketed to that audience. Too many writers “dash off” something aimed at kids or teens without having seen any movies of this kind in the past 20 years. You have to know what kids today are interested in, and what sells. For example, if you write a straightforward old-fashioned fairy tale, without even the slightest trace of humor, hipness, or irony, you will have a tough time selling it in today’s marketplace. Today, even Disney’s fairy tale adaptations for film are full of humor and have a high “hipness” and irony quotient (The Princess and the Frog,Tangled, etc.). And of course non-Disney animated films such as Shrek and Ice Age have humor and irony in abundance.

4) In general, don’t bother writing animated feature films unless you’re also an excellent director/filmmaker of animated films with a reel to show. An original, feature-length animated script might be a good writing sample if you want to break into this field as a screenwriter. So, I won’t discourage you if you have your heart set on writing animated movies. But your chances of selling your own, original, animated feature film script (as opposed to writing animation for TV or direct-to-video), if you aren’t also a proven writer or director of animated films, are extremely low. Yes, it's a bit of a catch-22 in terms of how to break into this field. But if you have any artistic savvy, or know someone who does, you might explore some of the excellent animation software on the market.

5) Don’t copy other successful family or children’s films. That’s different from adapting successful material from other media to film (assuming you own or have optioned the rights to the original material).

6) Don’t preach. As movie mogul Sam Goldwyn used to say to screenwriters, “If you have a ‘message’, phone Western Union.” The purpose of a movie “for” children should not be to teach them how to behave better. In some sense, all great movies do have a message that makes us better human beings. But that message is subtle and in the subtext, not forced upon unwilling audiences.

7) If you don’t know what’s going on in the lives of children or teens today, find out. Research what young people care about the same way you would if you were writing instead about Ebola virus, tree kangaroos in New Guinea, or rocket launches by NASA.

8 ) If you’re not “hip," don’t try to write snarky dialogue for children or teens. And avoid slang, which changes frequently anyway. Write about nerdy kids and teens. That’s what I do.

9) Know your audience. Even if you are not writing only “for” children or teens, you still need to know who will be coming to see your movie, just as you do when writing any other kind of script. If your main audience is teen girls, for example, and there’s a cute teen boy as one of the main characters in your story, if you don’t have a romance in your movie you’re probably going to have a lot of disappointed girls in the audience.

10) Any movie “for” kids or teens that doesn’t also entertain adults will probably “bomb” at the box office. Again, see Pixar’s films, which are great for all audiences. There’s one exception to this rule: If you are writing films for babies or toddlers, you don’t necessarily have to write entertainment that adults will “love” too. But keep in mind that there’s no such thing as a hit feature film whose main audience is 2-year-olds. If you’re writing for this market, you will probably be writing for TV or direct-to-video.

11) Don’t censor your writing for kids or teens. Don’t shy away from writing about challenging or serious topics, or using big words. Write honestly. It is possible to tackle any subject responsibly in a movie for kids. Even The Wizard of Oz dealt with the fact that evil and death exist in the world. How can you show what it means to be a moral person if you can’t show what evil is?

12) Please don’t write anything "cute." Write something human and real. Children and young adults are discerning and savvy audiences.

I’ve held my ground to keep things in my books that I felt were emotionally honest and true to the characters and situations, but perhaps slightly risqué, "adult," or emotionally challenging for children, by some people’s standards. I’ve never regretted those decisions and I’ve never received any letters from parents or kids who were upset by anything in any of my books. I’ll never forget, though, the day I got a moving letter from a Major in the Army, who thanked me because my book for kids -- about a soldier fighting overseas in World War I and his little brother waiting for him back in Brooklyn -- made it easier for him to tell his 4-year-old son that he was going back to Iraq for another tour of duty.

Keep pitching. See you next month.