In the past year, I have watched over twenty YA movies, or possibly, just two: I literally cannot tell because they are literally all the same. Some of these were watched for FilmDrunk, while others were viewed under the influence of a particularly dissociated/desperate friend (Divergent is different! You’ll love it! Shailene Woodley!). To call all YA books and movies terrible is knee-jerk snobbery, to call Harry Potter art is . . . so embarrassing. Either way, YA remains effortlessly profitable: The Fault in Our Stars, for example, cost only $12 million to make, but earned nearly $300 million at the box office. As someone who writes over 2,000 words a day and can only afford powder-based cheeses and can-based meats, you gotta respect the form.
That’s why I’ve come up with a precious little handy-dandy how-to guide for your startup screenwriter looking to make a million/$4 dollars. To clarify: all of the movies I’ve examined here originated as YA books, later becoming YA movies. There are actually endless good films about adolescence that didn’t start as books and still explore the time period successfully, but they’re diverse and well-meaning: SNOOZE. Who cares about that?
For whatever reason, it’s the category of YA movies based on YA books that feels particularly unbearable. Maybe it’s because books marketed to an audience labeled “less than adult” are, you know, less than adult. Maybe because everyone in America seems to think that vampires are interesting and/or sexy even though they are all depressed/need B15. Maybe Peeta? I just don’t understand why so many people want to watch so many teenagers slip into a coma/die of cancer, except for the fact there are fifteen teenagers screaming about dick outside my window right now, so maybe that makes sense.
Either way, here’s ten pro-tips to turn your second-grade script into an I’m-sad-this-is-profitable movie:
1. Kill Off At Least One Small Child.
Preference given to the adorable and/or fat. In pretty much every YA movie I’ve seen this year, at least one miniature supporting character dies in a gratuitous act of violence. In Maze Runner, there’s “Chuck” (#1 most popular name in America for chubby boys, 1776-present), in Harry Potter, Colin Creevey, in Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II, Prim (it’s not out yet but I read the books and yes it’s going to happen). The more death you have, the deeper the story, the better the writer you are! For the aspiring screenwriter, however, the balance can be hard to strike. You want to make Chuck just cute enough to make us like him, but not sooo cute that we care that he’s dead.
2. Orphan It Up.
Most children like to pretend that they’re orphans, because they can’t handle the role that their annoying (loving) parents play in their lives. Also, abandonment is sexy. Audiences love to read and watch stories about orphaned teens “achieving things,” even though most orphaned teens work at Claire’s/are sad all the time. See Harry Potter, Maze Runner, Anne of Green Gables, The Outsiders, Ugh It’s a Long List Who’d Read It Anyways.
3. Consider: comas.
The more dead children you can have in a story, the more awards you can win on a stage. But sometimes funerals really kill the mood. Why not give your audiences a little ‘foreplay’ and let your protagonist slooowly die in front of an audience? Remember A Walk to Remember? The Fault in Our Stars? (If you do remember, I encourage you to keep it to yourself. These boards are public, and these movies are humiliating).
4. Make it As Homoerotic as Possible But With Absolutely No Homo-Sex.
Whatever you do, please make your characters look and act so outrageously gay without ever actually having actual gay sex. The Maze Runner literally involves twenty teenage dudes with yoga abs play-fighting by a fire, and nowhere do you see a hint of a circle jerk.
5. Imbue your boring main character with mysterious magical qualities.
All of us like to believe we have a hidden magical quality no one’s quite discovered yet. For the past thirty years, I’ve been waiting for someone to discover me as an actress, although I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen, because I am totally sure I am not good at it. Still, it’s something to fantasize about, which is why YA movies love to project superhuman qualities onto boringhuman characters. Harry Potter, Divergent, Twilight, Pretty Much Everyone I’ve Ever Dated.
6. Feature a Sensitive Artistic Loner Who Turns Out To Be . . . Super Cool!
Everyone who’s ever published a screenplay probably once identified as a “sensitive artistic loner” aka a “crier with bad social skills.” These movies offer redemption. For further reference, do not see Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, it was not good.
7. If You Have To Have Parents, Make Them Way Less Special Than Their Kids.
It’s pretty much a known fact that all teenagers are way more exciting than their boring parents. Sure, their parents “love them unconditionally” and “provide for every need, comfort, and whim” – but honestly who cares. Divergent, The Giver, The Fault in Our Stars.
8. Include lots of Sexy Undead.
For whatever reason, Americans seem to like their teenagers half-dead/undead/anemic. I just like mine silent. Twilight, Harry Potter, Ten Other Movies No One Should Ever Touch.
9. Provide a hat or bag that can determine your protagonist’s future.
What’s more unbearable than watching a character spend adolescence trying to figure out who they are through insight and reflection? What did they used to call that – a story? Zzz. Consider instead a chirpy hat or quirky bag that can tell them everything they ever needed to know about themselves (conclusion: they’re the best! The special best!!!) The Giver, Harry Potter, Divergent, The Hunger Games Sortof.
10. Make the world a fiery, farty, seething, semeny, red, raw, insufferable hellscape. It’s no surprise that most popular YA movies are dystopias. Because you know, adolescence is exactly living in hell. Mean parents! Snarky jocks! Dry skin!!! It’s a wonder how teenagers make it out alive, and it’s a mystery why we continue to watch it.
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at email@example.com if you aren’t from Moveon.org.