Newbie Mistakes #3: Getting the Message

17 Mar

If you grew up watching kids’/teen TV in the 80s-90s, you will be familiar with the concept of the ‘very special episode’. In these one-off episodes, the young cast would get themselves into problems with drugs, alcohol or sex, and what might normally be a light-hearted show would become serious, sombre and moral-laden. For example, in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, where the relationship between Will and Carlton was a constant riff, Will’s drug use in one episode led to Carlton going to hospital after accidentally taking some ‘pills’ from his cousin’s locker. The episode ended with a penitent Will having to own up to having the drugs in the first place, and apologising to his cousin for nearly killing him. The message is clear: DRUGS ARE BAD.

Having imbibed these messages from an early age, it’s therefore not surprising to find that lots of new writers feel like their work needs to present a moral message to the teen audience.

The good news is: this is not a prerequisite of writing kidlit or YA. You do not have to shoehorn in an obvious moral. IMO, reading about  the grey space in between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is the best way to figure out one’s own place in society and morality. Furthermore, an obvious moral can make your work predictable and prescriptive. Let your readers take whatever they can from your novel, without shoving it down their throats.

The even better news is: if you are writing for teens, there is pretty much no topic that is off-limits. Rape, murder and marrying the undead (hoho) have all featured in best-selling YAs in the last few years – mostly without presenting a simplistic moral message, but instead exploring the complexities and dramatic consequences of a variety of human choices.

I’m not saying you need to set out to make your work eyebrow-raising or straight-to-banned-list. But if the story you want to tell covers controversial topics, you do not automatically need to censor everything. Of course there are some restrictions – no publisher will take a ’50 Shades’ style book under a YA banner (New Adult is another story…).

So, how can you find the balance between realistic and ‘appropriate’?

  • Consider who your reader might be. Some young people will be vastly comfortable with ‘edgy’ content, and some of them may not.
  • Find what’s comfortable for you too. Don’t go super-preachy or eye-wateringly explicit if that doesn’t suit your style.
  • Stay true to your characters and world. If your MC swears like a trooper, go for it. If they would blush at the word ‘damn’, well, their voice is going to be vastly different!
  • Question your own choices. Are you presenting things in stark black and white? Or are you exploring those fruitful ambiguities?
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