Teen drama is one of the most enduring genres to have graced TV screens since its inception. We’ve all been teenagers at some point. And the heartbreak, emotions, journeys, discoveries, and drama that comes with being a teenager typically makes for highly engaging stories. As a screenwriter, you may be thinking that a teen drama is a perfect way to capture audiences. But how do you write teen drama?
Moreover, how do you write teen drama that is alternative or has a different spin? In an overcrowded, oversaturated genre, writing teen drama that has an alternative spin can be a way to stand out. In contemporary TV, this is increasingly the way teen dramas lean.
So what are the key tropes and rules to follow for writing this wide-ranging genre? Let’s take a look…
Table of Contents
- What is a Teen Drama?
- Writing Teen Drama With A Twist
- Teen Drama Sub-Genres
- Connect With Your Target Audience
- Choosing and Building Authentic Characters
- Common Teen Drama Tropes and How to Use Them
- Teen Drama Settings
- Where to Start With Writing Teen Drama?
What is a Teen Drama?
When we’re talking about teen drama, we’re talking about a series that focuses on teenage or young adult protagonists, who are most of the time, facing some sort of conflict. That conflict may be the ups and downs of friendships, a shaky romantic relationship, or even the fate of the world.
Teenagers are usually just exploring life and their freedom all whilst battling peer pressure, parental pressure and societal pressure. The downside of having free rein over your own life means that you can very easily be led down the wrong path and make mistakes that will haunt you.
So teen dramas at their core, try to unpack what being young is like. Teenagers are complicated, high school is messy, and relationships are crazy. That’s all you need to know right? While all these things are true, to write an effective and distinctive teen drama, there are a few things that should be taken into account. Let’s explore…
Writing Teen Drama With A Twist
The difficulties of growing up – the triumphs, the pitfalls, the laughs, the tears – are all a part of normal teenage life. Teen dramas love to explore these commonalities. However, when writing your teen drama, think of what it is that makes your characters and story different.
Typically there may be a conflict with an authoritative figure or a person of power. That person might be an overprotective parent, a school authority, or even the supernatural. But this is where the twist can come in. Do you have clashing characters? Supernatural elements? An extremely original setting?
These teen characters are most often just trying to figure out how to get through life unscathed. But what can a distinctive twist add to teenage problems and insecurities?
Furthermore, when trying to think of how to write a distinctive teen drama, try and think of what metaphors you can utilize and lean into. How can you elevate the trials and tribulations of being a teenager? Often these growing pains can be heightened when shown in the context of dealing with an extreme situation, for example.
We can mostly all relate to the feelings that come with being a teenager. But drama’s purpose is to heighten these experiences. And it often does this by, for instance, placing the characters in extreme, even fantastical, situations we would probably never find ourselves actually in. By seeing how the characters react to an extreme or distinctive situation we find universal experiences within the extraordinary.
Teen Drama Sub-Genres
While teen dramas can come in all shapes and sizes, ones with some sort of twist have become more popular the more the overarching genre has developed. The addition of another genre type on top of your teen drama can give you the opportunity to expand your story’s scope.
There are plenty of teen dramas out there that are written to be realistic and relatable. In the end though, they’re likely to have a tougher time standing out. And when they do stand out, they usually come with a distinct stylistic flavour or thematic intent (such as Euphoria).
You might consider taking a look at the other genres that can add some extra suspense and depth to your writing. They create the perfect opportunity to add non-realistic elements, as well as distinct sub-plots.
We love to see teen lives that are unusual or complicated. And these sub-genres are a great example of how to give your teen drama that extra exciting, unique element. The examples we’ve highlighted aren’t the limit of the sub-genres you can add. However, they’re probably the most popular and effective.
Teen Sub-Genre: Mystery
Teenagers are often already on a journey of discovery. So teen mystery dramas are effective because they combine the best elements of mystery with developing teen characters and high school drama. The mystery element is a way to heighten the agency of the teenage characters or a way to add significant intrigue and weight to the drama surrounding these pivotal years.
In order to create a teen mystery, you will need a few pivotal elements in your storyline. First, you will want an early cliffhanger or hook that draws in your audience…
- You will want to leave a question that desperately needs an answer.
- This might take the form of a mystery set up early on in the narrative. Or it might take the form of, for example, a teaser about some mystery that has unfolded in a separate timeline (as in Yellowjackets).
You will also want relevant evidence, and a convincing reason for the protagonist to pursue such evidence.
- This gives the audience a chance to think outside the box, and get close to the protagonist in order to feel like a sleuth.
- There typically needs to be the sense of the protagonist unfolding the mystery alongside the audience.
- The protagonist themselves must be seeking to answer a fundamental question that they don’t know the answer to, both literally and in terms of their own emotional needs, wants and goals.
Teen Sub-Genre: Sci-Fi and Fantasy
Science fiction and fantasy is another great sub-genre for the teen drama to gain depth, complexity and intrigue. This combines familiar, regular elements with fantastical ones. There are many great examples, from Teen Wolf to The Vampire Diaries to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Stranger Things.
There are plenty of different directions you can go in with the sci-fi/fantasy teen drama. Many shows have their main protagonist(s) having a certain power. For example, Teen Wolf follows Scott McCall, who is part werewolf. He initially tries to seek a cure but eventually accepts the supernatural part of himself.
The other classic elements of sci-fi that you might consider adopting include mind control, parallel universes, fictional worlds or extraterrestrial visitors. The possibilities are potentially endless.
However, what’s important when writing these supernatural elements into your teen drama is to make sure they are pertinent to the story at hand.
- How do these supernatural elements serve as a metaphor for the teen experience?
- Or how do these elements heighten the teen experience?
The best fantasy teen-dramas use their fantastical spin to say something about being a teenager in a unique manner. It’s a vessel to represent character growth in an interesting and dramatic way.
Stranger Things, for example, takes many familiar elements of the teen drama – a love interest, the loss of a parent, friendship – and throws in a supernatural twist to heighten the stakes.
- The characters’ exploration of “The Upside Down” abruptly lifts them out of childhood innocence.
- They’ll never be able to go back to this innocence; the way they see the town, each other and their lives are forever changed.
- Despite all the fantasy trappings, this is an essential human experience that most can relate to.
Connect With Your Target Audience
Arguably one of the most important things in writing, in general, is knowing your audience. The target audience, in this case, is, of course, teenagers. So the ultimate question is, how do you captivate an audience of teens and hopefully more?
Part of catering to this audience means exploring the things that mean the most to teens. You can’t hope to connect with teens if you don’t know what interests them. Research can help with this. However, it’s important that you understand the perspective you’re trying to reach in the core principle of your show.
Even though most teens aren’t fighting vampires or werewolves in their daily lives there are other elements to the characters and the show that will make it relatable.
- What is the character’s defining need?
- Are they searching for a boyfriend/girlfriend?
- Do they struggle to fit in?
- Are friendships drifting and/or changing?
- Do they have a difficult or defining relationship with their parent(s)?
Writing a teen drama means writing from a teen’s point of view. And doing this gives you a jumping-off point. Ground your characters in something real and relatable and you can feasibly go anywhere with the story. Rooted in that core of relatability, the characters will be easy to follow, no matter where their journey ends up.
Moreover, being a teenager is such a universal experience, that by connecting your characters to an essential, easily relatable need or motivation, the potential audience becomes wide. This is the strength of the teen drama – its ability to transcend the boundaries of genre and reach out and touch a vast array of audiences as well as its core demographic.
Choosing and Building Authentic Characters
Designing the protagonist for any story and genre can be a hard task. The main character has to be likeable, yet complex enough that the audience will want to follow along.
Your protagonist does not necessarily need to be realistic in terms of powers and abilities. In fact, some of the most popular characters are the least realistic. They merely need to be authentic in the sense that they stay true to their given personality.
Furthermore, your characters should be authentically teen in how they act and speak like their age. Not doing this can be a key turn off for an audience that is of the same demographic as the characters. There’s nothing worse than an adult writing teenagers and getting it wrong.
So if you’re not a teenager (or close to being one) yourself, research into this authenticity is vital.
- Don’t strain to pepper the script with slang and cultural references.
- Instead, ground the characters in universal experiences and build from there.
- Teenagers across the generations share similar experiences, it’s just the world around them that changes.
- So remember how this world subtly affects the characters and infiltrates their lives, whatever the time period (contemporary or historical). These changes won’t necessarily define the characters, but they’ll seep into their experiences and outward personality.
Your characters need to be fully developed and have their own individual characteristics. Your audience will be less inclined to stay tuned if your characters aren’t developed well enough for their interests, feelings, and desires to be evident up-front. Great teen dramas will provide a rich tapestry of different characters representing different facets of the teen experience.
Choosing Your Supporting Characters
You will want to include a variety of characters so there’s someone for everyone to side with. If you are just starting to develop your characters, it might be helpful to start out with a smaller cast and develop them from there. Too many characters initially might confuse your audience.
So build your cast of characters slowly, both in your own preliminary work and within the scripts themselves. The best teen dramas don’t contrive to introduce all the key characters with the same amount of weight all at once. Instead, they slowly build the characters’ depth one by one.
- Commonly with teen dramas, there will be one or two main characters and a supporting group of friends.
- And beginning with this core group of teens is a great place to start.
- Look at their mannerisms, the way they interact with each other, the way they support (or don’t support) the main protagonist, and how their personalities differ from one another.
- How do they each individually make up a rewarding whole?
When choosing your supporting characters, for example, it is often interesting to have a character that is the polar opposite of your protagonist. This will give you the opportunity to create more clashing and therefore prolong the drama for your audience.
The key to any long-running series is the depth of drama to mine. If you have a collection of characters that are all very different from one other, or who have competing goals, then you have great ground for continuing drama. The dynamics that run within this core group will rear their head at pivotal, dramatic moments and ultimately come to define the show.
Common Teen Drama Tropes and How to Use Them
Teen dramas have many common tropes buried within them. These tropes typically entertain the audience, even though they are sometimes considered to be cliches. When starting to write a teen drama, however, using one of these tropes can be a useful tool.
Some of these tropes have become defining factors for teen drama. In fact, we often look forward to seeing them play out. They can unintentionally create an iconic crowd-pleasing character or situation.
While there are many more you can choose from, these particular tropes can be very useful. If you don’t know where to start when writing your alternative teen drama, these can be a great jumping-off point. So here are just three of the most common tropes that perfectly encapsulate the key ingredients and mechanisms behind a teen drama…
1. The Chosen One – Fulfilling a Prophecy
“The chosen one” refers to one character in the show, typically the protagonist. This person often has a quest that they are trying to complete. The plot will center around the fact that this character is the only hope for saving everyone.
A good example of this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here, we follow the life of Buffy, who comes from a long line of “slayers”. She is the young woman that is chosen to seek out and destroy the forces of darkness.
The journey may not always be this extreme and fantastical. But it’s a great example of how the protagonist of a teen drama can be given a higher destiny – a journey which only they can fulfil. Furthermore, it’s a great example of how a teen drama with a twist can serve as a metaphor for the teen experience.
The experience of being a teenager often feels like a path of destiny. There are multiple different paths to go down and you are at the center of them. This age, more than any other, can be one of myopic focus. The teenager is figuring out their journey. They are the chosen one of their own story. And this is partly why “the chosen one” trope resonates so well with the teen drama genre.
2. The One With Special Powers
This trope involves a character that is different from those around them and is destined to use their powers for good (usually).
Some examples of this trope include The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Locke and Key, and Julie and the Phantoms. Each of these shows uses special powers as a way to draw in the audience and allow us to know the characters better.
Once again, the protagonist with special powers not only makes for an entertaining story but provides rich thematic resonance. So much of the teen experience is about standing out or not standing out from the crowd. And special powers can make for a great metaphor for feeling different, unique or misunderstood.
The character may struggle to acclimatize to their setting considering their powers. They may not understand their powers or how to use them appropriately. All this resonates with the experience of being a normal teenager – struggling to fit in, embracing difference, knowing how and when to act for good and/or bad.
Deploying this trope can be a great way to add a distinctive twist to your teen drama and once again reach higher ground in terms of representing the teen experience. Besides, who doesn’t want a little magic in their life?
3. Teenage Love – Love Triangles
Possibly the most common trope is the ever-popular love triangle. This one is particularly useful because it can intertwine your characters in a compelling way. If you don’t want to make it the main point of your teen drama, it can certainly at least be used as a subplot.
Love triangles test friendships, loyalty and burgeoning moral compasses (or lack of them). They bring some characters closer together and others further apart. They can lead the characters to explore their sexuality or they can pit best friends against each other.
The love triangle is a starting gun for drama, a way to explode normality and throw characters into conflict, dilemma and action. It may be a cliche, but it is so for a reason.
Some teen dramas that provide good examples of this include, Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, and Yellowjackets.
Teen Drama Settings
The basis of teen drama centers around how teens deal with their daily life events, as well as the unordinary events. So in order to craft a convincing teen drama, your settings should be convincing too. The chosen setting for a teen drama will ultimately depend on the plot, but there are settings that are well-loved in the teen drama genre.
High school is obviously a common setting. School is part of most teenagers’ daily lives, so it should typically be part of your setting, even if it’s in the background. There are common secondary settings as well such as the mall, a teen character’s workplace, and friend’s houses.
A lot happens in high school, and there is drama in every corner. In the locker rooms, the cafeteria, the gym, and sports fields. Explore how the characters interact with and change in these different settings.
Furthermore, try to add authenticity to the settings, rather than just riffing off previous teen dramas. What were the settings that made up a big part of your own teenage life? What are the nuances of these settings that will provide nostalgia or recognition for an audience?
Some settings are a defining factor for the plot of the show. For example, Panic is set in a small Texas town. Every year the graduating class competes in various challenges to win money. They believe that winning this money is the only way they will be able to leave their small town and finally create better lives for themselves.
- In this case, the setting on a larger scale (a small Texas town) directly reflects the storyline.
- The smaller-scale setting (various places within the town) also adds to the overall goal that these characters are trying to achieve.
Other shows may choose to incorporate more non-realistic settings to play into the twist. For example, Stranger Things bounces back and forth between the characters’ normal world and “The Upside Down”.
Whether the setting is a vital addition to the plotline or not, it’s still important to establish a setting that makes sense for your piece. Moreover, don’t let your setting be generic, even if it may be familiar. Lean into the specific mood, feeling and atmosphere of the context.
- If it’s set in a historical time-period, for example, make the most of the specifics of this time period in terms of style, culture and the context whirring on in the background (such as major news and/or world events).
- If the story is set in contemporary times, similarly make the most of the unique aspects of today’s world, even whilst staying true to the universal themes of adolescence.
Where to Start With Writing Teen Drama?
Whilst teen dramas each have their individual storylines, they all essentially tackle issues of adolescence and the difficulties that come with this age. These issues might take place in the context of a relatively normal high-school. Or they might take place in a fantastical, supernatural world. The beating heart though is always the relatable core of teen angst.
So what do you want to represent about the teen experience? And how can you do this in the most interesting and unique way possible? How could the possibilities that sub-genres present add another layer to your representation of the teen experience?
These are the key questions to ask when trying to write a teen drama with an alternative twist.
- What is the key driving emotion behind your protagonist and their story? It may be, for instance, a desire to fit in or stand out.
- Next, think of how a genre twist may heighten this want and need. Does the end of the world put what your teenager wants into stark contrast? Do special powers heighten the sense of the character being an outcast that is unable to fit in?
These are just some of the possibilities of the alternative teen drama genre. Taken to their true potential and matched appropriately with compelling characters, a rich context and plentiful conflict, they can form a basis for some of the most exciting TV out there.
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This article was written by Corey Campbell and edited by IS Staff.
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