Screenwriting For Children

Children are the most fickle, attention span-deprived, brutal audiences who know what films they like and aren’t afraid to switch off if they’re bored. And they’re not afraid to say so. Ouch!

Films for young children

Generally, movie demographics for children are divided into three key groups and relate to their stages of cognitive development. The first age group (2-5 years), relates to the pre-school set. Story is generated as nuggets, because children of that age will rarely have the attention span to sit through 30 or 60 minutes of material. The key is simplicity and repetition.

Often there is musical accompaniment for entertainment. These films may not always follow a three act structure and are often fragmented. The story concept could be as simple as the the animals found in a zoo and the sounds they make.

Some psychologists argue that music helps stimulate the communication bridge between the left (logical) and right (creative) brain.

Films for older children

There is some crossover between the segments of school-aged audiences. Some films target those aged 5 to 9 years, while others the 5-7 years olds. At any rate, many psychologists agree that 7 years is a critical age for children because they gain the ability to reason. They learn about consequences, danger, morality, responsibility, heroes and villains.

Films for tweens

The final age group is 7-14 years (sometimes further subdivided to 7-9, 9-12 and 12-14 years old). The middle and final age groups refer to to the tween groups, which can deal with more adult concepts like identity, acceptance, loss and death.

Children’s films are different to family films. The latter refers to the four quadrant (4Q) segmenting of audiences into adult males and females, boys and girls. An arbitrary age cut-off of 25 years is used. It doesn’t mean anything in terms of storytelling, but makes marketers happy.

Key players in the children’s film market

The key players in the children’t market are Disney, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network, and their spinoffs.

Television advertisers tend to favor the younger age groups (and their parents), while feature films more aggressively target the elusive tween market. Children’s cinema, generally targets the 7-14 year age group. Furthermore, these age demographics are further subdivided into genders. As much as it pains me to admit it, girls mature faster then boys and they can more readily relate to more complex themes such as relationships. Boys at a similar age, still tend to respond to explosions and super heroes which they can aspire to being.

The general genres of children’s films tend to be comedy, action and fantasy.

Children’s films can be live action, animated, or a hybrid via multi-media.

Regardless of which childhood demographic you chose to write in, stick to a simple three act plot structure. Frequently, you don’t need a subplot, or a minor one. Make your story clear, accessible and relatable.

Keep the tone bright. Visualize your story in primary colors; red, blue and yellow.

Keep the action moving. Children don’t respond to movies with long, knowing glances, extended dialogue, metaphors and vertical storylines (character studies) as easily as adults. Make the heroes and villains clear.

Keep the dialogue simple. You can get away with more “on the nose” direct dialogue in children’s films with lines like “I think he’s in trouble” because children more easily verbalize what they see.

Plot simple character arcs and an uplifting theme. For instance in “Beauty and The Beast” the controlling idea is that true beauty comes from within.

Add copious physical humor such as the bouncing toys in “Toy Story”. You might even be able to get away with sight gags and fart jokes. Everybody loves a whoopee cushion, a bodily fluids gag, or something gross like a swamp monster.

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