I watch cartoons. I’m not talking about Family Guy or Rick and Morty, but cartoons created for and targeted at children. I’m not alone. Shows like Steven Universe, Adventure Time, and Avatar: The Last Airbender have garnered huge audiences from kids to teens to twenty-somethings and older. Countless blogs and video essays propose a pile of reasons why cartoons are suddenly “not just for kids anymore” like how they relieve stress, produce a sense of nostalgia, or provide life lessons useful to everyone. But when people ask me why I watch cartoons, I answer: “For the writing.”
These writers are using the same craft elements that all storytellers need--character, conflict, setting--but what makes cartoons unique is their accessibility. Steven Universe has been hailed as “America's Most Empathetic Cartoon” by NPR for conveying the complexity and contradictions of emotions in themselves and other people to children. In an interview with The Verge, Sugar comments on how she crafts the show: “Cartoons are expected to be, and really need to be, simple and readable and clear. It’s already a lot to ask someone to look at a drawing and think it’s really alive.” The medium, especially given its audience of children, lends itself to nuanced, but clear storytelling, which all writers can learn from.
Everything, even subtext and thematic elements, should help make an entertaining story. Sometimes stories try so hard to say something that the actual story—the characters, the conflict—gets lost. It’s not that dissimilar to the after school cartoons both adults and children loathe where it's more about how bullying is bad than the fun characters and plot. Good cartoons that want to have a positive impact on children, while keeping their attention, must intertwine engaging storytelling and themes. Over the Garden Wall is a prime example of this. While the show is an enjoyable tale of two brothers lost in a folktale-esque world, the show also tackles anxiety and depression. Wirt, the elder brother, must confront the villain, The Beast, who feeds on fear. Wirt has to defeat his anxiety both figuratively and literally to get home. The deeper implications of Over the Garden Wall hit home because the writers bring the themes into the stakes of the plot. Every thread of story runs back to the themes, and every theme occurs naturally in the story.
Looking for a good writing lesson? Then settling down on the sofa to watch a few cartoons might not be a bad idea. Their unique purpose and format means that they have to craft the same elements with precision and quality that other works often get away without. Even with constraints, cartoons offer a world of possibilities where anything goes. Write what you want. Let others worry later about who its “target audience” is.