by Laura Kincaid
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.”
Viewers forget that there are adult writers and artists producing children’s cartoons, and they’re being recognized for their accomplishments like any other creator. Rebecca Sugar, creator of Steven Universe, has received five Emmy nominations and was included in Forbes’ "30 Under 30 in Entertainment" in 2012 for her work on Steven Universe and Adventure Time. Patrick McHale won both an Emmy for Best Animated Program and Best Animated Feature at the Ottawa International Animation Festival for his mini series Over the Garden Wall.
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.
Keep it simple. Though contemporary cartoons like Adventure Time develop extensive lore and overarching plots throughout multiple seasons, cartoons still have to tell a story in as little as ten minutes. Take the episode “Root Beer Guy” from Adventure Time. The episode doesn’t even follow the protagonists of the show, adventuring duo Finn and Jake. Instead, it follows the story of Root Beer Guy, a boring office worker and wannabe mystery novelist who discovers a kidnapping plot. The writers introduce this new character, construct a complete, satisfying plot, and have Root Beer Guy develop into a true detective. The basic plot of a whole mystery novel condensed into 10 minutes with room for jokes. While visuals can convey setting and action, cartoon episodes still do not have time to add the ruffles and lace of extraneous subplots, dragging exposition, or convoluted plots. By studying the arcs of a single episode, cartoons can show writers what is needed and what is fluff to help get to the essentials of plot and character, making for a stronger, more concise story.
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.
Don’t accept the expectations or limits of others. While not a writer of cartoons for children, Maurice Sendak wrote books for children, like the award winning Where the Wild Things Are. On the topic of writing for children he said, “I don't write for children. I write. And somebody says, that's for children.” When we start writing or even pondering an idea, we ask questions like “Is this mature enough?” or “Is this realistic?” or “Will people find this too out there?” There is an assumption that whatever is for kids is not for adults and vice versa, which places doubts and limits in a writer’s mind. However, nothing is too “out there” for cartoons. A child has a secret science lab in the basement? Sure. Radiation gave an already talking dog magical powers to shape shift? Absolutely. Writing “for children” gives writers permission to try anything because child viewers are open to anything. Not every writer wants to incorporate the supernatural or fanciful, but watching cartoons is a good reminder that anything is possible. Maybe that idea you brushed off as too corny, too silly, too weird, actually isn’t after all.
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.