Writing Dark for Young People

I’m in the middle of writing a play which may or may not involve the death of young people. I’m trying to decide. It’s a tough call. I’m wary of making the show too light or too dark. The play, in short, is suffering from an identity crisis.

But darkness in young adult literature and entertainment isn’t exactly a novelty, in fact, it’s the norm. Somewhere between 11 and 13, young readers and consumers go from wacky care-free colourful adventures to serious encounters with death and doom. The Hunger Games pits a group of young people together in a fight to the death. Divergent has a small group of young people fighting for survival under a fascist dystopian government. Harry Potter is about spells and friendship, but also how we overcome grief and the death of those closest to us. The Fault in Our Stars has a host of main characters all suffering from terminal cancer.

I would argue, in fact, (and I’m not saying this is wrong), that young adult literature and stories are more darker than a lot of adult content. In adult books and films, death can be meaningless – innocent passer-bys killed in an explosion that was narrowly escaped by our hero, or shallow thugs who suffer ostensibly justified horrific deaths. In young adult literature, death meanssomething. Every fallen character leaves ripples in the story, and against the main group of characters. It drips in meaning.

So that’s why I’m a little uncertain about playing with death for this audience. Death is handy to writers. It raises the stakes to the highest level. Characters fighting for their lives is way more exciting than characters fighting for…well, just about anything else, actually. So it’s kind of hard to avoid. A death easily written for an adult audience is more hesitantly created for a younger crowd. You’re always creating under a cloud of ‘responsibility’ for young people. Or at least, I am. As if your words mean more, as if younger people are any more or less resilient than adults.

Adults are reading more and more young adult fiction, of course, further complicating matters. Young adult fiction is an invention of the last century, as well. I can only presume that parents took their six year olds to see ‘Oedipus’ back in the day.

The Young Adult Renaissance is a welcome one. The popcorn but meaningful stories that are being created are rich with fun and morals.

If anybody needs me, I’ll be deciding whether to kill some teenagers.