The Power of Visual Literature

By Beth Ann Bauman, Writing for Children & Young Adult Faculty

If you’re a YA writer, you already know you need to read a wide variety of literature, including YA, of course, and general fiction with teen protagonists.  But I’d argue it can be just as helpful to study good TV and movies about teens.  If you’re struggling, say, to move a character through a narrative, visual literature (TV and movies) is really good at externalizing the internal landscape of a character.  There’s also an economy of language on the screen that can be really useful to the apprentice writer who needs to learn focus.   

Here’s a sampling of some of the best YA material on the screen. 

My So-Called Life

There’s only one season of this 90s television gem, but at least we have that.  Teen angst has never looked this good, and in the series Angela, soulfully played by Claire Danes, tries to answer the age-old questions of who am I? what do I want? what do I believe in? as she navigates high school and family life.  The show is vibrant, intense and painfully honest as it explores heartbreak in all its forms—whether though tenuous friendships, unrequited crushes, or the discovery of flawed parents.  In adolescence so much is unknown and yet to be revealed; it’s a time of firsts with the highest highs and lowest lows, and the show reminds us that the only way through is through.  In one scene, Angela’s former best friend wants to know what she did wrong.  “Nothing,” Angela barely chokes out.  The moment is played with raw honesty as Angela grapples with the knowledge that she has simply outgrown this childhood friendship.  Anyone struggling to create a real character would do well to watch this beautifully nuanced show.

Friday Night Lights (six seasons)

This show has spirit and heart in abundance.  It’s about football but also not, so no fears if you aren’t a sports fan. What the show is really about is community, hard-scrabble life, surviving high school, growing up, race, class, bad choices, love, and hope, which is to say it’s about everything. And it turns everything into high art. And while there is an assortment of types—jocks, cheerleaders, bad boys, fools, nerds, etc.—the portrayals consistently transcend stereotype. Nabokov said, “Caress the detail, the divine detail,” and FNL is steeped in particulars that resound and matter to the characters and storylines. For me, this series is ultimately about faith and discovery—true YA themes—that are deeply embedded in the writing.  Each action-packed episode has the intensity of a prayer. One a side note, sometimes in YA lit parents are rendered one- or two-dimensional, meaning they’re absent or overly involved. Here the parents are rendered with as much, or even more, honesty and insight as the teens. 

Turn Me On, Dammit! (movie)

This fearless little film from Norway is a refreshing take on female sexuality. 15-year-old Alma is horny, and she’s at least hoping for a kiss, when one night at a party her crush Artur surprises her with an unconventional advance. Tipsy and excited, she blurts out the news to her friends only to have Artur deny the act and her best friend, who’s competing for Artur’s attention, scorn her. Suddenly, Alma is an outcast and the whole town calls her Dick Alma. This sly and wistful tale deals with oppressive small-town life and conformity. Maybe what I love best about it is the perfect blend of raunchy and sweet, two ingredients that shouldn’t harmonize but do so beautifully here, offering surprising results. It also has a pitch-perfect ending in which Alma is able to experience the larger world and a way forward. Any YA writer taking on sex would do well to study the nuance here.

These shows are completely immersive, at least to me. Watch and rewatch.  Let them wash over you and seep into your subconscious, but more importantly, study them to see how they achieve their masterful effects.  Unlock their secrets and put the techniques that resonate with you in your writer’s toolkit. 

p.s.  Eighth Grade, Book Smart, The Hate U Give, Stranger Things, and The Miseducation of Cameron Post are also worth your time. 

What TV or movies would you add?


Beth Ann Bauman is the author of a short story collection and two young-adult novels.  She’s the recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Jerome Foundation.