It’s a blistering summer day in Glendale California. I’m hard at work on a “Dreamworks’ Dragons: Race to the Edge” script when there’s a knock on my office door. Thankful for the distraction, I open it to find one of my crew members, cradling a large colorful box, as if it were his child. I take a closer look. “Is that a…”? “Deluxe Zeo Mega Red Battle Zord”, he answers. “Original. And, it’s never been opened”. Before I can say another word, the thirty-year-old TV editor whips out a black Sharpie and asks me if I would do him the honor of signing his precious artifact. He explains that he has kept it since childhood, when the most important thing in the world was a TV show on Fox Kids called, “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers”, of which I was once the Executive Producer. Both flattered and dumbfounded, I take the Sharpie and sign away. Cheerfully, the young man exits, examining my signature, as he disappears down the hall. Little does he know, he’s just made my day.
Later that night that, I come to the realization that out there in the world, are millions of 30 something adults, who in some way have been touched by that goofy little TV series, of which I was a part. Those little kids who came to visit the set, packed themselves into the Universal Amphitheatre for a live show and begged their parents to stand in line for hours to get the last Green Ranger action figure, are now full grown, living, breathing, working members of society! How did this happen?!
The next day, I pass my editor in the hall. I ask him why he thinks so many people are still enamored with this crazy little show that to this day churns out new episodes every year. He thinks for a moment, then tells me it’s the Karate and the Monsters. They’re awesome. (Clearly he’s right). But, as he’s leaving, he stops himself to explain that he recalls the life lessons he learned from watching Power Rangers as well; lessons about friendship, responsibility, anti-bullying, and the list goes on. As we go our separate ways, I feel a swell of pride. With all the bashing that MMPR took over the years, the idea that we were teaching kids something seemed to get lost.
As a writer/producer in the teen and kids space for over 25 years, I’ve been extremely lucky. It’s been a crazy, fun filled ride to be sure. When asked to discuss the challenges of creating entertainment for kids and teens that packs a message without getting too “preachy”, I was immediately excited to put fingers to keyboard. I’ve been very fortunate in that many times over the years, parents have mentioned to me that they appreciate the fact that our show(s) DO contain messages, or life lessons. I never really thought about it, but looking back, I guess they do. And, I promise you, this was NOT done intentionally. So, then how these messages make their way into the over 500 episodes my partners and I produced?
The truth is, that the successful messaging of today’s teens and kids hasn’t changed since I first started on Power Rangers in 1994. And, it all boils down to one simple concept that has been the cornerstone of the writers’ tool box since storytelling began. “START WITH CHARACTER”. It’s a basic rule that has been the essence of fiction for centuries. Whether it’s TV, a movie, a novel or a play by William Shakespeare, all characters go on TWO journeys. The first is the actual plot of the story. The second, and most important, is the internal journey…known in screenwriting as “The character arc”. This is the emotional voyage, in which our hero learns something about themselves over the course of the plot, emerging from their adventure, changed for the better, through the experience.
When kids latch onto a TV show, if we’ve done our job, they identify closely with at least one of the lead characters. (We take great care to create familiar arc-types to make sure of this.) Taking that idea one step further, young viewers often imagine themselves as their favorite character. They become, Hiccup or Astrid, Kimberly or Tommy, and then act out and relive what they’ve seen, long after the credits have rolled. This phenomenon is how the message, or lesson, finds its way into our young viewers’ still developing brains. They too, experience that emotional journey, the one that teaches the character and helps make him or her a better person. For our viewers, that message is now safely tucked inside their subconscious. Our viewer doesn’t realize it, of course, but they have just learned something. And, all we had to do was tell a good story, conceived in character, the way good stories have been told since the beginning.
At times, I feel as though my job is meaningless in comparison to those of teachers, police officers and fire fighters. But, when a 30-year-old tells me I taught him something important over 20 years ago, what I do feels a little more meaningful. And, I thank the writers who came before me for giving me the road map that helps me tuck a little knowledge inside the heads of the kids who keep me employed, doing what I love more than anything in the world.
DOUGLAS J. SLOAN has been a world-renowned storyteller for more than 25 years. He has been the writer, director and executive producer of some of the most successful young adult and children’s programs in history. He is also the author of the new young adult novel The Siren Chronicles: Book 1 [Gruh Entertainment, Inc., June 27, 2017].
Throughout his career, Douglas has either won or been nominated for nearly every possible television award, including the Emmy, The WGA Award, the Humanitas Prize, and the Kid Screen Award. He currently lives in Glendale, CA with his wife, Mindy and their three dogs, Cocoa, George and Betty.