Plot: Step Two

After you’ve got a clear goal, this is the fun part…

One of the reasons I used Jackie Chan for my opening pictures last post was because his action scenes are well plotted.

Does that sound strange? They’re not just punching and kicking (although the punching and kicking is AMAZING). Jackie always uses the environment he’s in, both to create obstacles and to overcome them.

Count how many elements from a classic wild west bar he interacts with in this scene from Shanghai Noon.

I think I got eleven.

In writing for animation, these kinds of obstacles can be called gags. To build the scene, think about the characters and the setting. What properties are inherent? How can they be turned into obstacles and opportunities?

Check out what Tweety and Sylvester can do with a hotel.

I chose that one because it’s short. Virtually every classic cartoon can be used as an example. Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry, Donald Duck, etc.

What if your story is more about feelings than action?

Your plot will follow the same rules. What kind of characters do you have? Are they shy? What could make being shy more difficult? Are your young lovers on a first date at an amusement park? How could that setting enhance and then interrupt romance?

Your choices don’t have to be complex. Watch these kids try to eat their lunch in peace, while the other one tries to entertain himself.

Voila: tension, character development, and plot!


Emotion Cycles for Young-Adult Novels

In my post about Miyazaki’s pacing, I focused on the balance of fast and slow, but alluded to greater nuance in moments and feelings. Do you remember Scott Westerfeld’s “pace chart”, from my very first post?


This time I’ll include his definitions:

I distinguish among three levels of pace: ACTION, Tension, and “nothing.”

  • ACTION means fighting, pursuit, or any other sort of physical peril.

  • Tension means sneaking, arguing, or the revelation of horrible facts.

  • “nothing” means mostly conversation, exposition, and looking at stuff that may be wonderful, but isn’t threatening.

The new kind of beat here is tension, which we might have otherwise described as a “slow moment.” It’s true that if you just look at what’s happening, a “tension” beat looks slow. When you’re immersed in the story however, the moments are pins and needles.

I’d argue that a scene of somebody drinking coffee could be a “tension” beat, as long as the audience has somewhere else they want to be. For example, drinking coffee, boring. Watching somebody drink coffee when we know that any second a bomb will go off, TENSION!

Alfred Hitchcock has a famous quote on the issue.

Alfred Hitchcock was a master of “slow” pacing.

I have my own ideas about suspense, but the focus for this article is the way young-adult novels often use emotional swings as a pacing tool. First I’ll give two common cycles, then explain how and why they work.

angst cycle


love cycle

There’s an improv (theatre sports?) game I like where emotions are assigned to different areas of the stage. The actors naturally begin to move through these areas in patterns that make a story, pushing themselves through obstacles and often ending in the “positive” space–whatever’s given: love, hope, joy, optimism, etc.

The YA Emotion Cycles above are similar. We have one positive, and three kind of negative/in-betweenies. They function similar to Westerfeld’s pace chart with feelings of tension (paranoia, longing, wondering, etc) leading to moments of action and release (over-reactions and romantic bliss).

Looking at the emotions involved in the cycles, it’s clear how they’re connected and how they fit with teenagers’ experiences. What teenager isn’t paranoid and wondering about something? What teenager never over-reacts? While the stakes in the average teenager’s life may seem low to adults on the outside, that’s just another reason why the teenage experience is so intense. It feels like nobody understands. In young-adult novels, the rest of the world often actually doesn’t.

The Hunger Games uses both cycles repeatedly. It’s heightened and justified by Katniss’s predicament. She has some denied feelings for Peeta, then kisses him, then feels bad about Gale, then starts to wonder again whether Peeta was acting. She is paranoid that everyone is out to get her, furiously shoots an arrow at the gamekeepers when they ignore her, then regrets her action, sure that now she’s doomed. And on and on the cycle turns.

What have I done???

Teenagers’ experience the world in a way that is already built like a roller coaster. It’s unsurprising that fiction depicting their experience has caught on and become mainstream.

I’m nearing endgame for the novel I’m writing, so I’m going on hiatus from blog posts. I will be back in July. See you then!

Breakdown: Spirited Away

Spoilers! Obviously!

I could wax poetic about Hayao Miyazaki for ages. Today, building off last post on Flaws in the Disney Machine, I’m going to focus on two areas where Miyazaki excels over Disney, even over Pixar.

Character Design


In a 1996 interview, Hayao Miyazaki wondered,

“could we depict an affirmative character with a so-so looking girl? What we are doing is a show in a sense, after all. […] They immediately become the subjects of rorikon gokko (play toy for Lolita Complex guys). In a sense, if we want to depict someone who is affirmative to us, we have no choice but to make them as lovely as possible. But now, there are too many people who shamelessly depict (such heroines) as if they just want (such girls) as pets, and things are escalating more and more.”

In contrast to the Disney animator who complained that women were hard to draw because they had to be cute, Miyazaki set out to create a female protagonist who was ordinary. He gave her a snub-nose, awkward movements, and over-sized clothing because he wanted the audience to admire her for her personality rather than her looks. (I’m not just being mean; I got this from The Anime Art of Hayao Miyazaki. I hope it’ll expand more on this in Turning Point.)

I believe he carried this idea in choosing his next film as writer/director, Howl’s Moving Castle, where Sophie spends the majority of the movie as an old woman.

Ponyo is pretty cute though. As are the girls in The Wind Rises, from what I can tell. Perhaps Miyazaki wasn’t as bothered by this because of their age.

Miyazaki might not want us to identify with Sen/Chihiro because of her looks, but he does use appearance to draw us closer to other characters. Not beauty, but familiarity. Lin and Haku both look quite a bit more human than the other spirits.

Lin is a weasel spirit; Haku is a dragon/river. But they look like people.

Whereas most of the spirits have their proportions bent.

This affects the audience’s sympathies. The boiler man might have six arms, but his face is more proportionate than the other spirits as well. Pixar did something like this with A Bug’s Life.

The grasshopper, the bad guy, is the only one with six arms. This makes him less human, and moves our sympathies away. Well, Heimlich (the caterpillar) has a bunch of arms. And tiny eyes. But he’s comic relief–we don’t need to identify with him the same way either.

Miyazaki takes this further. Somehow the effect works and isn’t questioned. I’ve never heard anybody ask why Haku and Lin look like people.

Implied Themes

A story’s main theme usually mirrors the main character’s arc. I think of this as the stated theme. The thing the story is trying to tell you.

In any kind of communication, there is subtext. Things beneath the surface that are assumed, never said. I think of these as the implied themes.

Disney and Pixar focus the story quite well on their stated themes, and have the entire film working towards that one statement. But it lets us use our own assumptions to fill in the background, rarely pushing for complexity.

The stated theme of Spirited Away is simple. Sen/Chihiro’s arc is about not giving in, gaining confidence, trusting her gut, cooperation, etc. Depth comes from the multiple layers of implied themes.

The first implied theme is about greed. When they discover the abandoned amusement park, the father mentions that there used to be many of these all over the country, built without much thought. The spirit bathhouse can be viewed as another display of opulence.

Other displays of greed are more explicit. The parents become pigs. No-Face offers gold to the bathhouse workers, they go crazy for it. And the money turns out to be dust.

Let’s say the second implied theme is feminism, partially addressed above.

Next is environmentalism. This is present in almost all Miyazaki’s films, here evident when they have to pull gunk from the river spirit.

Finally, Miyazaki is the master of not having a true “villain.” The characters refuse to stay fixed as either purely “good” or “evil.” Haku, Lin, and the boilerman are all kind to Sen/Chihiro, but also have moments of hostility. Several characters physically transform to mirror their change.

Yubaba is the closest thing to a villain, but even she has a kinder side, helping in the bathhouse and mothering the baby. Then, when Sen meets the kinder twin, Zeniba/Granny, Miyazaki uses the exact same character design.

At the final test, Yubaba seems like she might back out when Boh says that he won’t like her anymore if she makes Sen cry. It is Sen (after calling Yubaba “Granny”) who declares that she’ll take the test, and Yubaba simply says “See if you can tell which of these pigs is your mother and father” without any further goading or threats.

I like the balance and layer of themes in Spirited Away but it’s this last one that makes me consider the film a masterpiece. Miyazaki jokes that he finds drawing evil characters unpleasant, so he simply doesn’t do it (22:20-ish). Really, this is an issue of point of view, as he’s alluded to more seriously elsewhere. The ability to see multiple perspectives. It’s not easy to write a story without a villain, but he’s done it repeatedly, making sure to humanize both sides.

I have a lot more to say about Miyazaki. The next post will focus on pacing.

Five (More) Kids’ Lit Heroes!

Continuing from my last post, let’s do five more! Actually, what the heck, let’s do six!


Animorphs by K. A. Applegate

Marco is the reluctant, smart-aleck hero of the animorphs. He knows the world is at stake, but he feels it isn’t fair to his father for him to keep fighting. What if his father lost him, like how they lost Marco’s mom?

This choice, along with his sense of humour, sets Marco away from the other animorphs. It isn’t until the fifth book, after we get into his perspective, that he changes his mind. And it’s not just because he sees that fighting is the right thing. He’s given a reason to fight, in a huge twist, and it gets us rooting for him that much harder.


Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Ella grows organically from the novel’s concept–the “blessing” of obedience to a child from a fairy. She’s fun to watch, and Levine makes wonderful use of internal dialogue to show Ella’s anxiety and wishfulness.

She is heavily involved in a romance plot, but girls are allowed to like boys. (Climb aboard the third wave!) The letters between herself and Charmont give her more time to show other interests as well. She cinches her designation as a hero at the climax of the novel, where like all good modern princesses, she saves herself.


Tatterhood, collected by Christen Abjørson and Jørgen Moe

Pictured: Cosplay of Tatterhood by deviantart user Tatter-hood

A hundred and fifty years before Balsa and the Paper Bag Princess, there was Tatterhood. A princess wearing rags who uses a gigantic wooden spoon to lay the beatdown on hags and trolls.

She’s brave. She’s fearless. She doesn’t have to be beautiful! Well, actually, that changes near the end, but it happens under her own power. I’d still file this one under early feminist fairy tales.


Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren

Although Pippi Longstocking is the more popular of Lindgren’s heroes, I find Pippi somewhat shallow. Ronia has more depth, and the choices she makes show more courage.

Basically, she goes against her father, the Robber King, to create peace with the other band of robbers. A classic example of embracing the other. And further, like many of the women on my list, she’s allowed to be wild and passionate and free.

Peter Pan

Peter and Wendy by J. M. Barrie

Peter Pan is magical. Not just the novel/play (although it is) but the character himself. The first mention of him is when Mrs. Darling is cleaning up the children’s minds to prepare them for bed. Talk about surreal! The same chapter has a dog acting as a nanny, tucking them in.

Then we go for a ride, chasing a shadow, flying through the air, fighting pirates, romancing mermaids. The whole time there’s this weird selfishness that makes Peter mesmerizing.

Although I love the character, Peter Pan (the novel/play) is one of the best examples of why we still need new children’s books today. It’s an amazing, enchanting story full of adventure. But it’s also full of toxic ideas–from the noble savages, to Tinkerbell’s hissyfit, to Wendy’s depiction as a nurturer who spends her free time knitting socks.

We need to write stories just as thoughtful, energetic, and seductive that carry more progressive ideas. And so, in a way, I see Peter leering down on children’s literature from a century back, acting as both one of its heroes and one of its villains.

Arnold Spirit Jr.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

If I had made this post as a list, Arnold would be a contender for #1. He stands up to his entire community by leaving the reservation to go to a white school. As a result, he loses his best friend.

Like  the Logan family, it’s unfair to expect Arnold to overcome systemic problems. It’s enough that he chooses a different path and fights the system on his own. Interestingly, similar to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the first heroic action is a reaction to an out-of-date textbook.

What makes Arnold memorable are the traits that make him unique. Not just his circumstance and disabilities, but his amazing sense of humour. He’s one of my favorite characters, full stop.

In making this list, it was very clear what my next post needed to be: diversity in children’s literature, particularly fantasy.

Best Books of 2013 (Sort Of)

My post on heroes is delayed. Here’s what blogs are SUPPOSED to do at year-end.

Let’s be honest: I didn’t read all the books that came out in 2013 and neither did you. In fact, a lot of the books that I read this year came out a while ago.

How on earth can I put a list together? I thought about this and decided to give three different number ones.

The Best Book I Read in 2013: Published in 2013

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Boxers & Saints is a set of two graphic novels about the Boxer Rebellion, “a violent anti-foreign and anti-Christian movement which took place in China between 1899 and 1901.” I’m not sure I would classify this as a children’s book, but the protagonists are young, and I’ve seen this work recommended for high school.

The two books are sold separately, but you need to read both of them in order to get the full effect. You need to see how they contrast and inform each other. The first book, Boxers, is longer and more colourful. It sets up more of the history and the motivation of the boxers, who see themselves as Chinese Opera heroes. The second volume, Saints, is a bleaker more reserved look at the consequences, humanizing the people on the other side who are massacred in the first work.

Some of  Yang’s earlier works–American Born Chinese and The Eternal Smile–used outside the story twists solutions for their endings. I wouldn’t quite call them deus ex machina, but I didn’t find them satisfying. As I neared the end of the second book (Saints), I worried that something similar would happen, but Yang pulls it off something splendid. He achieves the combination of unexpected and inevitable that good endings strive for, and it has a resonance that echoes all the way back through both volumes.

More importantly for this work about war and perspective, the ending doesn’t take an easy way out.

The Best Book I Read in 2013: Published Earlier

The Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes

I was motivated to read this book due to the recently created Monica Hughes Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy. The Sunburst Award has had a young adult category since 2010, but the Monica Hughes award is the first (to my knowledge) Canadian award for children’s fantastical writing.

The novel is set on the planet of Isis, as Olwen who lives alone on the planet learns that new colonists are coming. Explaining much more of the plot gives away the revelations which make the book oddly enchanting and immersive. The planet she creates isn’t hard sci-fi realistic, but it is definitely believable. I look forward to finishing the trilogy in 2014.

Hughes stated that the main theme she wished to explore in the novel was loneliness, but explorations of otherness are so strong that it’s hard to believe that she didn’t create them consciously. She said she didn’t become aware of themes of prejudice in the novel until children pointed them out to her.

I need to read more of her work to get a better understanding, but when measuring contemporary authors against Hughes, the three things that stand out for me would be world-building, organic theme, and empathic situations.

*Sidenote: Congratulations to Rachel Hartman who won both the Monica Hughes and the Sunburst in 2013 for Seraphina! This was my runner-up for best book I read in 2013, published in 2013, even though it was actually published in 2012.

Book Published in 2013 That I Really Want To Read

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

I get distracted easily. Sometimes I find a writer I like, and then forget to read more of their books. Kate DiCamillo was one of the first children’s writers that I got into but I’ve missed out on her last two novels.

Her newest is about a superhero squirrel. It’s gotten rave reviews and appeared on almost all the other year’s best lists that I’ve looked at. Many have called it “magic realism” which I find rare in children’s literature. At least, it’s rare when that it actually achieves the kind of spell-binding enchantment that Gabriel Marcia Marquez is known for. Too often it’s ruined with nonsensical explanations of the magic, rather than just letting magic be magic.

It also combines pages of text and sections of comics. I don’t have a lot of experience with this, although it seems to be a growing trend (Wonderstruck, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, etc.) I’m hoping that the superhero comic sections borrow ideas from Captain Underpants.

To end, here’s an interview I enjoy with Kate DiCamillo where she talks about her writing process. Of particular interest (4:02), she says that even if things are going well, she doesn’t write more than two pages a day.

Kinds of Kids’ Books (Part 2)

In part one, I discussed general categories and level of language. Today I’ll continue with subject matter and word counts. I also promised a great resource, which I’ll give near the bottom of this post.

Subject Matter

To help me through this, I’m going to reference three books that have helped me a lot.

You Can Write Children’s Books by Tracey E. Dils; Wishes, Lies, and Dreams by Kenneth Koch; and A Sense of Wonder by Katherine Paterson

When I first decided to try writing for kids, I found Tracey Dils’s book and read it quickly. Some of my friends thought I was silly for reading something with a title so on-the-nose, but You Can Write Children’s Books actually has a lot of good advice for people starting out. It clearly outlines not just category conventions (ex. word counts, pacing, etc.) but also details developmental stages. Hugely helpful!

These developmental stages are illustrated in the second book, Wishes, Lies, and Dreams by Kenneth Koch. It follows Koch’s experiences teaching poetry to children in Manhattan classrooms. He talks about the kinds of writing prompts that kids responded well to. He also notes differences in theme and tone by age.

Consider the following poems:

I wish my rabbit would not lick me!

I wish that I can eat in a tree like dinner.

I wish I could eat chicken all night long!

I wish that I was a giraffe because they got a long neck!

I wish I could go to the river and eat meat!

I wish I was a monkey to eat a banana! I wish I was as bad as my brother.

Chip Wareing, Primary Grade

Ignoring the brilliant cadence–the alternating can/could, the unusual phrase “in a tree like dinner”, the pounding towards spondees at the end of most lines, the unexpected periods–try to focus on the poem’s sense of fun. It has a tail of longing at the end on “brother” but most of the poem is gleefully leaping about.

I Was

I was in a cartoon on television. I was a broom standing in a corner. I swept floors with my feet. I didn’t like sweeping floors.

I was bought from a store.

I was able to talk.

I was a moveable broom.

I was very mad because all I did was sweep.

I was finally so mad I turned right back into a tree.

I threw my trees of oranges at the people I swept floors for.

Ilona Baburka, Grade 4

A few years later, and what a change. You could say this is dependent on individuals, but Koch notes a trend and the poems included support him. The kids start out bursting with energy, begin to be more aware of others around grade three, then turn responsible and bittersweet in the later years. It’s remarkable to see the shift in the poems.

The last book above, A Sense of Wonder, is a collection of essays by Katherine Paterson. I don’t have a copy (I borrowed it from the library) so I can’t quote from it as much as I’d like, but here is one part that’s guided my own work:

I cannot, will not, withhold from my young readers the harsh realities of human hunger and suffering and loss, but neither will I neglect to plant that stubborn seed of hope that has enabled our race to outlast wars and famines and the destruction of death. If you think that this is the limitation that will keep me forever a writer for the young, perhaps it is. I don’t mind. I do what I can and do it joyfully.

In another section, she lists the terrible things that have happened in her books: sexual abuse, racist slurs, starvation, death, etc. According to Paterson, a book isn’t made a kids book by lack of dark subject matter; it’s made a kids book by the inclusion of hope.

In honesty and fairness, I was originally planning to have this section talk about the envelopes that you shouldn’t push in certain categories, but the more that I thought about it, the less committed I felt to those “rules”. I wouldn’t say you should write your first board book about teenage pregnancy, but I’m also not willing to say that a good board book about teenage pregnancy is impossible.

Those dark and complicated issues are important, and for the most part I think the sooner that people start exploring them in a safe, approachable, and grounded manner the better.

I’ll let Paterson close this section for me.

There are adults who would rather teenagers not come face to face with such agonizing truths.  But I have never been sorry that I met my shadow when I was sixteen.

Word Counts

Lately I’ve been working off the numbers posted on Literary Rambles, which run as follows:

Board Books: 0 – 100 words.

Early Picture Books: 0 – 500 words.

Picture Books: 50 – 1,000 words.  1k is pushing it.

Nonfiction Picture Books: 500 – 2,000 words.

Early Readers:  200 – 3,500 words, depending on age level.

Chapter Books: 4,000 – 10,000 words.

Hi-Lo Books: 500 – 50,000 words, varies greatly depending on age level. A large number fall between 500 – 20k words.  Some 60-90k YA books get classified as Hi-Lo, but I don’t think they were specifically written for the category.

Middle Grade: 25,000 – 45,000 words, usually around 35-40k.  Longer word counts allowed for fantasy, sci-fi, historical.  Up to 60-70k is probably safe (though there are even longer exceptions).

Young Adult: 45,000 – 70,000 words.  Longer word counts allowed for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, historical. 80-90k is safe (there are some as high as 120k, but I recommend staying below 100k, if possible).

Nonfiction MG/YA: 5,000 – 70,000 words, varies greatly (with some exceeding 100k) depending on the type of book and age level (I recommend researching similar titles to what you’re writing/proposing to find appropriate range).  Memoirs seem to fall within the same range as novels for their age group.

They have links to several other sources on the topic that are worth checking out if this is a new area for you.

But here’s the resource I’ve been hyping: AR Book Finder. It’s a search tool that will let you find the word count of almost any published novel. Cool, right?

I recommend looking up a few books in the category you’re writing in, whether it’s chapter books or literary historical romance. You might be surprised how many cluster around the same area, and then how far out in left field a favorite novel might be.

At the end of the day, the real answer on word counts is that your story should be as long as it needs to be, and not any longer. If you’re writing the kind of story that is normal for your category, it should end up fitting pretty close on its own.

Kinds of Kids’ Books (Part 1)

One of the things I wish I’d learned first, but which I’m actually still learning a lot about, is the divisions between types of kids books. At the end of today’s post, there’s a great resource you should apply to your work.

The resource I’m planning to include in part two I like even better.


Generally speaking, these are the big categories:

  • Board books: Fewer pages, thicker cardboard than picture books. Meant for younger than 5 years old.

  • Picture books: Generally 32 pages long. The words and pictures work together to tell the story.

  • Early readers (The first books children read alone. Simple sentences, large print.)

  • Chapter books (Longer stories for readers gaining confidence. Short chapters, and the books are almost always part of a series.)

  • Middle-grade (Ages 9 – 12. These books might have changed the most over time.)

  • Young-adult (Ages 13 – 18. Often considered “edgiest”. Deal with teen issues, strong focus on voice.)

So those are the categories. Got it?

No! Bad! Stop thinking in boxes!!!

The truth is that there’s a lot of overlap, and a lot of books that purposely defy category, even in the examples above. There Is A Bird On Your Head looks a lot like a picture book. The 13-year-old narrator of The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen sounds closer to middle grade than an older young adult protagonist like Katniss Everdeen.

There’s a whole category of books called high/low designed for teens who are weaker readers. They use simpler vocabulary and sentence structure, but deal with age appropriate themes. Orca Soundings makes a bunch of these, with topics such as violence, sexuality, race, etc.

Furthermore, each category has a plethora of genres inside. The usual non-fiction, mystery, fantasy, historical romance, hot issue books, but they get even wider. Here’s the list of types of books for kids aged 9 – 12 on Kids’ Books (a bookstore in Vancouver) website:

The boundaries are soft, and there’s a huge variation within each, but it’s important to know which market you’re writing for. Here are a few things to keep in mind: level of language, subject matter, and word count.

Level of Language

Consider the following excerpts: one from an early reader, one from a middle-grade novel:

I, Nate the great detective, was weeding in my garden. My dog Sludge was digging in it. Oliver came over. Oliver always comes over. Oliver is a pest.

I have just lost a weed,” he said.

“No problem,” I said. “You may have all of mine.”

“But this was my weed,” Oliver said. “Can you help me find it?”

“I, Nate the Great, am not going to look for a weed. I only take important cases.”

“This is an important weed,” Oliver said. “I bought it for a nickel at Rosamond’s ADOPT-A-WEED sale. Rosamond picks weeds that nobody wants and she finds homes for them.”

“I believe it,” I said.

-Nate the Great Stalks Stupidweed,

by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat (Grade 1.5 Reading Level.)

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Mr Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours.

– Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (Grade 6.5 Reading level)

To figure out the reading level, I used the chart below. It uses a combination of sentence length and word-syllable length.

This chart does not include abstraction and metaphor, although I feel those are a key part of a passage’s difficulty. My gut feeling used to be that younger readers would have more difficulty visualizing the action, so they used pictures. Following that train of thought, for a while I assumed that middle grade novels should use more concrete description, and I sometimes avoided metaphor in describing characters or fantastic locations.

I’m happy to announce this doesn’t seem to be the case. Fantasy books often give bare descriptions of their creatures, and this doesn’t seem to cause problems. For example, the troll in Artemis Fowl is never given a clear outline. He’s just horns and hooves and a general impression of size.

If the troll is difficult to visualize, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Your brain is forced to imagine SOMETHING, and the fact that it’s a murky image, unclear except for a sense of imposing stature, is just fine.

Next post will continue exploring kinds of kids’ books, looking into subject matter and word counts.

A Tip That Should Be Obvious (But Often Isn’t)

The Tip

What’s the most awesome part of your story? Do more of that.

What’s the least fun part of your story? Do less of that.

I remember the epiphany of sitting in a workshop when people told me that they wanted more of the cool part of my story. Or all that boring stuff at the beginning that I thought I needed to “set up” the cool part. They didn’t want that at all.

How freeing!

And you know what else is awesome? Usually the awesome part that you get to make longer is the fun part to write.


Do it. Go write something awesome. If you want, here’s a prompt…

Today, a dragon has followed Eric home from school. He wants to keep it, but his parents might not let him.

The most boring way to continue the story would be to have Eric tell his parents about the dragon and to then try and convince them about how he’s responsible blah blah blah.

Especially for picture books, stories are told through action. What’s something awesome he could do with the dragon to SHOW that he’s responsible? Or maybe he wants to try and hide the three-hundred-foot-long-lizard under his porch.

Whatever he tries to do, zoom in, and make that moment longer. Maybe come up with six or seven ideas, choose the coolest one, and then go crazy with it. The farther you go, the cooler it might become. You can always reel it in afterwards.

Art from Vladimir Zuñiga of




What Good Ideas Entail

“Just Full of Ideas” taken from Cayusa on flickr and shared under Creative Commons.

How do you turn an idea into a story?

Regardless of what kind of idea you started from (What if, Image, or Theme) eventually the heart of your story is going to be the characters. But if we just start running from there, we might not hit maximum potential. What I really want to do (because I should stop being presumptive and saying “we”) is consider the way that character, plot, and theme interact. Once I’ve got a good intersection, then I’ll return to the character.

ideas worth following

I don’t have time to write the story for every idea I have. So which ones do I want to put time into? Consider the books in my post on Five Great Concepts.

The concept for each implies the entire story. Rabbits lead to a conflict with human expansion, which leads to an adventure to find a new living space, which leads to themes of courage, mortality, and home. The Magic School Bus entails a classroom of kids, a kooky teacher, adventures in science, and the themes of learning. It’s all there.

High Concept: An idea for a story that can be stated in one or two sentences.

All of the books above qualify. In contrast would be books where characters wander and change slowly. You can still summarize them in one sentence, but you don’t get a sense of why they’re captivating without actually reading the pages. Examples might be Judy Moody by Megan Mcdonald, The Whole Truth by Kit Pearson, or Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. These are great books, but they’re driven by the characters’ voices more than by a one-sentence elevator pitch.

Screenwriter Terry Russio (co-writer of Aladdin, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc) has a great column on high concepts, or the strange attractor. He gives the example…

A man wrongly convicted of murder runs his investigation from the confines of his jail cell.
Okay, this is mildly intriguing. You could use this ‘high concept’ to write a screenplay. It might turn out to be the springboard for a good movie — but a lot depends on the execution, all the way down the line. But even granting that a film did eventually get made, and made well, it still could be a tough sell to an audience.
So from a studio, or ‘development’ perspective, then, this ‘high concept’ is not likely to generate a lot of excitement… or entre into the industry for the beginning screenwriter.
An idea that’s marginally better (in a purely commercial, make-a-
sale-to-Hollywood sense) is:
A man wrongly convicted of murder learns to astral-project himself out of his jail cell; he must locate the real killer in order to clear his name.

That’s an idea that might be easier to market, but is it really worth pursuing? What kinds of conflicts do you see coming up? What kinds of characters does it suggest to you? Do you think that the idea of astral projection is inherently tied to a theme that you are interested in examining?

Chances are (unless your favorite movie is Sharknado), no.

You don’t just want something interesting that implies a bunch of stuff. You want something interesting that implies a bunch of interesting stuff. This is the reason why I think The Graveyard Book was such a great idea.

Sorry, I started using you there for a bit. Let me rephrase: I want to find stories that give me new ways into discussing the themes and ideas that I’m interested in.

how to follow

A lot of the time while we’re chasing an idea, we get distracted by other ideas. Writing a novel or movie takes closer to a hundred ideas than one, and it’s a challenge to make sure all of those ideas actually work together, especially once you’ve been working on something for a long time. When Chris Sanders and Dean DuBlois took over direction of How to Train Your Dragon, one of the first things they did was change the dragon’s model.

Do you remember that tiny little dragon? That was originally Hiccup’s friend. In the books, his friend is a small dragon.

Why the change?

Chris Sanders says that if the movie is about turning an enemy into a friend, then it should be the biggest enemy possible. Which makes sense. It follows the old rule to give your characters their opposites, and their biggest challenges possible.

However, the Hiccup from the book series could never manage the larger dragon. He is the runt of the vikings, and it takes him twelve books to grow up, not ninety minutes. The runt dragon is a good match for him, and the books are about both of them growing together.

In the movies, the dragon’s character arc is far less important.

The Emperor’s New Groove is another movie that had a huge change in the protagonist’s foil. Pacha changed from this mirror image of Kuzko, voiced by Owen Wilson to a strong-backed farmer voiced by John Goodman.

Sting was hired to do the songs for New Groove, and his wife made a documentary of the process called Sweatbox. The original planned film for New Goove was much larger in scope, called Empire of the Sun, and had multiple side plots unrelated to the film’s central question:

Can an ordinary man teach a king how to rule?

Eventually, most of the extras got stripped away. Except for the part where Kuzko gets changed into a llama. Because llamas rock.

Which maybe begs the next question…

what side plots flow from an idea?

This isn’t something I’d thought about until I started reading books on screenplay. They say that the side plot should show another way of tackling the story’s theme. It should be a kind of mirror.

I used to think it was a chance to explore a completely different theme. Sometimes I still think it can be useful that way.

The person who breaks this down most fully and clearly is Dara Marks in her book Inside Story. These are her breakdowns for Romancing the Stone and Lethal Weapon.

(I apologize in advance for badly aligned formatting. C’est la vie.)






Love is an adventure

|                                             |

PLOT (“A”)                             SUBPLOT (“B” & “C”)

(external thematic goal)           (internal thematic goal)

Trust the adventure                    Follow your heart

|                                                      |

OBSTACLE                       FATAL FLAW

Fear the adventure                         Hide from your heart

CONTEXT                                CHARACTER TRAITS

Dangerous                                             Isolated

Scary                                            Lonely

Unpredictable                                   Idealizes Love



Life and death



Choose life

|                                             |

PLOT (“A”)                             SUBPLOT (“B” & “C”)

(external thematic goal)           (internal thematic goal)

Value life                                  To connect with others

|                                                      |

OBSTACLE                                  FATAL FLAW

Devalue life                         Disconnected from others (Riggs)

                                                   Too attached to others (Murtaugh)

CONTEXT                                CHARACTER TRAITS

Murder                                    RIGGS         MURTAUGH 

Corruption                              Lonely       Overly attached

Desperation                       Reckless           Controlling

Savagery                                 Suicidal          Accident-prone

She not only suggest side plots, she also suggests what character traits, obstacles, and personal flaws are necessitated by chosen themes.

I’ve never tried to start a story by doing a chart this comprehensive, but when my stories feel like something is “off” I’ve been able to repair it by taking some of Marks’s ideas into consideration.

Thinking about too much of this drives me crazy. And I want my stories to feel organic.

Don’t you?

a final note on following quirks and being organic

Writing a good story isn’t always about hitting your theme, or hitting the exact logical monomythic step. Sometimes it’s just about writing something cool.

See: Llamas.

One of my favorite examples of this in children’s literature is Scaredy Squirrel. It’s a simple concept, but the reason it works so well is that Mélanie Watt can hit it from about a million angles. Hilarity overload.