Monday, July 6, 2015

Developing Your Story for Children or Teenagers

I’ve released a new book on the craft of writing, called You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. If you are just starting out, this book will get you going. If you have some experience but need help developing your skills, this book will do that as well.

To celebrate the release, I’m sharing a excerpt from one chapter on “Developing an Idea.” Week one started the topic of Developing an Idea, week two introduced the parts of the story or article, and here’s part three:

Building the Middle

If a character solves his goal easily, the story is boring. To keep tension high, you need complications.

For short stories, try the “rule of three” and have the main character try to solve the problem three times. The first two times, he fails and the situation worsens. Remember: the situation should worsen. If things stay the same, he still has a problem, but the tension is flat. If his first attempts make things worse, tension rises.

For novels, you may have even more attempts and failures. In my first Haunted book, The Ghost on the Stairs, I made sure each ghost encounter felt more dangerous. As Tania tries to get closer to the ghost in order to help her, Jon worries that she will go too far and be injured or even killed. With enough variety, you can sustain this kind of tension indefinitely (witness the ongoing battle between Harry and Voldemort in the seven-book Harry Potter series).

You can worsen the situation in several ways. The main character’s actions could make the challenge more difficult. In my children’s mystery set in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a young temple dancer searches for her missing friend. But when she asks questions at the barracks where he was a soldier, she attracts dangerous attention from his enemies.

The villain may also raise the stakes. In my Mayan historical drama, In The Well of Sacrifice, the main character escapes a power-hungry high priest. He threatens to kill her entire family, forcing her to return to captivity.

Secondary characters can cause complications, too, even if they are not “bad guys.” In The Ghost on the Stairs, the kids’ mother decides to spend the day with them, forcing them to come up with creative ways to investigate the ghost while under her watchful eyes.

Finally, the main character may simply run out of time. At her first attempt, she had a week. At her second attempt, she had a day. Those two attempts have failed, and now she has only an hour! That creates tension.


• For each turning point in the story, brainstorm 10 things that could happen next. Then pick the one that is the worst or most unexpected, so long as it is still believable for the story.

Does your story have twists?
Can She Do It?!

Your character has faced complications through the middle of the story. Finally, at the climax, the main character must succeed or fail. Time is running out. The race is near the end. The girl is about to date another guy. The villain is starting the battle. One way or another, your complications have set up a situation where it’s now or never. However you get there, the climax will be strongest if it is truly the last chance. You lose tension if the reader believes the main character could fail this time, and simply try again tomorrow.


• Don’t rush the climax. Take the time to write the scene out in vivid detail, even if the action is happening fast. Think of how movies switch to slow motion, or use multiple shots of the same explosion, in order to give maximum impact to the climax. Use multiple senses and your main character’s thoughts and feelings to pull every bit of emotion out of the scene.

• To make the climax feel fast-paced, use mainly short sentences and short paragraphs. The reader’s eyes move more quickly down the page, giving a sense of breathless speed. (This is a useful technique for cliffhanger chapter endings as well.)

Next week I’ll share an excerpt on story endings. You can get the whole essay now, and a lot more, in You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and TeenagersOrder for Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

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