Monday, June 22, 2015

Writing for Children: Developing an Idea

I’m releasing 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. I focus on sharing insight and advice on writing well. You’ll find straightforward information and exercises you can do on your own.

In this book, you will learn:
  •  Opportunities for writing for children: Explore the wide variety of age ranges, genres, and styles, in both books and magazines.
  • How to find ideas.
  • How to develop an idea into a story, article, or book.
  • The basics of character development, plot, setting, and theme – and some advanced elements.
  • How to edit your work and get critiques.
  • Where to learn more on various subjects.
To celebrate the release, over the next three weeks I’ll be sharing an excerpt from one chapter on “Developing an Idea.” Here’s the first segment:

Ideas can grow from anywhere
Developing an Idea

People often ask writers, “Where do you find your ideas?” But for a writer, the more important question is, “What do I do with my idea?”

If you have a “great idea,” but can’t seem to go anywhere with it, you probably have a premise rather than a complete story plan. A story should have three parts: beginning, middle, and end. This can be a bit confusing though. Doesn’t every story have a beginning, middle, and end? Technically, yes, but certain things should happen at those points.

1.  The beginning introduces a character with a problem or a goal.

2.  During the middle of the story, that character tries to solve the problem or reach the goal. He probably fails a few times and has to try something else. Or he may make progress through several steps along the way. He should not solve the problem on the first try, however.

3.  At the end, the main character solves the problem himself or reaches his goal through his own efforts.

Thinking is not action
There may be exceptions to these standard story rules, but it’s best to stick with the basics until you know and understand them. They are standard because they work!

Teachers working with beginning writers often see stories with no conflict. The story is more of a “slice of life.” Things may happen, possibly even sweet or funny things, but the story does not seem to have a clear beginning, middle, and end; it lacks structure. Without conflict, the story is not that interesting.

You can have two basic types of conflict. An external conflict is something in the physical world. It could be a problem with another person, such as a bully at school, an annoying sibling, a criminal, or a fantastical being such as a troll or demon. External conflict would also include problems such as needing to travel a long distance in bad weather.

Conflict can be external
The other type of conflict is internal. This could be anything from fear of the dark to selfishness. It’s a problem within the main character that she has to overcome or come to terms with.

An internal conflict is often expressed in an external way. If a child is afraid of the dark, we need to see that fear in action. If she’s selfish, we need to see how selfishness is causing her problems. Note that the problems need to affect the child, not simply the adults around her. If a parent is annoyed or frustrated by a child’s behavior, that’s the parent’s problem, not child’s. The child’s goal may be the opposite of the parent’s; the child may want to stay the same, while the parent wants the child to change.

For stories with internal conflict, the main character may or may not solve the external problem. The child who is afraid of the dark might get over that fear, or she might learn to live with it by keeping a flashlight by her bed. The child who is selfish and doesn’t want to share his toys might fail to achieve that goal. Instead, he might learn the benefits of sharing.

The child should stay in charge of the story
However the problem is resolved, remember that the child main character should drive the solution. No adults stepping in to solve the problem! In the case where a child and a parent have different goals, it won’t be satisfying to young readers if the parent “wins” by punishing the child. The child must see the benefit of changing and make a decision to do so.

Next week, I'll share another way of looking at story structure, using four parts: situation, complications, climax, and resolution. 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.