004: Don't Tell Us a Story

Don't Tell Us a Story

How to Write a Children's Book or Short Story for Children

June 16, 2016

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Listener Question of the Week

Janelle asks:

How do you incorporate social media without dating your book? In 10-15 years, Snapchat might not even exist, so how do you involve characters realistically in things that may change in the future?

Listen to the answer in the podcast!

Got a question about writing? The faculty of the Institute of Children’s Literature is waiting to answer your question! Ask it RIGHT HERE.

Write it Right: Don't Tell Us a Story

One of the toughest things for newer writers to learn to do is create a story. A story is a specific kind of thing. It isn’t a synopsis, like the work stories you tell over the dinner table. It isn’t a vignette, like the funny story you tell of your daughter’s vocabulary gaffe. Writers aren’t born knowing what a story really is. Stephen King once wrote about his lack of success selling one of his early story attempts. He couldn’t understand why it wouldn’t sell at the time. An editor finally told him that he was a talented writer but that the piece wasn’t a story. As Stephen King came to understand stories, he agreed.

So, what is a story? How do you know if the characters and circumstances you have created come together to make a story? 

First, a story is built from scenes. Scenes are units of time and space: very tight, very focused units. In a scene, we step into the world of the characters. We breathe their air. We see what they see. We experience all that they experience.

A scene cannot happen from a distance. In a scene, you are as close to the character as his own shadow. And this closeness is created with detail. A scene employs specific concrete details to prove to the reader that the world of the story exists. We know the real world exists because we are experiencing an incredible wealth of sensory detail all the time. How can we convince the reader that our made up world exists? By sharing some of that same detail. But detail for a story is purposeful: it’s specific and it serves to keep the reader’s attention where we want it riveted. Consider this scrap of scene:

Kara peeked around the corner. Nanny was in the white daybed, propped up slightly with patchwork pillows. Kara’s mom sat perched on the edge of the old bentwood rocker, as if poised to leap up. She held a faded copy of Winnie the Pooh and read aloud. Nanny spotted Kara and smiled.

“There you are, Jenny,” Nanny said. “Did you find any blackberries?”

Kara turned a puzzled smile toward her mom.

“Nanny’s spending the day in the past,” Mom said. “Jenny was her little sister.”

Here we see cozy cheery details that contrast sharply with the sadness of an old woman’s deteriorating mental condition. Simply telling the reader that Nanny was often confused would not hold the same quality of story that comes with an immediate scene.

A second major thing about a story is that it is built on action, change, and conflict. Action doesn’t have to mean swinging from vines over the Amazon, it can simply mean forward momentum. Stories move forward toward the ending. They don’t have a sense of stagnation but of each scene moving us along toward something. We may not be able to guess what is coming but we sense its approach. One way to see if your action is purposeful is to remove it. If you remove that moment, does it change everything? If not, if nothing is really different, then that bit of action wasn’t really part of the story. It was simply ornamentation added to the story.

Change in story happens in both circumstance and character. Your main character is rarely the same at story’s end as he was at the beginning. In a story, you place the people you invent into a constantly moving picture. Things change, people act, and others react. Your main character is at the center of it all. The main character isn’t simply swept along passively by the circumstances of the story but is a vital catalyst for the story change. Your main character is a person of action (at least on some level.)

At its simplest, this means a story plot can be boiled down to a series of events moving toward a specific resolution with your main character integral to each event. The energy that drives these events comes from conflict: conflict between what the main character wants/needs and something that interferes with that want/need. Thus you can sum up almost any story by looking at each action or reaction of your main character, by stringing them together, you will have a kind of synopsis of the story. Let’s look at how that works with a story virtually everyone knows. It’s not a magazine story but we’ll use it for its universal familiarity: Where the Wild Things Are.

Max [main character] feels rambunctious and his wild behavior and sassy mouth gets him sent to bed without supper. [Although Max goes to his room because of his mother’s act –the initial action that results in his exile is Max’s action.] Max doesn’t like being sent to his room so he imagines a jungle growing up around him. He travels though the jungle to the sea where he takes a trip to the land of the wild things. He tames the creatures and they make him a king. They enjoy him so much they want to keep him forever, but Max chooses to go home. When he returns home, he finds he chose wisely because the symbol of love, hot food, is waiting for him.

Max is not the only actor in the story but without Max, nothing else of the story would or could be the same. A different character would result in a different story because the main character drives the action.

So a quick two-step test for your own fiction would be

  • Am I stepping into the story and proving it real to my reader through scenes?
  • Are the scenes displaying the main character’s active push-back against the conflict that drives us toward the resolution?

If you can’t answer “YES” to both questions, you may need a little more story
in your story.

Click here to download the show notes with extra resources!

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