Wednesday, August 21st, 2019

Character + Problem = Story

Last week, we delivered the first draft of the next manuscript in our Very Fairy Princess series. This one is a leveled reader – still 32 pages, like a picture book, but with fewer and simpler words, more repetition, and a whole bunch of other ‘rules,’ such as no contractions, limited idioms, and so forth. The differences are based upon the fact that picture books are intended to be read aloud to, or with, a child, while leveled readers (also called Early Readers or I Can Read Books) are designed for the emerging reader to read to him- or herself. The challenge is that the story must still be compelling, with enough dramatic tension to make the reader want to turn the pages to find out “what happens next?” even while they’re busy decoding the words.

Today we received the expected feedback from our lovely editor: “Good first draft. We just need to work a little more on the dramatic tension…”

Writing a children’s book is sometimes very much like doing a math problem. We start with a concept or idea – in this case, it’s Christmas – and try to figure out what problem our hero is wrestling with. What does Gerry want, relative to Christmas – and what problem, or obstacle, does she encounter?

But it’s not enough to just establish a problem and then have the character solve it. The problem needs to escalate, to get compounded in some way as the story goes on so as to make the reader curious enough to keep turning the pages. Even when we are busy being distracted by details like whether a word has too many syllables or how to say something without using a contraction (or making sure the voice is consistent, or the rhyme is true, or any of the other myriad rules relative to writing children’s books) we still have to remember, first and foremost, to keep raising those stakes. After all, it’s a story.

Back to the drawing board – er, computer. But, like any math problem, I’ve come to trust that if we keep whittling away at it, the answer will reveal itself.


3 Responses to “Character + Problem = Story”
  1. Beth says:

    Do you have any idea how good it is to come here and read that two very experienced, knowledgeable and creative women who have written many successful books, still get that sort of feedback, and still need to work at their manuscripts?

    As you know, dramatic tension is one of the things I have to work hard at. I’ve just been looking at a couple of my adult fiction manuscripts and asking myself, “What’s the problem that the character needs to overcome? How is he/she going to grow?” So this post came at a very good time for me.

    Now I’m off to share this with the Hub Facebook Group!

  2. Priscilla Rogers says:

    I always enjoy the Emmasaries. Give much food for thought. Thanks Emma.

  3. Diane says:

    i never thought of writing a book as akin to a math problem. It is good to see these problems do come up from time to time for everyone. The early reader sounds a lot more complicated. Thanks for sharing with us your feedback.

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