tl;dr: Storytelling tips on writing for adults absolutely apply when crafting stories for children. But in children’s fiction, the concept of genre may not be as useful as when trying to sell a screenplay to Hollywood.
Screenwriting is some of the most dense storytelling there is, along with short stories. There’s a lot more room in an adult novel for meandering, though this varies according to genre. What about modern children’s literature, though? If you read children’s books more than 50-odd years old, you’ll notice a lot more meandering, but modern children’s books are competing with the screen, and must attract the attention of an audience who is used to the tightness of screenwriting. So more than ever, writing for children demands a tight narrative also.
There are a lot of books on storytelling out there, and many of them are written with screenwriters in mind, that is, unless you want to get into the real academic stuff, usually with something like ‘narratology’ in the title.
I’ve read a number of screenwriting books although I have no plans to write a screenplay, and most of them went in one ear and out the other — they were of no actual use when it came down to crafting a story. The three-act theories to me feel intuitively wrong. Advice to make something big happen smack-bang in the middle of the story feels wrong also, because what has the page number got to do with anything?
One day I was looking for a certain book in the library and came across Anatomy Of Story by John Truby, which was beside the book I had looked up on the computer.
(Isn’t that often the way? That’s the main problem with the digitisation of library resources — often it’s the book right next to the one you thought you wanted that you actually want, and you can only learn this by visiting a bricks and mortar library.)
Turns out, script doctor John Truby, like me but more so, is no great fan of the three-act-structure advice dished out to beginning storytellers, precisely because it is advice only applicable to beginners. The truth is, storytelling is a lot more complex than that.
Using notes from a podcast interview Truby did for Curious About Screenwriting Network (because there’s too much in his book to bulletpoint here!), and Cheryl Klein’s book specifically aimed at creators of stories for children, Second Sight, I’m going to think about children’s stories alongside films for adults. This should be pretty easy, since stories for children aren’t all that different from genre fiction and mainstream film. Cheryl Klein agrees about the adult-equalled complexity when it comes to modern children literature:
If you study the history of children’s literature, it begins with morality tales. There’s a set of German children’s stories called Struwwelpeter about little Peter, who wouldn’t cut his fingernails or his hair, and Pauline, who burnt herself up by playing with matches. But as children’s fiction has evolved through the last hudnred and fifty years or so, it’s taken on the literary and psychological complexity that adult fiction has had for centuries, away from the moral and heavy-handed, toward the complex, the nuanced, the real.
First, John Truby on…
WHY MOST WRITERS FAIL
Truby says it’s not what most people think — most people think it’s ‘who you know’ over ‘what you know’ when it comes to selling stories. That’s not true in screenwriting (and not true in children’s literature, either). It’s not all about pitching, either. Truby says that the skill of pitching is overrated. Unless you have a track record as a professional nobody will take a pitch seriously. A script with a great story is the only thing that matters. Most writers fail because they don’t know the story techniques professionals use. Most writers have been using the wrong craft all along.
Screenwriting has been dominated by the idea of ‘three-act-structure’. This way of understanding story has its merits, especially for when you’re first starting to write. But this is the only training that most writers get, and is strictly for beginners. The only chance any writer has to succeed as a storyteller worldwide is to learn the techniques that professionals use.
TEN OF THE MOST IMPORTANT TECHNIQUES WRITERS MUST KNOW
1. PREMISE (often called a log line in screenwriting)
This is your story stated in one sentence. The average writer’s mistake: using a single track line to tell their story, focusing on the action line of the story, with emphasis on success of the hero’s goal. But when you emphasise the goal that much you strip the guts out of the story.
You must show the weakness and need of your hero, because this is the real source of the story.
The flaw will be ruining their lives, and the goal is playing out how they’re overcoming that weakness, so if you immediately go to the goal, there is no personal value for the hero, since we haven’t set up their weakness at the beginning. This means no personal value for the audience either. Audiences don’t want to see success; they want to see a hero’s personal transformation.
Use a double track line.
An action line: a brief description of what happens in the story
A character line: How the character changes. It’s crucial that you find that character change as early on as you can. This is the driving agent of the entire story. Here’s the trick: It’s hidden right in the premise line, and is the most important thing to learn from your premise. Explore your premise line, taking a great deal of time. Look for the weakness that is ruining the hero’s life at the beginning of the story and second, what does he/she learn at the end of the story to fix that weakness? Between those two points is your character change. Every step will work as long as you have these things. Plot comes out of character change.
LOG LINES/PREMISE IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Cheryl Klein suggests the writing of log lines in the revision process rather than before any writing has been done. John Truby is a big promoter of planning before the first page has been written.
Klein acknowledges that there are novels for adults in which the character does not change, and this seems to be the point. But:
narrative in children’s books, I’m going to say, have to show change, have to show growth, to be at all worthwhile.
Is this also true of film? It’s difficult to find a popular film in which a character refuses to change, though one of my favourites is Hud, based on a novel by Larry McMurtry (one of my favorite authors). I’m deducing that the modern, popular, box office hits Truby aims for, like children’s literature, also tend to require change. And even in the example of Hud, all of the supporting characters change, if only to emphasise how Hud himself does not.
Klein adds a caution about writing flawed characters:
you must resist at all costs the temptation to tell us readers your character’s flaws. Instead let us discover them as they unfold in her actions and come to influence her choices.
Both Truby and Klein are on the same page when it comes to the ‘double’ of writing your premise/log line/hook, or whatever you choose to call it. Klein advises to:
write down the central Action Plot of your book, in two lines at most…It’s hard for most writers, but if you can get that down, its’ going to prove useful to you in many ways…
In Second Sight, Klein talks about the ‘action plot’ in relation to the ’emotional plot’, and John Truby would advise to put both of these things in a premise/log line before going anywhere else with your story.
2. CHOOSE A MAIN CHARACTER WHO IS VERY POPULAR WITH AUDIENCES
Most writers don’t realise that out of thousands of potential main characters they can choose to star in their story, there are a very few that are very popular with audiences.
Make your hero OR your main opponent a ‘rogue charmer’ or ‘trickster’ character.
Trickster is one of the fundamental archetypes. Other examples are the magician, the wise old man, the lover etc. But of all the characters and character types, the trickster is the most popular with audiences worldwide. It goes back thousands of years:
- Odysseus/Ulysses – Ulysses is the Latin name for Odysseus, a hero in ancient Greek literature. Odysseus is renowned for his brilliance, guile, and versatility, and is hence known by the epithet Odysseus the Cunning (mētis, or “cunning intelligence”).
- Hermes – the Greek god. According to prominent folklorist Yeleazar Meletinsky, Hermes is a deified trickster.
- Merlin – from the Arthurian legend, perhaps based on 6th-century Druid living in southern Scotland. He causes trouble at his former wife’s wedding, for instance.
- Titanic — Leonardo DiCaprio plays a rogue charmer hero
- The Usual Suspects
- Pirates of the Caribbean — Johnny Depp plays a rogue charmer
- Men In Black
- Ferris Bueller — Bueller, the hero, tricks everyone so that he can have a relaxing day off school
- Silence of the Lambs — Hannibal Lecter is a trickster character who sets up a puzzle for Clarice to solve
- James Bond — a (good-looking) loveable rogue
- All of Eddie Murphy’s roles in his younger days, e.g. Beverly Hills Cop
How do you execute the trickster technique? Create a character who has extreme confidence. This person also has a way with words. Think con-man. (Con man is short for confidence man, which most people don’t realise.) The audience just wants to do whatever he suggests. Make him fun-loving. When he is the hero of the story, a big part of his function is to show other people how to enjoy life. Whatever goal you give your trickster, have him involved in a plan that involves deception. This is crucial. The more deception the better the story. He’s very likeable even when he’s being bad. He is a complete liar. We forgive this.
Or you can make the trickster the main opponent because of his ability to attack the hero, to give the hero a lot of trouble.
POPULAR CHARACTERS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
Cheryl Klein urges children’s authors to avoid ‘whiny protagonists without charm or truth’. The worst thing you can do is have a main character sitting around contemplating things. She sees a lot of scripts start like this when the character is about to move to a new place, so watch out for that especially if you’re writing one of those kinds of stories.
Cheryl Klein clarifies that even in children’s literature, a character does not have to be likeable, which makes kidlit not so different from stories for adults:
The first Rule of Engagement is that the narrative voice is that of a person the reader is interested in. Note I’m not saying necessarily that it’s a person the reader likes, or a morally admirable person…the narrative voice should belong to someone the reader is intrigued by and enjoys listening to.
Klein writes that children’s lit voices must have ‘authority’ — ‘a sense that the writer knows where he is going and what she is doing; the feeling that the reader is in good hands.’ She says that authority comes from three things:
- specificity of language
- not wasting the reader’s time
(Of course, the narrator is not necessarily a character in the story, but many modern children’s stories star a storyteller as character, perhaps as a backlash against overly didactic unseen adult narrators of yesteryear.)
In Children’s Literature, instead of the ‘rogue charmers’ per se, we have child protagonists who get into trouble despite their best intentions, and who always maintain a positive attitude against all odds.
- Anne Shirley — Anne is a completely unrealistic character in that a child who’d been through such hardship would probably be suffering from PTSD and be irredeemably damaged by the time she reached Marilla and Matthew, but the fictional character is loveable because she tries her hardest to please, and gets into trouble through no real fault of her own.
- Ramona Quimby — Likewise, Ramona is always getting into trouble despite her best intentions.
- Amelia Bedelia — overcomes minor misunderstandings while maintaining her dignity and cheerful attitude
Bravery, confidence and self-motivation are important for child protagonists as they are for the ‘con-man’ archetype described by Truby:
- Little Bear — illustrated by Maurice Sendak is sweet and plucky, friendly and adventurous
- Nate Wright (a.k.a. Big Nate) — aspiring cartoonist and prankster, exhibits great confidence and creativity
Cheryl Klein doesn’t use the terms ‘rogue charmers’ and ‘tricksters’; instead, she has another two main categories of personalities who crop up time and again as main characters in children’s stories:
Characters who show positive energy, meaning they approach life optimistically
- Anne Shirley, who in real life would be a severely damaged child
- Billy in Where The Red Fern Grows, who really wants a dog and works tirelessly until he’s saved enough to get one
Characters with interesting negative energy, who approach life pessimistically, but are interesting or funny about it
- Katniss Everdeen, since she doesn’t have much hope for the future at the beginning of the story
- nor does Harry Potter
- Bella Swan is a bit of a Debbie Downer, but that doesn’t stop her from being interesting. She still has drive (except when she falls into depression — which the reader quickly skips over because the pages are blank except that they have the words for months on them) by seeking out the company of certain boys in a love triangle.
- The Wimpy Kid has a good, pessimistic handle on his situation in life, and this series is an example of a funny kid with interesting pessimistic energy.
Pippi Longstocking is an interesting example of a character who is very popular in Sweden and elsewhere. Maria Nikolajeva argues in her book From Mythic to Linear that Pippi is not a true main character, because she doesn’t change over the course of the novel, nor is she the focalising character. Rather, she is a ‘helper’ character, a source of trouble and mischief, and a mythical Progenitrix (mother earth) character who is generous with food because she has a never-ending supply.
The point here is that the main character is not always the title character. Nikolajeva argues that Peter Pan isn’t the main character either, since he doesn’t change and the audience doesn’t really identify with him.
So whatever is true of main characters is true — but main characters aren’t necessarily the ones we think they are, so different rules can apply.
Pippi Longstocking is certainly a ‘carnivaleque’ character, however, which is the modern kid-lit equivalent of the traditional Trickster character.
Related note: Both Klein and Truby continually emphasise that plot comes from character.
3. HIGH CONCEPT STORIES MUST BE EXTENDED IN ORDER TO WORK
Hollywood is based on the high concept premise. This means a story idea with a fun and marketable twist in it. Some kind of story flip that’s very fun or intriguing for the audience. The average writer’s mistake is knowing that Hollywood loves high concept stories, but in fact most high concept films are total failures at the box office. The reason: One big flaw in high concept stories. High concept only gives you two or three great scenes. These are the scenes where that story flip occurs. That would be great if a movie was only two or three scenes, but it’s 50-70 scenes, so if you have three great scenes you’re 67 scenes shy of a great script.
Create a group of opponents who each approach the hero’s central moral problem in a different way.
The best example in film is Tootsie. Obviously Tootsie has a great high concept premise: An actor dresses up as a woman to get work only to fall in love with one of the actresses on the show. This is an example of a switch comedy. There are hundreds of those. Most of them fail at the box office, but Tootsie is not the normal switch comedy. It’s very funny right at the flip point where Hoffman’s character dresses as a woman, all very funny. But the difference is, the writers went beyond the central question: What is your hero’s central moral problem in this story?
In Tootsie the moral problem is how a man treats a woman in a romance. If you look at all the different characters in this story, every opponent and ally represents a different approach either to how a man treats a woman, or how a woman allows herself to be treated by a man. Not only that, Hoffman himself acts completely differently to women when he’s dressed as a woman, embodying two different ways of being.
The focus of all the characters is on that core moral issue. It’s all about variation on theme. Unite and contrast all of your characters. This is the mark of great writing, and it means all of the characters are necessary.
HIGH CONCEPT IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Klein uses the word ‘hooks’: things that set the book apart from what has come before in the world of children’s books. Instead of log lines, children’s books have flap copy as their main marketing grab:
‘I usually write flap copy by making a list of all the hooks in the book, then weaving those into a readable and interesting whole.’
Inspired by Jay Asher, Chuck Sambuchino compiles a list of high concept loglines in young adult novels at Writer’s Digest. (So yes, they’re also called ‘log lines’ when we’re talking about children’s books.)
Lots of middle grade novels have very high concepts these days.
Of the children’s books you’ve read lately, which have the best high concept loglines? Did any of them disappoint? Which authors best followed through? Did they follow John Truby’s guidelines?
4. FIND THE BEST 2-3 GENRES TO TELL YOUR STORY
Genre is a ‘story subsystem’.
The average writer uses the wrong genre to develop a story idea. This is disastrous. The entertainment business worldwide is in the business of buying genres. Not writers, actors, directors. Genres are simply story forms, like action/love/thriller. Each of these forms has anywhere from eight to ten special story beats in them. (Story beats = story events, plot beats.) Each of these beats must be in the story otherwise it’s not that genre. The single biggest decision you make is: What genre am I going to use for this idea?
Most people don’t know that 99% of scripts fail at the premise line. Why? Not because it’s not a good idea, but because the writer didn’t know the right genres to use to go from a one line premise to a two hour script. Genres are the vehicle that takes us there. Each genre will take a story in a radically different direction, so the result of choosing the wrong genre means you trash a lot of great ideas.
Understand what the 12 most important genres are.
- myth – This is the foundation genre that deals with archetypal characters and life moments, which are recognizable worldwide regardless of culture or nationality.
- action – in film, both myth and action dominate in the summer months. The hero has a clear goal and goes after it with great speed and relentless energy.
- traveling angel
- fantasy – is about an individual discovering the hidden possibilities of life, of society opening up.
- horror – is about humans in decline, reduced to animals or machines by an attack of the inhuman.
- love story – the biggest reason Love is so tricky is that the hero’s desire and opponent are the same person. No other genre has this peculiar structural element. The hero wants the lover, but the lover is also the first and main opponent.
- masterpiece (technically is not a true genre — this refers to advanced screenwriting that in many ways goes beyond genre)
- true story and memoir– a surprisingly difficult genre to do well. People think the events are already there for you. What they don’t realise is that even if it’s a true story it has to hit the major beats to be a good story. True stories do not have a natural dramatic build. We have to create those building steps. You’re highly restricted by the true events, though, which makes it so difficult.
- science fiction – is about human evolution on the grandest scale, literally the universal epic.
- detective – detective, crime and thriller are each three very different forms and structures. Detective stories are about searching for the truth. Reveals normally happen in reverse chronological order.
- crime – places less emphasis on detecting the criminal and more on the cat-and-mouse beats of catching him.
- thriller – Like Detective, Thriller involves detection, but there are typically far fewer suspects, and emphasis shifts to the detective being an average person who enters extreme danger.
TV genres also have TV drama and sitcom. TV drama itself breaks into those 12 genres.
Most hit films are not a single genre. Not a single one in the last 15 years, in fact. They’re all a combo of 2-4 genres.
The first step when trying to find the right genre for your story is look for 2 or 3 genres to use, not just one.
Second, find the genres that are inherent to the story idea.
Each genre has a predetermined hero. You just provide the details, but the type is already figured out. (Westerns require cowboys. Detective stories require detective heroes.) Another story element, the desire line, has already been figured out. Same with opponents, which are predetermined. Each one asks a key question, and that question must be answered by the end of the story. Each one emphasises different structure steps. (Truby’s book outlines 22 of them.) Each genre gives the audience a recipe for successful living.
The most useful thing for telling you what the right genre is for this idea is the desire line. (The goal of the character)
- If the goal is to find the truth, it’s a detective story.
- If the goal is to catch a criminal, it’s a crime story.
- If the goal is to find a lover, it’s a love story.
- Horror story, to defeat a monster.
- Myth, to go on a journey ultimately leading to oneself.
Simply figure out what our goal is in the story, then see which genre will best allow you to express that goal for the hero.
BLENDING GENRE IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
In Written For Children, John Rowe Townsend writes of a book by Katherine Paterson:
In Park’s Quest (1988) Katherine Paterson seems to me to fail — as other writers have done — by unwisely seeking to embody ancient and powerful legend in a contemporary story that cannot sustain it.
This suggests that children’s writers are indeed blending genres — and like screenwriters, they are sometimes failing at it, since this is very hard to do.
In Children’s Literature, the established genres are a little different, but I’m pretty sure that’s to aid with marketing rather than to do with anything inherent in the types of stories available to children.
Truby does say in his book that it’s possible to create a great story without using any genre at all, and it seems there is more leeway in children’s books (probably because of smaller amounts of money involved) for stories to break out of established genre conventions.
Here is a list of children’s genre. In fact, one might call ‘non-fiction’ a category before calling it a ‘genre’. Not surprisingly, horror is not included in the list for children, though you might argue that the Goosebumps series is the childhood equivalent of horror, though it will have to be lumped into Fantasy. This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen could be described as a crime story, though it’s marketed as a picturebook for young children. Fantasy is labeled ‘modern fantasy’ (perhaps to distinguish it from ancient fantasy types such as fairytales).
- Contemporary Realistic Fiction – The characters are made up, but their actions and feelings are similar to those of people we could know. These stories often take place in the present time and portray attitudes and problems of contemporary people.
- Historical Fiction – set in an historical time period which blends authentic historical settings and facts with imaginary characters and plot.
- Nonfiction or Information Book
- Traditional Literature – myth, folktale, fairytale, fables, religious stories and so on. There are no official authors.
- Modern Fantasy – the events, settings, or the characters are outside the realm of possibility. The author must convince the reader to suspend disbelief by creating an internally logical and consistent world. Modern fantasy itself breaks down into further subcategories such as:
- the modern fairytale (by a known author)
- animal fantasy, personified toys and objects
- quest stories and high fantasy
- time travel
- stories about miniature worlds and people
- Science Fiction/Futuristic Fiction – a type of imaginative literature in which the author convinces us that something unusual could happen because the story is grounded in scientific principles or technical possibility
Then there are picture books, which are not a genre but a format, and which themselves fit into all of the genres above, though for marketing purposes, they tend to be broken down according to function (counting, ABC) and age-group (for toddlers, for first graders and so on).
As an editor, Klein is looking for ‘what is new or feels new’. In order to do that, I suspect Truby’s advice to write by blending 2 or 3 genres rather than sticking to one is the only way a modern author can manage something that ‘feels new’.
The Case For A More Useful List Of Genres In Children’s Literature
I’m left wondering if the above list of children’s book genres are more useful to marketers than they are to writers at the story-crafting stage, who may well be better off sticking to a blend of genres from both Truby’s list of film genre, and some of the items off the second list. I wonder this because Truby talks a lot about ‘myth’, and considers that a genre in its own right. It would be a mistake to ignore this concept, since Truby marks Harry Potter out as a classic myth story, and we all know how successful those books have been…
Cheryl Klein breaks down various different story types for writers, though doesn’t use the word ‘myth’. She does note the link between many modern children’s stories and the Bible. She writes of
the time-honored story of the outsider who doesn’t fit in. Outsider stories usually follow one of two plot structures. The first plot structure is “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Someone who is different from the community is scorned, reviled, made an outsider: “They wouldn’t let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.” But the outsider sticks to whatever it is that makes him different–sometimes out of love, often because he has no choice–and eventually that difference ends up saving the entire community. … This is also a Christ story.
Klein quotes Richard Peck, who seems to be speaking about Truby’s mythic story of birth, death and rebirth when he said:
A young adult novel ends not with happily ever after, but at a new beginning, with the sense of a lot of life left to be lived.
Then there’s the ‘reverse of Rudolph’, which Klein describes as the Ugly Duckling story:
Here the outsider is again scorned, reviled, tormented inside and out. But rather than saving his community, he leaves it, to find another group where he truly belongs, where they understand him and appreciate his talents. This is also the Cinderella story, where inner worth is rewarded despite an unattractive outward appearance–and then that inner worth gets revealed in exterior beauty as well.
Like Truby, Klein points out that while there are many directions protagonists could take in children’s stories — for example, the character could start a war against the community or just decide to fit in — these are not the stories that stick around. So there seem to be certain storytelling rules about what child characters can and can’t do, as there are in stories for adults. It is expected that a child who doesn’t fit in is either going to be the star of a Rudolph story or of an Ugly Duckling story.
Other rules of children’s lit genre are best learned through copious amounts of reading. The ‘rules’ of YA, as explained by Klein
- YA novels must have a protagonist who is at an adolescent stage of life
- ‘Drive’ must come from the child character — no fixing of problems by adult intervention, the kidlit version of deus ex machina
- Things are required to happen in children’s books — events have to have meaning, whereas adults understand from their stories that sometimes things just happen for no good reason
- Children’s stories must be ‘narrated with relative immediacy to that teenage perspective’, which cuts out stories about childhood written after many years of reflection by older narrators, and which require an adult perspective to fully understand (though Klein has a few exceptions in her book)
- A children’s book must end with a sense of hope
On the topic of different genres, Klein writes:
Every book must do just two things: One, fulfill the reader’s expectations for it given its provenance and genre. A literary novel has to have beautiful writing. A mystery has to have a crime, clues, and a satisfying answer. A romance has to have a romantic relationship. A Dav Pilkey book has to have great flying toilets.
(And two: Give pleasure to a reader…don’t stress yourself out about depth.)
She writes that even the style of your prose must match your genre:
Your style should serve the points of your book. If you main point is to entertain, you want to be easy to follow. To thrill, you want to be tight and fast. To tell the story of a simple country girl, you may want simple country language.
As for picturebooks, these are a bit different from books for older children, not least because they have to be able to be read at least 50 times, and actually have a ‘dual audience’, because they’ll be read by both a toddler and a caregiver. The rules of the picturebook ‘genre’, as described by Klein:
- Unlike YA, picturebooks can have a protagonist of any age
- A character definitely learns something and this change is always for the better (at least in picture books for young children, though some picture books exist for older readers, as illustrated short stories, like our own Midnight Feast, which pretty much breaks every rule)
- Like Truby, Klein likes to avoid traditional advice about stories needing ‘beginning middles and ends’ since this isn’t particularly helpful; she calls the picturebook equivalent of this ‘problem, process and solution’.
- Picturebooks can only have ONE problem in them. So there is no room for subplot (which often happens in the art instead, like the grasshopper and spider in the Mercer Meyer Little Critter series). Note that where the writer and illustrator work separately, the illustrator generally determines the subplot, not the writer.
- Picturebooks fall into two main categories:
- Now books — all of their story action takes place in the present moment and they’re often designed to do something besides give pleasure through storytelling. For instance, they will celebrate or describe something. (Richard Scarry’s Look books, Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyer/Marla Frazee, Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop by Chris Raschka). The characters don’t change in these books.
- Story books — Any book that focuses on character we follow and are interested in, and then shows the solution to his or her problem or captures his or her experience, and this is what we’re talking about when we talk about these rules of storytelling.
Klein starts with a lower level classification of ‘types of children’s stories’, which are not genres as such (except maybe mystery), but useful in this discussion nonetheless:
- Conflict — characters fight over something
- Mystery — the main character needs to find something out
- Lack — the main character is missing something
5. THE GOAL MUST BE STRONG ENOUGH TO SUSTAIN THE ENTIRE LENGTH OF THE STORY
Average writers make three mistakes with the plot/spine of the story:
- There’s no clear goal for the hero
- The writer has a goal but it can be accomplished too quickly or easily, failing to sustain a two hour script
- There’s a goal but doesn’t require enough action steps to accomplish it.
A strong goal must drive not only the overall story but each individual scene.
The goal of each scene is the spine of each scene.
- Little Miss Sunshine: a girl wants to win the pageant
- L.A. Confidential: to solve the Night Owl murder case
- Four Weddings and a Funeral: Charles wants Carrie
When you write your story, start with a goal. It’s one of the easiest things to get, but more importantly, when you get the goal for your hero, you can figure out all the other more complicated steps from that.
When you do your rewrite, start by checking the goal. Make sure the goal is as intense as possible, and that the goal extends all the way to the end of the story.
One story, one desire line. Don’t give the hero a second goal just because your story has ended too soon. This means you’re tacking one story onto the end, and won’t fool the audience.
The hero either accomplishes it or fails to accomplish it right at the end.
BTW, a character often discusses what they want with another character. We don’t want it to be too on the nose, but it happens a lot, at least in movies.
- Jaws: the guard tells another character that he will shut down the beach, explaining to the audience that the goal is to keep the public safe. Going after the shark is only a part of protecting people. (His weakness is ‘fear of water’.)
SUSTAINING THE GOALS OF HEROES IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Both Truby and Klein emphasise that the story is over once the emotional problem is resolved, which is Klein’s way of saying exactly the same thing: That the goal must last the entire length of the story.
Klein says that average writers end up with either a lack of subplot or too many subplots. Weaving in with what Truby says about storytelling, too many subplots can come about if there is more than one ‘desire line’, or if the main character’s main goal shifts over the course of the story (in which case what you really have is two stories). Another fix would be to follow Truby’s advice to blend 2 or 3 genres together, include surprise, make use of scams and put your character in jeopardy.
As in film, the goals of your characters will depend on which genres your story blends. For example, the goal of the main character in a fantasy is ‘to explore an imaginary world’.
- Eleanor and Park: to fit in and find love (with each other). This is an example of a story in which the characters don’t necessarily get what they want. Interestingly, Eleanor and Park follows John Truby’s description of the love story in film, in that the hero’s desire and opponent are the same person (at least at the beginning of the story, in which Eleanor and Park do not want to sit next to each other on the bus).
Then there are other children’s stories such as Claude Goes To The Country by Alex T. Smith, in which a dog is bored at home while his owners are away at work, so he bumbles out of the house with the main goal of ‘avoiding boredom’, only to find himself in one hilarious situation after another. However, each separate scene in this book has its own mini goal. When Claude the dog is asked to wash the pigs, his goal is to do the best possible job of washing the pigs, and ends up giving them a luxurious spa experience.
Klein writes of ‘action’ which seems closely related to Truby’s emphasis on ‘goals’; in order to have action, characters must first be spurred to act.
Your main character must do things, either in response to the circumstances thrust upon him or to drive the action himself. That’s why he deserves to be your main character.
Klein’s advice is to break your plot strands down to an ‘action plot’ and an ’emotional plot’, but the words ‘plot’ here seem to more closely align with Truby’s terms ‘story beats’ and ‘desire lines’. The action plot is what changes for the character externally (maybe a new home etc.) and the emotional plot concerns how the character changes.
Both Truby and Klein emphasise that there’s a difference between what a fictional character wants out of life and what they want out of this particular story. The writer needs to know both of these things, but the second part of this desire is important when crafting this particular story. Truby’s example is Saving Private Ryan — what does the main character want out of life? To go home from war safely. But what does he want in this story? To save Private Ryan, as the title suggests. To this end, Klein’s advice goes like this (emphasis mine):
How would your protagonist define his or her primary identity in life? It will likely be different in different circumstances, of course, but you should be able to pick out one key role that reflects the primary action or relationship of your character pursues in this book.
in other words, both Klein and Truby require double desire lines, and the smaller, more immediate one will form the goal and therefore the storyline of this particular story.
if the character’s desires are neither fulfilled nor frustrated nor changed in the course of the book–you’ll need to have a good reason for that, or else you’ll have a dissatisfied reader on your hands.
This matches up with Truby’s advice to either give your character what she wants, or don’t, but the story ain’t over until either or has happened.
An extra problem common in children’s books is that often the main character isn’t able to do anything about getting over a particular problem, due to lack of autonomy/freedom/simply by being a kid. If your MC can’t do anything about their circumstance, you have a problem with your story. In this case, Klein advises several fixes:
- Show the character acting out against the situation. If the kid can’t solve the big problem, have them get into trouble over something else.
- Give the character another desire where she CAN take action. This ties into Truby’s advice below, about giving a character more than one desire line, though it’s hard to do well. Klein advises to put it in a subplot — better still, see if it can be the main plot. (See Because of Winn-Dixie for a good example of how to do this.)
6. PLOT = SURPRISE. THE MORE SURPRISES, THE FLESHIER THE PLOT.
The crucial first step to figuring out a great plot.
The average writer underestimates how difficult plot is. most know the importance of
- a strong main character
- tight, lean dialogue
But when it comes to plot, they think I’ll figure it out as I go. Plot has more techniques that go into it than any of the major writing skills combined.
Top writers know plot techniques.
Plot is not ‘what happens next’. It makes sense that writers would think this, because that’s really how we describe ‘story’ but if you think that way you won’t create a good plot. Instead you get a script with a massive amount of padding. In most 120pp scripts there is no more than 50pp of story, across the board.
True plot comes from a choreography between the hero and all of the opponents. The details of plot, the specifics of plot, come from how all the various opponents attack your hero. All of the opponents. Not just the main ones.
When you’re figuring out your plot, concentrate on the opponent.
Conventional wisdom says hero drives the story, but that’s not how you figure out how the plot. That’s the end-point of a good plot. The way you create that plot in the first place is you start with the opponent, because this is the character who provides all the surprises, and plot comes from surprise.
PLOT AND SURPRISE IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Klein also advises surprise. She suggests a kind of inversion or subversion:
Be surprising. If you feel yourself writing something that’s been written before–the plucky fantasy heroine battling the evil overload, the kid grieving for her dead grandmother–think of all the ways you can reverse that, and try something else instead. Maybe the heroine is shy. Maybe the overlord is her father (though that’s in Star Wars).
You can even create surprise in other ways, such as when creating a character:
Don’t be afraid to have two qualities [in your main character] that are COMPLETELY CONTRADICTORY. The most interesting characters usually are.
Or when contrasting against what’s come before:
One easy way to make interesting, new characters is to change one of the Action qualities…to something you wouldn’t expect in a novel of its kind. For instance, instead of a boy who wants a dog, change his Desire so he wants a cat instead — or a kangaroo, or an ostrich. Instead of a girl who hates moving because she’s leaving all her friends behind, change her Attitude so that she’s really, really excited to get out of town.
7. AUDIENCES LOVE TO BE FOOLED, SO MAKE USE OF PLANS AND SCAMS TO EXTEND YOUR PLOT
The average writer doesn’t realise one of the first keys to plot is your hero’s plan.
Plan is a set of guidelines the hero is going to use to beat the opponent and reach the goal.
In really good films, this plan is often a scam. A scam is simply a plan that involves deception.
A scam isn’t just a single trick that the hero plays on the opponent. A scam is actually a campaign of trickery. It’s a complex sequence of tricks that surprises not only the opposition, it surprises the audience.
When you use a scam, it gives you more plot. A scam involves deception. The scam ties in with the trickster character, in turn tying in with the surprises you get from your opponent. All of these provide a substantial plot. Plot is the area where most writers are weakest.
Films that use this scam are varied. Some are serious films:
- The Dark Knight
- The Godfather
- The Bourne Ultimatum
- Die Hard
- The Usual Suspects
But scam is even more important in comedy:
- Wedding Crashers
- Beverly Hills Cop
The main characters in Orphan Black and The Killing regularly use scams to achieve their goals, by dressing up, telling lies — but the audience knows that it’s all to a worthy end. Skylar uses a scam to get Ted out of trouble, which many (sexist?) viewers interpret as an ‘unworthy cause’, since she’s married to Walt, and therefore should be loyal only to Walt.
SCAMS AND PLANS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Have you ever found yourself watching a film or reading a book thinking, ‘If only that character told the truth this whole story wouldn’t exist’? If you’ve thought that, you’ve been pulled out of the story, so the writers haven’t done a very good job of building it, but at the same time, you’ve happened upon something that’s nevertheless necessary for stories to work. Take a look at your favourite children’s characters and you’ll probably uncover some scam/deception that Truby is talking about:
- Ramona Quimby hides her report card because her older sister Beezus’s is always perfect, showing her own school achievements up.
- Jesse Aarons in The Bridge To Terabithia really wants to go with his music teacher to the museum, so when his mother is half asleep when he asks permission to go, he isn’t really concerned that she may not have even heard him.
- Mildred Hubble from The Worst Witch series is constantly foiled in the second book in the series by a newcomer (Enid) who Mildred is supposed to be in charge of. This newcomer is full of mischief, which is interesting because she doesn’t really mean to cause trouble for Mildred, she is simply blundering her way through the strict rules of the boarding school for witches, breaking lots of rules.
- The Pokey Little Puppy — Like Peter Rabbit, this is the character children fall in love with, even though he is doing exactly as his mother tells him not to. Perhaps we like these animals so much because they are justly punished.
- Room On The Broom — through their own creativity, all of the passengers of the broom display great team work and fool the baddie to save the benevolent witch.
- The Wee Wishy Woman of Nickety Nackety Noo-noo-noo by Joy Cowley saves her own bacon by fooling her captor into eating a stew made of glue. This is a classic fairytale ending — the clever trickster character gets away, similar to tales such as Hansel and Gretel, who fool the wicked witch by sticking out a chicken bone instead of a finger, and then by feigning ignorance about how to climb into an oven.
- Holden Caulfield from Catcher In The Rye might be called the father of Ferris Bueller, taking off from school and doing his own thing.
- Eleanor and Park each deceive themselves about how much they like each other, and then when they realise this, they must deceive certain adults in their lives
- The Fish in This Is Not My Hat has already stolen the hat at the beginning of the picturebook, which shows initiative.
- The Story Of The Little Mole Who Knew It Was None Of His Business is basically a revenge story in which a mole gets his own back by shitting on someone else.
- Wolf Comes To Town is all about a wicked wolf who dresses up as respectable people in order to do very bad things. (Truby calls these plots ‘switch stories’.) This particular form of deception fails to go unpunished, though, which may explain why this children’s picturebook went out of print.
- Artemis Fowl behaves badly, stealing fairy gold, but is undeniably attractive because he goes after what he wants even if it’s illegal. He’s also very proud of himself.
In children’s literature, baddies who plot evil are often foiled by a child or a childlike creature who saves the day. As in films for adults, some of these plots are serious and some are comical:
- The entire Famous Five and Secret Seven series, in which groups of children are outwitting smalltime crooks
- Walter the Farting Dog saves his entire family from robbers by poisoning the air with a big fart
Klein’s specific words are to ‘have mysteries’, which is a more endearing way of including ‘scams’ when it comes to likeable child protagonists. Using the example of The Golden Compass:
Lyra and her daemon don’t want to be seen–why? They’re someplace grand enoiugh that it has a whole hall–where? And most especially: What’s a daemon? You can bet I’m going to read until I find out. (To be honest, these questions don’t exactly count as mysteries within the larger book, since the reader learns the answer to all of them within the first chapter. But they function as mysteries right here, since they leave a space that makes the reader want to read more and fill it up.
In children’s literature, think in terms of ‘secrets’ rather than ‘scams’.
Klein advises that child protagonists should have secrets:
Let the reader know there’s a secret, and then don’t tell them what it is until it absolutely serves your purpose to do so. …It could be a secret the narrator knows and is keeping from the reader…Or it could be a secret the characters have to find out.
Klein points out that the genre of mystery novels require secrets and offers the example of Lemony Snicket, an example of a narrator who has a secret but refuses to tell the reader what it is.
Other child(like) characters with secrets:
- Claude the dog goes off on his adventures when his owners are at work, so they never know what he’s been up to.
- The Secret Seven were called ‘secret’ because they never told their parents (or other children outside the club) exactly what went down in their crime-busting world.
- The storyteller character of Looking For Alaska by John Green keeps a secret from the reader and the structure of the book lets the reader know that we are counting down to a big reveal.
- Billy in Where The Red Fern Grows has a secret — he sneaks off to buy a puppy after saving up a lot of pocket money, even though his family needs it
Are secrets more common in chapter books (and up) than in picture books? It seems so, since it’s harder to find examples of picture book characters who keep secrets. Since toddlers and young children are completely reliant upon their caregivers, the degree to which child protagonists keep secrets will depend on the age of the ideal reader, with the deepest darkest secrets being kept by YA protagonists.
Klein offers a caution about secrets when crafting the plot:
The answer to the secret has to have a significance equal to the effort the reader has invested in it.
She also makes a distinction between general (plot?) mysteries and ’emotional mysteries’, in which, say, a girl doesn’t know why other girls aren’t talking to her on her first day back at school after the summer holidays. Getting back to what Truby says about genre, and the way different genres have certain requirements, it may be the case that ’emotional mysteries’ are a requirement of realistic YA, especially in that which is marketed to girls.
8. PUT YOUR CHARACTER IN JEOPARDY
This technique is helpful for punching out the middle of the script.
The average writer has a sagging middle.
- When writers rely strictly on three act structure you’re left with a big problem in the middle. What happens in the middle must tie together the opening and the end, but without a precise map writers can’t make that connection.
- Writers don’t construct the plot properly
Put your hero in early and constant danger. Danger can be ‘danger of being found out’, of ‘being captured’, ‘being killed’. Some kind of severe jeopardy.
Three things determine the success of the middle of a hit film: pressure, pressure, pressure. Put pressure on, never let up. Maintain and build it. Release happens at the end.
Increase the number of opponents. This allows you to increase the rate of attack against the hero.
Or, try to create a hierarchy for our opposition.
There’s an organisation to the opposition, one main opponent at the top, two other opponents underneath that opponent, and so on. When there’s a hierarchy you get a coordinated attack, typically hidden under the surface, putting more pressure on the hero.
Be sure to keep the web of hierarchies hidden from the reader.
PERILOUS SITUATIONS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Klein advises to ‘consider counterpoint’ when creating opponents. Also, in the editing process (or in the planning process if you follow Truby’s advice to plot rather than pants it), separate characters can be merged into single characters if they happen to serve the same function in the story:
Think through all the relationships in the novel and what each one is doing for your main character–what each one teaches him, how they force him or her to change and grow. Do any of the functions the relationships serve duplicate each other–e.g., the main character’s best friend teaches her to look beyond surfaces, and so does her art teacher? Maybe you don’t need both of these characters.
A trick used by most writers of stories for children is to create what Klein calls ‘reverse characterization’. Using Harry Potter as an example she writes:
The Dursleys are so awful that you feel sympathy for and an interest in Harry without him having to do a thing…The enemy of any character the reader dislikes is automatically the reader’s friend.
I’ve noticed that this ‘reverse characterization’ technique is a little safer when writing for children than when writing for adults, because adults have learnt not to take the world at face value, and that the delineation between ‘goodies and baddies’ is never as clearcut as it first appears, both in fiction and in real life, since almost every baddie considers himself the goodie.
The general way of creating character empathy is what Klein calls ‘simple positive characterization’.
[Harry Potter] is kind to a snake, of all creatures, and puts himself inside of its head rather than being self-centred like Dudley and demanding things of it.
Lois McMaster Bujold
whose books are huge fun, says she thinks of the absolute worst possible thing she can do to her characters, and then does it to them. The same for the wonderful Patrick O’Brian.
9. PUT THE HERO INTO A DIFFICULT PREDICAMENT
This is yet another way to increase pressure on the hero in the middle of the story.
Predicament is a technical term that applies to writing rather than a general one.
Give the hero two contradictory goals so that if the hero goes after goal one, it makes it almost impossible to reach goal two. If he goes after goal two, it makes it almost impossible to reach goal one.
Caution: Avoid two goals in the story. That gives the story two spines and the story falls apart, but that’s not what we’re doing here, because we’re not creating two separate desire lines. We’re actually creating a push-pull effect along a single line.
The Bourne Ultimatum — the MC has two contradictory desires, to seek and to avoid. He wants to find out who at the CIA has done stuff to him, but he has to avoid those people because they’re trying to kill him.
Even when using this technique always make one goal the primary desire. In the case above, ultimately the primary desire is to seek, even though it could mean his death.
DIFFICULT PREDICAMENTS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Cheryl Klein also writes on the topic of multiple main character goals, using the term ‘values’ to describe ‘life goals’.
What the character wants reveals quite a bit about them — their philosophy of life, the scope of their imagination, where they are in their lives….Many (maybe all) interesting characters want more than one thing.
Klein uses The Hunger Games as an example:
Katniss wants to survive the Hunger Games but she also wants to rebel against the Capitol. This double desire is a tremendously effective device not only because it’s realistic–don’t we all want more than one thing?–but because it instantly creates internal conflict when the character has to choose to pursue one desire above the other, or choose between two competing values, or choose among the people who represent those values and desires to him. Of course, desire quite often creates external conflict as well, when one character’s desires clas with another character’s
But notice that Katniss’s goals divide into ‘life goal’ and ‘goal for this story’, and sounds a lot like Truby’s Saving Private Ryan example. Advice from Truby to stick to one immediate goal for each story remains sound.
10. CHOOSE ONE OF THE GENRES TO BE THE PRIMARY GENRE
A Hollywood script must have more than one genre. It’s impossible to write a Hollywood movie without mixing genres. Two for the price of one, or give the audience two, three or four genres for the price of one.
- Titanic — massively successful, is a combination of love story, disaster film and myth.
- The Dark Knight — crime, myth, fantasy
- Harry Potter — major genre mash ups in this series — fantasy, myth, horror, coming of age drama
- Pirates of the Caribbean — action, fantasy, horror, myth
- Little Miss Sunshine — myth, comedy (there are no simple comedies anymore)
Most writers don’t know that you need a combination of genres in your script to really have a good chance to sell it. Those who do know this don’t know how to combine the genres properly. There are a number of techniques that go into mixing genres properly. If you don’t know how to mix the genres properly you end up with a story mess.
Average writers end up with too many heroes, too many opponents, too many themes, too many story beats.
single desire line
the main beats that must be in your script
Add the other story elements where they fit, and only where they fit.
If there are story beats that support the primary story genre, use them. Don’t use the beats if they don’t support the primary genre. Everything is about amplifying and supporting that primary genre. Even when we mix four genres, it should appear to be one story.
When you’re mixing genres it can be a difficult decision which is the primary genre. Whatever that primary genre is, that is going to be the primary story vehicle. If you choose the wrong one, you’re going to take your story down avenues that really don’t express the goal of the idea. That’s what we’re always searching for when we start with the premise. What is the deep elements in this idea that nobody’s ever seen before? That’s what you’re trying to bring out, so you’re always trying to find what makes the originality of the idea shine through. The structure work we do up front not only leads to a better story but saves a massive amount of time and pain.
CHILDREN’S LITERATURE AND GENRE
Children’s literature is broken down into genres, just as adults’ stories do. But critics of children’s literature differ in the ways they prefer to categorise the main types of stories for children.
John Stephens said that the distinction between fantasy and realism is ‘the single most important generic distinction in children’s fiction’. On the other hand, Maria Nikolajeva doesn’t make that particular distinction, treating ‘all children’s literature as essentially “mythic” or at least nonmimetic’. Nikolajeva describes children’s stories as ‘a symbolic depiction of a maturation process (initiation, rite of passage) rather than a strictly mimetic reflection of a concrete “reality”.’
This seems exactly in line with Truby’s general requirement for main characters to change.
Arguably the most pervasive theme in children’s fiction is the transition within the individual from infantile solipsism to maturing social awareness’.
– John Stephens
Incidentally, both Truby and Nikolajeva are fans of the work of Northrop Frye. Frye writes in terms of ‘myth-to-romance–romance to high mimetic–low mimetic to ironic’.
Jung wrote of ‘harmony-split-split toward wholeness’.
Hunt wrote of ‘closed–semi-closed–unresolved’.
Whereas Truby describes the mythic story structure as basically ‘birth-death-rebirth’, Nikolajeva writes about children’s stories in terms of ‘utopia-carnival-collapse’. Nikolajeva is also careful to provide the disclaimer that whatever may be true for Western stories is not necessarily true when it comes to the structure of stories in other cultures. Truby, on the other hand, works with the idea that the mythic structure works worldwide, at least in screenwriting, at least for adults.
The Quest Story
Nikolajeva also writes of the Quest Story as a category of its own, if not a genre. Quest stories are stories of growth and maturation. She also uses the term ‘picnic’ in place of ‘quest’ because in children’s stories there is often no character development once the children come back to the primary world. For instance, the Pevensie children in the Narnia Chronicles live entire lives, then presumably live again as children when they arrive back in the real world.
Enid Blyton wrote a lot of detective stories (The Famous Five, Secret Seven). Detective stories continue to be popular, and below the upper-MG age group, it’s the subgenre of ‘cosy crime’, in which the stakes are low. (See Alexander McCall Smith’s The Great Cake Mystery). Nate the Great is known for his
unflinching resolve in the face of stolen goldfish, absconded cookies, and M.I.A. pets
A combination of drama and cozy crime is common in children’s literature. Timmy Failure by Stephan Pastis seems to have its main genre as drama, with a sub-genre of crime:
It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to discover that Timmy has real problems: his grades are poor, he’s not very popular, and his single mother is struggling to pay the bills while her new, thuggish boyfriend is making Timmy’s home life unbearable. Investigating a case of a missing Segway with his (imaginary) polar bear business partner makes for a good diversion.
See: The 15 Greatest Kid Detectives from Huffington Post
Sammy Keyes is likewise a
skillful mix of mystery with a traditional coming of age narrative
Like the trend in adult publishing, children’s books now are often described as a blend between one type of story and another:
Like The DaVinci Code meets From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Chasing Vermeer is chockablock with mind bending puzzles and tantalizing twists that readers will gobble up along with Petra and Calder.
Snicket’s new series All The Wrong Questions is…
a pitch-perfect update of the pulp fiction crime novels from the 1930s meant for young audiences.
“Everything’s a mash-up”, or builds on what has come before, sometimes with an ironic knowingness, at least, for older readers who have read the originals:
Mac Barnett’s playful riff on The Hardy Boys makes good fun of skewering the boy-detective genre while still offering a mystery that’s quick-witted and engaging.
Is it true for children’s literature, as it is for Hollywood scripts, that stories must nowadays be a blend of more than one genre?
The Girl Who Could Fly is blurbed with:
It’s the oddest mix of Little House On The Prairie and X-Men.
in acknowledgment of the observation that historical fiction mixed with superhero plotting (which is really a type of myth) is quite unusual.
I don’t know if the best-loved modern children’s books need to be more than a single genre, and it may not be the case, for the simple reason that a younger audience has not yet had the breadth of media exposure to have become sick of single genre stories.
It’s certainly true that in children’s literature, publishing goes through phases and evolutions. Everything builds upon what’s come before.
For example, we are currently in the phase of the ‘love triangle’ when it comes to YA marketed towards girls, with avid readers of YA now sick to death of this storyline. We’re also in the age of dark paranormal romance (love + SF). In order to move away from this kind of story, it may be the case that the safest way to do that is to mash up the typical love story with something else, like dystopian sci-fi, for instance (which, I believe, is where things have already gone). The huge success of Twilight can be easily understood (at least in hindsight) when considering the evolution of the vampire story.
Maria Nikolajeva does not make a distinction between
what is normally described as ‘genres’ or ‘kinds’ of children’s fiction: historical fiction, fantasy, adventure, realistic everyday story, or “nonsense” (which I do not believe to be a generic category anyway, but rather a stylistic device). The difference is in setting, or more specifically in chronotope, the organisation of space and time. In my typology, all these texts belong to the same narrative pattern: “semiclosed” in Peter Hunt’s taxonomy, “Odyssean” in Lucy Waddey’s. In Frye’s mythical cycle, the closest description is romance.
QUEST VS PICARESQUE
Rather than genre, Nikolajeva thinks of children’s literature in terms of ‘quest’ and ‘picaresque’.
Quest has a goal; picaresque is a goal in itself. The protagonist of a picaresque work is by definition not affected by his journey; the quest (or Bildungsroman) is supposed to initiate a change. There is, indeed, sometimes a very subtle boundary between ‘there-and-back’ and a definite, linear journey ‘there’, which is best seen in the last volume of the Narnia Chronicles.
Nikolajeva categorises children’s fiction into three general forms:
- Prelapsarian (when the main characters are unspoiled by ‘The Fall of Man’. The setting tends to be pastoral, secluded, autonomous. The main characters tend to be ensembles. The narrative voice tends to be didactic and omniscient. Time is circular, with much use made of the ‘iterative’ rather than the ‘singulative’. Utopian fiction introduces readers to the sacred e.g. The Secret Garden.)
- Carnivalesque (in which the characters temporarily take over from figures of authority and often make mischief, but control their own worlds for a time. See: The Hobbit, Narnia Chronicles, Harry The Dirty Dog. Carnivalesque texts take children out of Arcadia but ensure a sense of security by bringing them back. They allow an introduction to death, which inevitably follows the insight about the linearity of time.)
- Postlapsarian (in which a pastoral setting tends to be replaced by an urban one, and collective protagonists are exchanged for individuals. First person point of view is common. Time is linear. The main character knows that time is linear, so death becomes a central theme. Harmony gives way to chaos. The social, moral, political, and sexual innocence of the child is interrogated. These texts exist to introduce children to adulthood and death, and encourages them to grow up, or helps them out with it. In these stories, there is no going back.)
Maria Nikolajeva notes that ‘a psychological quest for self can be found in many contemporary YA novels, for instance Gary Paulsen’s The Island, a modern Robinsonnade. I’m equating this story as an example of ‘myth’, which Truby regards as a genre.
The Middle Grade Buddy Story
The ‘buddy movie’ equivalent in MG literature is also pretty popular. The buddy movie is really a mixture of three genres (Action+Love+Comedy), or if it’s a buddy cop movie it’s Action+Love+Crime, and we’re seeing this first kind of genre mashup in series such as Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, with Greg Heffley as the main character who has a more naive and light-hearted best friend. The same combination is used in Monster House (the film). Usually, girls form the opponents, and are seen as a different species. This is supposed to result in humour, to a greater or lesser extent. Though not really a kids’ story due to the advanced age of the narrator, The Wonder Years gives us Kevin Arnold and his best friend Paul. The comedy that results is of a melancholic kind. Nowadays, the female buddy movie is starting to be made, perhaps because gender-swapping is one easy way to do something a bit different. For example, we have Bullock and McCarthy in It Takes Two. So it follows that we’ll start to see more buddy MG stories with female leads, though there are perhaps still too few stories about female friendship, especially when it comes to comedy. Female friendships and the problems within are almost always treated in dramatic/serious fashion.
The other thing about children’s literature is, it’s constantly evolving, and we’re now seeing the beats of adult genre fiction working its way into YA, not least because a large proportion of YA is read by adults:
This is not your parents’ Nancy Drew mystery. While there are elements of Nancy and her gang in all mysteries subsequent, the real inspiration I see in the current growing subgenre of what I have dubbed PG-13 Serial Killer Fiction, is the lead character of Veronica Mars, with a hint of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and just a dash of the adult serial killer chaser fiction like James Patterson’s Alex Cross series. Truly, the hunt for mass-murdering sociopaths does not sound like traditional young adult literature, however, I have noted the trend growing in recent years of bringing these tales to the new generation of readers by featuring empowered teenage females with unusual gifts as the foil for the killer.
Love is sometimes touched upon tangentially in MG books for the older end of MG readers.
David Beagley delivered a lecture on Fantasy in children’s literature, which is very big in stories for children. Beagley talks about hero fantasy in Lecture 9 of Genres In Children’s Literature, available on iTunes U. He defines fantasy in lecture 10 . In lecture 11 he talks about Harry Potter and defines ‘high fantasy’. In lecture 12 he talks about how we might go about sorting out the wheat from the chaff.
Maria Nikolajeva offers The 35th of May as an example of a story oft described as ‘nonsense’. ‘This funny, entertaining story has certainly been admired by many readers in many countries, but it has nothing to do with the idea of spiritual growth’. Is there an adult-analogue for the nonsense story? As explained above, nonsense is a stylistic device rather than a genre as such.
War-time stories are sometimes treated as a separate genre, in British children’s fiction especially, but Nikolajeva does not consider them separate. I’m pretty sure Truby would consider war-time stories a blend of other genres — I’m guessing — a blend of myth/action/historical and often love, (when it comes to ‘women’s fiction’, at least — which is definitely a publishing term, if not a particularly welcome marketing one in feminist spheres). I’m not sure if ‘adventure’ is to be included in war stories for children, since the enemies are a real threat.
Dystopian novels become a genre of their own, in which adults, politicians and leaders are consistently portrayed as deceitful, greedy, vainglorious and wicked. Occasionally, as in Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, the dystopia portrays an alternative history – a Fascist 1950s Britain along the lines of 1984. More usually, they are set in the future, against the cataclysms produced by current trends.
Dystopia isn’t new: in my own childhood there were superb writers such as John Christopher, whose Prince in Waiting trilogy should be much better-known. But these futures were the product of natural catastrophe or alien invasion. Now, the darkness and violence of contemporary dystopias is highly politicised. The most famous is Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, in which teenagers are required to fight to death for the ultimate TV reality show. Or, you might say, the ultimate high-school show-down. Plenty of other terrific novels such as Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now and Moira Young’s Blood Red Road depict our future as ravaged by science, racism, war, genetic mutation or most credibly, exams.
Is ‘dystopia’ a genre? It is certainly popular in YA right now, or perhaps until now. (Editors keep saying they don’t want to read any more of it.) In 2000, Maria Nikolajeva writes that
Dystopia has been by definition an impossible genre in children’s fiction. However, a recent trend in children’s fiction shows tangible traits of dystopia. We can see forerunners of this trend in post-disaster science-fiction novels, for instance. The Prince in Waiting trilogy, which combines high technology with medieval mysticism. In the trend I am referring to, the dystopian idea is central, the kernel of the story itself, and the interrogation of modern–adult–civilisation in these books is as strong as in Huxley or Orwell. It has taken children’s fiction more than half a century to catch up with adult literature in developing this genre, which contradicts the view of childhood as a vision of a hopeful future. It is amazing that the genre has become so prominent, indeed one of the most prominent genres in British, American, and Australian children’s fiction of the 1990s. An early representative of this trend may be seen in Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese, where a ruthless totalitarian society is reflected in a mentally disturbed boy’s mind. In Germany, Gudrun Puasewang has received much attention for her dystopian children’s novels, especially Fall-out, a gloomy post-Chernobyl depiction of a nuclear plant accident.
Dystopia might instead by considered a ‘category of ending’ (grim rather than happy — the opposite of idyll) rather than a genre per se, with the most popular dystopian YA in 2015 being a blend of action, romance, myth and historical.