Monthly Archives: August 2014

For Successful Fiction, Add Conflict — Twice

by Laura Backes, Children’s Book Insider,

Previously in the pages of CBI I have often written about the basic structure for children’s fiction: a character encounters an obstacle or conflict of some kind, and then resolves it through his or her own purposeful action. This makes up the events of the story, or the plot. How the character changes as a person through this conflict and resolution process reflects the book’s theme, or underlying message. But lately I’ve been thinking that the above explanation is too simple.

After studying many successful children’s novels for ages eight and up, it’s become clear that the character really confronts two kinds of conflict: external and internal. The external conflict is often beyond the character’s control; it’s a situation he is thrust into, for better or worse, and it’s what pulls the plot along from page to page. It could be a mystery that needs solving, moving to a new neighborhood or a death in the family. The external conflict makes the period of time between the first and last page of the book different from any other time in the character’s life.

The internal conflict is something the character brings to the story on page one. This conflict may be unknown to the character — it could be lurking just under the surface — or it could be a problem the character is aware of but has been ignoring. But when the character is confronted with the external conflict, the internal conflict is brought to light. The internal conflict is contained within the main character — guilt over cheating on a test at school, anger at parents who are recently divorced, lack of self confidence — and must be resolved in some way for the character to grow. Middle grade and young adult novels, which require complexly-layered stories, need both internal and external conflicts. Without internal conflict, the characters have no depth. Without external conflict, there is no plot — only angst. But there has to be a connection between the two for a cohesive and believable story. One brings on the other. They feed off each other until the character takes active steps to resolve one conflict, thus leading to the solution of the other problem.

An example of this intricate structure is Suzanne Fisher Staples’ young adult novel Dangerous Skies (Frances Foster Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The narrator, 12-year-old Buck Smith, lives on the Chesapeake Bay. His family is descended from the English settlers who moved to Virginia in the 1700s. His best friend, Tunes, is descended from the slaves who were brought from Africa to work the Smith farm. She shares Buck’s last name, and the two were raised together since infancy. But Buck remarks at the beginning of the book how lately he’s noticed the adults watching them as they go off fishing together, and that suddenly Tunes is growing and turning from a girl to a woman. Buck resists this inevitable change in their lives — this is the internal conflict he brings to the book.

The external conflict soon presents itself; Buck and Tunes find the body of a friend in the Bay while fishing, and Tunes acts strangely and immediately takes off into the marsh. A few days later the sheriff appears at Buck’s house looking for Tunes — he wants to question her about the murder. As Buck helps Tunes hide from the law he is confronted with other external conflicts: racial prejudice that takes the word of a white man over a black girl; punishment from his parents when he tries to help Tunes; suspicion from the sheriff that he might be involved in the crime when he lies about Tunes’ whereabouts. Internal conflicts Buck was never aware of also surface: his relationship with his parents deteriorates when they don’t stand up for Tunes, even though she was always like a daughter to them; Tunes puts up an invisible wall between herself and Buck, keeping information from him that will allow him to fully understand her predicament.

The ending of the book is bittersweet. The external conflict is resolved, though not to Buck’s satisfaction. He also comes to terms with his internal conflicts, but it’s not a traditional happy ending. As with many great young adult novels, not all loose ends are neatly tied up. This is a story about real life, and Buck learns that people are not perfect and sometimes prejudice is too big for one person to fight. He sees this time as the end of his childhood, a loss of innocence. He accepts this and moves on, and in doing so he grows.

When creating problems for your main characters, think along two lines. A big, external conflict that forms the plot and keeps the story moving, and an internal conflict that forces your character to change, reflecting the theme. This will give your story depth, and give your readers something to think about.


Great Fiction Comes From Writing Lightly

by Laura Backes, Children’s Book Insider,

Great fiction appears effortless to the reader. The characters and setting are so real, the story so believable, that the reader is completely unaware of the author behind the words. The smoothness of the text belies the hours of hard work and practice that went into its creation. The authors who achieve invisibility have learned the art of writing lightly; of subtly inserting so much information into the story without adding any new words that the book can’t help but spring to life. Here are some tips to help you write lightly too: Work hard on your opening paragraphs.

Regardless of the age you’re writing for, your first one or two paragraphs set the tone for the entire book. They introduce the main character, point of view, setting, mood, and sometimes the story conflict. The story starts in these first paragraphs– not two or three pages down the road. Grab your reader instantly rather than boring him or her with unimportant background information.

Make your dialogue work for you. Good written dialogue contains the essence of speech, not conversation as it happens in real life. Dispense with the clutter and make your dialogue count. Dialogue should give a sense of the personality of the speaker (through word choices and speech patterns), move the story along (have your characters talk about what’s happening in the book, or what they’re going to do next), and contribute to the visual imagery of the story. The latter can be achieved with “stage directions”; gestures or movements by the speakers, physical reactions of the listeners, or other action that’s happening during the conversation. Break up long stretches of dialogue with action or attach stage directions to the dialogue itself (“I can’t leave now,” she whispered as she parted the curtains and peered down the dark street). Remember, how someone speaks and what they’re doing as they talk all give clues to their emotional state, thus adding layers of meaning to the spoken words.

Choose verbs wisely. Well-chosen verbs can also add meaning to a sentence. How someone moves can show what they’re thinking or feeling. Just as importantly, specific verbs allow you to communicate a scene exactly to the reader. If the wind is blowing outside, your reader won’t know if it’s a good day to fly a kite or if a storm is approaching. However, if that wind explodes through the valley, there’s no room for doubt. Know your setting. Even if your setting doesn’t play a main role in the story, it’s a good idea to have details set in your own mind. What does your main character’s room look like? How big a house does she live in? Does she walk to school or ride the bus? These details will find their way into your story, and add life to the book.

Only tell the reader what he or she has to know. This is important for any age of fiction, but it’s most often abused in picture book manuscripts. Your story takes place during a certain time frame–an extraordinary period in your character’s life. Use only those characters necessary to tell this story; introduce events, conflicts, situations that apply directly to this time frame. If a traumatic childhood incident affects your 15-year-old character’s relationship with her father, then it’s necessary. If her losing the spelling bee in fourth grade means nothing to her now, leave it out.

Write as you talk. You can admire and study other authors, but don’t try to imitate them. The best way to achieve your unique writing style is to write as you talk. Don’t search for words you’d never use in ordinary conversation. Author Stephen King said, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.”

Don’t worry about getting too complex with your writing either. Long, complicated sentences filled with dashes and semicolons, or descriptive paragraphs full of flowery prose won’t appeal to your audience. The trick, when composing your first draft, is not to think too much. Norma Fox Mazer, author of over 20 books, said she wears a hat with the brim pulled low over her eyes when writing a first draft. That way she can see her keyboard but not the computer screen, preventing her from getting “housewifey” and wanting to clean up the text. During the revision process you can choose your words more carefully, but if you find yourself stretching for a phrase or description, ask your-self if you’d ever use that in real life. If you were telling this story out loud, how would you tell it and what words would you choose? In the end, it all boils down to writing simply, directly, and making every word count. It doesn’t always come naturally, but if you practice the above techniques your writing will also achieve a light touch.