Articles on how to write children’s books, fiction writing, children’s writing, and the craft of creative writing for picture books, early readers, chapters books, middle grade, and young adult novels. Here you will find the kidlit writing archives. All of the content with this tag refers to how to write children’s books.
Oceans of ink and blog posts have been spilled talking about novel opening pages. And with good reason. Your novel’s first pages are the only thing an agent gets to see before they make their decision about you. Well, that and your query letter and synopsis, which is why those are such hot topics. But how do you nail your novel’s opening pages? The advice may be simpler than you think.
Great Novel Opening Pages Start With Conflict and Action
I cannot overstate this point: Conflict and action hook a reader and transport them into your story. This is exactly the goal of your novel’s opening. So start in action, start with conflict. You may want to use a smaller, scene-specific conflict (or “bridging conflict“) to get readers on the bus initially. That also puts less pressure on you to start with mind-blowing high-stakes conflict, which can be difficult to pull off before the reader knows your character.
Basically, you want to give them just enough of your character so that they care, without over-indulging in information (see next section). And you want to put the character in motion. They want something, they’re experiencing an obstacle, they are frustrated or full of longing. This is a good state for your character to be in.
And, very importantly, they are starting in action, where they’re either being frustrated by an obstacle or striving toward something. You need that balance of internal conflict and external conflict.
If you start with too much external action right away, readers may not care because they don’t know the character, their objectives, or motivations.
If you start with no external action, then it’s easy to get bored. For example, a character sitting in their room, philosophizing about life and all the ways in which it has gone wrong. Maybe you start with generalities, for example:
Life can be funny sometimes. I spent 13 years thinking I was normal. Totally lame. And then one day, everything changed.
But the character is just sitting and thinking. There’s no action. This is 100% internal conflict, and you want to avoid it because nothing is actually happening.
Avoid Too Much Information
In the same vein, information overload can sabotage your novel opening pages in other ways. You might start with action, like the character getting bullied, but then you stop and go into great detail about the school, everyone in it, and the character’s history with the bully since kindergarten.
“Context is important!” you say. But you can absolutely have too much of a good thing. If you start off your novel with a ton of information about everyone we’re meeting and all of the details of a character’s life, the plan will not get off the ground, so to speak.
There has to be a balance of action and information, and if in doubt, action should win out. For every piece of information that you introduce in the first few pages of your novel, ask yourself: Does this really, really, really have to be here? Otherwise, you may insert it later, or not at all.
Pick a Moment You Can Sustain
Finally, to tie everything together, you need to pick a moment you can sustain for two or three pages without either stopping the action to give tons of information, and without leaving the moment to go into backstory (more information).
If you currently start with general philosophizing (per the example above), a ton of information, a lot of jumping around in time to gather various details, or without a sense of balanced internal and external conflict, it’s time to take another look. Your beginning really is your make-or-break. So it’s your job to make it good.
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Oftentimes, manuscripts are cluttered with transition words, like “then”. These tend to just be filler. Here’s why it’s better to cut down on fluff and streamline your manuscript. Some writers won’t be affected by this at all, but others may recognize themselves in this article.
Transition Words are Filler
For fun, here’s a list of transition words. A lot of these words and phrases are more at home in an essay. Writers of fiction will especially want to pay attention to the Time/Chronology/Sequence list.
Some writers use these words a lot. “Then” and “Suddenly” and “Just as” hang out and take up space at the front of many paragraphs. Some writers absolutely don’t have this issue, but others can’t help but be conscious of the passage of time. They use transition words and phrases to introduce action that’s about to happen.
Here’s the thing. Instead of introducing that action is coming, then describing the action–take a shortcut. Simply describe the action. For the most part, transitional words and phrases are filler.
Action is, by and large, written in chronological order. So words like “Then” to link descriptions aren’t necessary. Your reader will know that one event follows the other. If your manuscript suffers from inflated word count (50k words plus in middle grade, 90k words plus in young adult), you may want to really drill down to the sentence level. Are you overusing transition words and stating the obvious?
Try trimming them and you might see that your writing takes on a new and refreshing tightness and simplicity.
A Few Exceptions That Require Transition Words
There are two notable exceptions to my advice. In picture books, transitions really do keep things moving. Picture book action tends to be very quick–writers are expected to do a lot in about 700 words. Sometimes, time and action move quickly. Actions are described in a few sentences. So transition words help things flow, and they help keep younger readers engaged.
In work for older readers, there are instances where you will want to use compressed narration, or when you’re hopping around in time. If you are making a transition between scenes and need to splice your timeline together, transitions are totally fine.
They’re also a good idea if you’re going into flashback or moving around in any order other than chronological. Remember, if you take a time leap, you will always want to ground your narrative relative to the scene you just departed.
Transition words help keep your reader’s feet on the ground, so they know exactly when and where something is happening in relation to a previous passage.
Streamline Your Writing
The big takeaway is that writing works best when it is tight and functional. Flourishes are, of course, allowed. Sometimes extras help define your voice and identity as a writer. But a lot of filler can creep into writing and make it dull and heavy. Are transitional words one of the things you could trim from your work?
Voice is a crucial component of publishable writing. Hire me as your developmental editor and we can take your work to the next level together.
If you want to write children’s books, writing child characters has to be a special interest, and always top of mind. The thing is, children are different from adults. For a lot of wonderful reasons. For some people, it’s very easy to channel their childhoods onto the page. For others, it takes constant work and course-correction. Here are some tips.
Writing Child Characters Believably
Nailing the mindset of a child the same age as your protagonist is crucial. As I write in Writing Irresistible Kidlit, and as I’ve said at many conferences across the country, kids have amazing built-in BS detectors. It’s hard to ring true with them because they are so absorbed in their experience, they’ll be able to pick out those who can’t connect to it very easily. (It’s the bane of every parent’s existence to be called out for not understanding, after all.)
For a lot of writers attracted to children’s books, this comes rather naturally. There is something about a young child’s experience that they remember from their own lives. They remember being a child and have something they want to say about it. Or they have a child the age of their protagonist to connect with. Something about parenting children has inspired them.
No matter where you stand, it’s always a good idea to get back in touch with your inner child–because that’s key when writing for children.
Remember Your Childhood
You may want to bean me with a yoga mat for this suggestion, but I am a big fan of journaling to help you get into (or out of) a particular headspace. When trying to connect with your inner child, don’t hesitate to write letters to that age of child, write letters from that age of child, or write diary entries as that child. Don’t try too hard to think, don’t judge yourself for what you’re writing or its quality.
Simply write. (Ha ha, easier said than done.)
Soon enough, you may find that words are starting to flow and ideas, memories, or feelings may surface after a long, deep sleep. The key isn’t just to do this once. If you want to write for a certain age group, do this over and over and concentrate on what it was like to belong to that age group.
Also, and this goes without saying, this is one of those exercises that only works if you do it. Thinking about doing it and doing it aren’t the same thing.
Connect With Modern Kids
Not in a creepy way, obviously. But another piece of the puzzle if your childhood muscles are rusty is to be in the same room as living, breathing children for a while. Volunteer for story time at the library, hang out with nieces and nephews, offer to host your teen’s next sleepover or sports party. Don’t lurk, but don’t close your listening ears or your observation eyes, either.
Childhood is different today than it was in your time, even if your time was a few years ago. A lot of the feelings might be the same, but the plot points are new. There are different issues at play. The world is different. Scarier. Bigger. Smaller. Bullies can do their dirty work on a screen or with guns instead of with their fists, for example.
Channel your inner child, but talk to contemporary children as well. They’re fonts of information and they will be more than willing to share if they believe you to be genuinely interested in their experiences.
Read, Read, Read
Have I beat this dead horse into the ground yet? Read. Even as you’re journaling to connect with your former self, and hanging out with actual kids the age of your characters, you’ll want to see who else is working in your space, and what they’re doing.
If you’re not already reading in your chosen category, what the heck are you waiting for? If you’re at a total loss for great books, start with award winners. These are writers at the top of their game, and all kinds of age groups, genres and styles are represented. Check out the Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Newbery, Printz, Belpré, Stonewall, Morris award winner and honor books, and more. Here’s a whole list of all the awards given by ALA. This is certainly not the end-all, be-all of books published that you should be reading, but if you’re desperate for a reading list and don’t know where to start, this will lead you down a great rabbit hole of your future favorite authors.
Writing Picture Book Characters
Special considerations for writing picture book characters (and, to an extent, early reader and chapter book) include remembering that these kids are still very much developing. Their worlds are quite small. They have a family and home that fill up most of their lives. They are learning a lot and being told what to do constantly by parents, teachers, siblings, etc.
As such, your books for this age group need to empower and inspire. Kids need to be put in the starring role, to solve their own problems. Well-meaning and wise adults cannot solve everything for them. For these ages, play on universal themes like love, loss, friendship, overcoming challenges, and trying to find what makes you special. These ideas will resonate in a big way with little kids who are still extremely egocentric. (This is not a slight. Developmentally speaking, young kids have a hard time differentiating that others are different from them and not simply there to suit their needs until they’re two or three.)
Think of what’s important to the littlest kids in your life. Connecting with children the age of your readers is especially important when writing for the youngest age groups, because you may not have very distinct memories of what it’s like to live in the moment and feel everything as intensely as little readers do.
Writing Middle Grade Characters
I love this age group. Nowhere else is the split between child and grown-up felt so acutely. Middle school-aged readers (and those slightly younger) are in frenzy of activity around developing their identities. Yet they also crave a safe haven when life gets to be too much, or when they get in over their heads. To all the world, they might be confident young citizens…but sometimes they’d much rather run and hide under their covers or have Mama bring them hot chocolate after a rough day.
Identity, friendships, and realizing that the world has shades of gray (including their suddenly fallible parents) are key themes for middle schoolers. Issues like communication, bullying, and figuring out one’s own moral code and integrity will come up a lot in the most emotionally resonant plots.
Though many of us probably don’t want to go back to middle school–it was such a cruel and confusing time–this is the proving ground for your middle grade characters. Where they figure out who they are, who they want to be, and how to start bridging those gaps. If the split between childhood and teenage-dom isn’t felt in your MG fiction, put this idea on your back burner as you revise.
Writing Young Adult Characters
Teens aren’t just miniature adults with fewer responsibilities. They certainly can seem that way sometimes, but assuming this is a big disservice to the age group. Teens don’t want to read your romanticized version of teendom. They experience everything in larger-than-life terms (which makes for great fiction). Their problems are incredibly real to them. And they don’t have the tools necessary to put their lives in context yet, or deal with their problems in healthy ways.
Remember, teens were kids just a few years ago, even if they’ll do anything to distance themselves from that idea and prove that they know better. At the same time, teens do have moments of clarity where they’re aware of their limitation. This vulnerability is an incredible thing to write into. It’s what makes YA so alive and electric.
The teen years are full of defining experiences, big questions, big fractures, and the seeds that will stay with a person for their entire lives. Who were you when you forged your identity? How do your teen characters grapple with this responsibility–if they want to touch it at all? How are they still children, deep down? This split-personality element of YA is so interesting to write.
No matter how old your characters, or how you get into the headspace of writing them, you just need to keep authenticity in mind. Write from an authentic place, and you will attract readers who value vulnerability, truth, and genuine prose. Sorry to go all Brené Brown on y’all, but I like to be reminded every once in a while of what we all aspire to.
Are you striking the right tone, voice, and emotion in your children’s fiction? Hire me as your developmental editor for anything from picture books to young adult novels.
Great writing voice is the goal of every writer. However, voice is often the last thing to come to the surface when you’ve spent many, many hours on the page. (A million bad words, anyone?) There are two essential tenets to writing great voice, and I bullet point them here for you.
Great Writing Voice Via Reading
In my previous post about expanding your writing vocabulary, I urged all aspiring writers to read more. Read more of their favorite authors, read more writers across all categories, to read more.
I’m harping on this again. Maybe because I’m, ahem ahem, a bit of a nag (just ask my husband). Maybe because I’m making it my personal mission to read more myself this year. (When you read for a living, it’s hard to make room to read in your off hours.) Maybe because there is just so much damn good writing in the world.
I firmly and roundly reject the idea that writers will pollute their own voices and novels by reading the work of others. Um, no. Not at all. Everyone has to learn their craft somehow, and shelves are swimming with amazing examples of voice and writing.
Would you go a surgeon who didn’t want to pollute her creative genius by watching other surgeons at work? Didn’t think so. Luckily, in creative writing, we don’t have to spend all that time in medical school. So we’ve saved ourselves many years and many thousands of dollars. What should we do with all that bounty? Read. It’s cheap and easy and pleasurable.
Speaking of voice, I’m reading Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala right now. (Thanks for the recommendation, Ali!) It’s about a woman who lost her entire family in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. This is a woman shattered, shattered by grief. It shows in the voice. The voice is unflinching. It’s quite a difficult read, but a haunting one. With my recent steeping in grief, I recognize the fractured bursts of thought and insight. The experience is that of a brain twisting and turning and trying to find purchase on anything. It’s an amazing read.
If I was trying to write a novel in fractured sentenced, with choppy pacing, I would definitely want to know Sonali’s work. Even if I was writing something peaceful and rhythmic, I’d check it out, to see how the other half lives. The point is, you cannot know what other writing is like without experiencing it truly.
To neglect the work of your (ideally) future peers, is to shut the door on the best opportunity to better yourself and your craft. I listen to writers tell me that they don’t read all the time, and it blows my mind, every time. I will never agree with this idea. If that’s what you’ve been doing, I urge you to reconsider.
Great Writing Voice Via Reading Aloud
The second piece of advice is also very simple, and it involves only you, your voicebox, and your manuscript. Hopefully you have understanding partners (or pets) at home, and hard-of-hearing colleagues at work. I’m asking you to demonstrate your great writing voice by reading your work aloud.
I tell this to everyone. At conferences. In editorial notes. On the street. Read your writing aloud. Don’t just think about it, actually do it. Maybe one out of ten people actually try this. Even fewer make it a habit whenever they write something new.
I always read my writing aloud. I print off a draft and pace around my house and read the longest story ever to my dogs. When I was writing my book, I went hoarse after a few days of reading. So what? This helps me find areas where voice isn’t flowing smoothly, identify points I’m not making correctly, and generally see if what I’ve written pleases me and makes sense.
It is a miracle for voice. I’m serious.
Read your writing aloud. Better yet, especially if you have poetry or a short piece (helloooooo picture book people), have someone read it aloud to you. I guarantee that, at least once, you will be shocked. It gives a whole new life to something you think you know well.
How many of my readers will do this? Not many. How many will do it more than once? Even fewer. But before we had the written word, we had spoken story. Everything we’ve put down on paper now used to be passed verbally around the campfire.
When we write on a page or a screen, we are entirely in our heads. Reading aloud puts some of our creative energy in our bodies. You will be very surprised at what you can discover that way. Try it. Seriously. Go.
Still struggling with voice? Let me help as your developmental editor. An experienced set of eyes on your work will put rocket boosters on your progress.
Today’s post about writing vocabulary is a perfect one for the New Year, because growing your vocabulary is something you can work on. Speaking of which, I’m back to work, more or less, and looking forward to 2018. Thank you everyone for your wonderful kind thoughts about the loss of our little Nora.
The Role of Writing Vocabulary in Prose
Writers love words. Or, well, they should, if they want to be writers. Collecting words, analyzing words, thinking about words: this should be a small part of the writing work that you do. While you’re doing it, you may not know why it’s important. What’s the point of learning words that you might not use?
But one day, you’ll want to say something, and you will realize that there’s a perfect word for that. The English language is beautiful and varied and we have a ton of words for everything.
From a prose and craft perspective, the more specific your choices, the cleaner and tighter your writing. So if you know the best word for something, use it. This contributes to an overall sense of tightness in the prose, and to more specific voice. The words you learn and use don’t even have to be complicated.
An Easy Example of Improving Writing Vocabulary
I was editing a manuscript the other day, and came across a sentence very much like this:
She craned her head up, tensing so that she could see through the window.
This description is okay. It’s wordy. Try reading it aloud. There’s a lot to chew on there. It does the job, but we can do better. The thing is, we have a word to convey exactly this. We could swap it out with:
She strained to see through the window.
We are swapping seven clunky words for one word. So simple, so elegant, so clear! Like crawling into bed on clean sheets.
Many writers are convinced that in order to really be a Writer With a Capital W (to earn one’s bones, so to speak), they have to show off and make things more complicated. They will impress the reader into submission, dang it! The haughtier their prose, the more everyone will know that they are very, very good.
Yeah, that’s not the case. A simple, clean style is actually very difficult to achieve, and that’s what you should be aiming for. This will also reduce the clutter of your prose, tighten up your manuscript word count (I’ve never met a very, very long manuscript that absolutely needed to be that way, the writing is usually quite bloated), and allow readers to zip through your story.
Remember, your goal is precision. You’re not trying to bamboozle your readers with rare words. You’re trying to delight them with the perfect words for the occasion.
How to Build Your Writing Vocabulary
So what do you do about your vocabulary? I have two suggestions. A silly one and a serious one.
First, become interested in words. There’s a great and simple way to do this: sign up for the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Day. This website looks a little sketchy, but that’s the OED’s sign-up form. They will send you an email with a new word every day. You may get some really weird stuff, or you may get words you never knew about that are precise and wonderful.
Second, read. There is a class of writer that doesn’t read because they worry about unduly influencing their own process. I will never and have never understood these writers, I will tell you that right now. The strongest way to improve your own writing, that I can think of, is to read the work of writers who are way ahead of you on their authorial journeys. They will have this craft of using words precisely down. Read their work. Read writers who aren’t in your category. Read literary writers. Read pop culture writers. Read, read, read.
The best way to nurture your love of words and language is to be around words and language. Write interesting words down. Read with a highlighter in hand. Keep a file of words. You never know when you’ll need something from your writing vocabulary, so make sure it’s there for you.
If you’re struggling with voice and prose, hire me as your novel editor. I’ll comb through your writing sentence by sentence.
Sure, we all know to write a character who drives action, but what about character reaction? The most compelling protagonists not only move action forward, but they remain plugged into the action as it progresses. They act on the plot, and react to the plot, in other words. They are…wait for it…proactive and reactive protagonists. So why do many writers struggle with this idea?
Writing Active Character Reaction
We all know that your number one objective as a writer is to make the reader care. Or, well, you know that if you’ve been haunting around the site for any length of time. Readers read in order to experience. Whether they want to experience an event, a new idea, or a story they can’t get anywhere else… To read is to be transported.
The best way to rob your reader of the experience of a novel is to give us a character who doesn’t act or react. Passive characters, or those whose mode seems to be set to “non-reaction” are a tremendous wasted opportunity.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say our character is an orphan, or so she thinks. Then she finds out that maybe, just maybe, her father isn’t dead, after all. This is a big bomb to try and land accurately, in terms of making those emotions seem genuine. I get it. Many writers, then, feeling daunted, would simply not have the character react.
“She read the letter again, her fingers going numb.”
Not only are you relying on an external reaction and a physical cliché here, but there’s really nothing else to it. This is a total non-reaction. It may look like a reaction, it may show her doing something in the moment, but there’s really no substance here if you think about it.
What does it feel to be a girl who discovers she’s not the orphan she thought she was? We don’t really know much more about it, as a result of this underwhelming non-reaction.
Creating Compelling Reactions
So instead of a non-reaction, you really want to highlight your character’s experience in big and small moments that demand a reaction. (Don’t make the mistake of focusing solely on the big moments, either. A character’s reaction in a small moment could be very revealing, and work to pull the reader further into the character’s world.)
For every time that you want to shrink from an event or leave in a generic physical reaction, put your patience cap on and take the time go dive deeper. If you don’t want to write the reaction, that’s the perfect tip-off that you should. Because it’s going to lead to some tough, challenging, vulnerable stuff, most likely.
Start by really putting yourself in your character’s shoes. What would their first thought be? How does this turn of events affect them? What’s a dumb thing that can come to mind? If your character’s home is burglarized, for example, maybe they quip, “Good luck with that DVD player, it never worked anyway,” almost as if they can’t help themselves. Don’t go for the expected reaction, either. Is there anything you can verbalize here that will lend the situation the element of surprise?
That’s how you make the situation relatable and, more importantly, human.
Focus on Interiority
Of course, it all comes back to interiority. This concept is the vanquisher of the non-reaction. It is your insurance that you are doing your due diligence and creating characters who are active, plugged-in participants in their own stories.
If you ever feel stuck in an important moment, and you simply can’t imagine how your character is going to take the situation, go back to the most elementary questions of all:
This letter says I’m not an orphan, after all. And? So? Well, I’m going to have to track my father down now. And? So? I’ve believed this one thing about myself for the last ten years…and now what should people call me? What do I call myself?
My home has been robbed. And? So? I never liked that stupid DVD player anyway.
In big moments and small, interiority is a tool to help you discover your character’s reaction. By giving them a reaction and making them an active participant in the scenes you’re writing, you will give the reader a vital connection. Not only to who they are, but to what they’re going through.
And that’s what every reader wants, deep down, to experience.
Is there a disconnect between action, character, and reaction in your novel? Work with me as your developmental editor and we can lean in to the emotional potential of your writing together.
The other day, I found myself giving advice on character turning points and changes of heart. A client of mine had a manuscript where the characters were being swayed this way and that by a controversial force in the story. A protagonist would end up on one side of an issue, and a few scenes later, they would have second thoughts and flip-flop. Unfortunately, this gets the reader all confused.
Now, I’m all about flip-flops on my feet, but not so much with my characters. When a protagonist or another POV character quickly changes opinions, I want to go through the process of that change with them.
Let Your Reader Into Character Turning Points
If a reader is not attached to the character as your character makes decisions and changes opinion, a disconnect will emerge. Your POV character will start to seem fickle, and their beliefs will start to seem arbitrary. When you’re writing a character, you want to imbue them with certain principles and convictions. One’s orientation about various issues is an integral part of who one is.
Knowing what a character stands for and cares about helps me, as a reader, understand who they are. Now, good plots bring a character up against their beliefs in ways that challenge character and reader alike.
Changes of heart are sometimes my favorite moments in a story. They’re a great opportunity to deepen character, introduce an element of surprise, or challenge the reader. The rub is, they have to exist on the page, and the reader needs to be guided through them.
How to Engineer a Change of Heart
Every time a character encounters plot or another character that challenge an existing belief, you have an opportunity. Let’s say that your protagonist hates the school bully. This is a familiar enough trope that anyone can understand it, and the emotions behind it. “She is so mean,” your character might think, and that’s that.
But then your protagonist comes across Queen Bee crying in the bathroom, all by herself (which usually never happens). Sure, your character can keep insisting, “She is so mean. She probably got what she deserved.” That’s certainly one approach.
Or, you can add some nuance and change the belief a bit. “I know what she did to Ryan was terrible, terrible, but…maybe she has something going on.” Ah, some nuance, some dimension, a little depth creeps in! Well, now what?
Aftercare for Character Turning Points
The important thing is to never rest on your laurels. Instead of making your protagonist’s opinion linear or contradictory, turn it into an arc. The relationship with Queen Bee should have its own trajectory. And each turn of the screw should appear on the page.
Once your POV character has seen Queenie in a moment of vulnerability, don’t go back to, “She is so mean.” That doesn’t quite fit anymore. Queen Bee might still be mean, but now, the opinion could temper to, “I wonder what’s going on under the surface?” Then maybe QB is mean again, and then it can progress further to, “Well, if she’s got problems, why is she taking them out on us?” Finally, there’s some kind of reconciliation. Maybe in then it becomes, “I get it now, and I’m sorry I never reached out to help.”
As we learn more about the characters and their situations, always make sure that your protagonist’s opinions are changing and specific and the reader can easily follow. Whenever you set up a turning point, let the protagonist reflect.
This way, not only will your protagonist have relationships in the novel with other characters and plot points, but each important opinion and belief will also have a trajectory, like a living, breathing thing.
Working on character relatability, objective, or motivation? Hire me as your novel editor and we’ll make sure you’re creating fully realized fictional people on the page.
Today we’re talking about bringing dead characters to life and, though it’s the day before Halloween, I don’t mean zombies. I mean characters in a novel who are either dead or otherwise unavailable for development in the present action. How do you flesh them out (again, not talking about zombies but pun fully intended) and make them more real and relevant to your protagonist’s current situation if we never meet them in the present moment?
“Off Screen” Character Relationships Are Very Important
The idea that character relationships in a novel are important should surprise exactly nobody. Character relationships are crucial. But there’s a fly in the ointment if your character is no longer around, dead, missing, or otherwise unavailable to participate in the story. How do you create a rich and compelling relationship with someone who isn’t there?
The most important first step is to think about this point instead of glossing over it. This post is a nudge in the that direction. A lot of writers, unfortunately, don’t put much thought toward developing their “off screen” characters. After all, a dead Mom or a missing Dad or an incarcerated older sister are pretty familiar tropes. The attitude seems to be, why bother developing past the stereotype(?
A dead Mom is sad and immediately sentimental. All the protagonist has to do is mention their dead mother and this is enough to (try and) manufacture certain feelings in the reader. But don’t let the Dead Mom name-drop simply be an obvious emotional trigger or a cheap trick. You have to go deeper.
Developing Dead Characters
The most powerful tool in your arsenal for creating multi-dimensional “off screen” characters is flashback. This technique often gets a bad rap. So many people ask me whether or not they can even use flashback anymore. I guess it’s out of style. But don’t discount it.
Flashback is the only time when your “off screen” characters can live again. Seeing them in action, dynamically interacting with your protagonist, is going to paint a much clearer picture than any kind of telling about them. We’ll experience them in the flesh, pick up on their physical and character quirks, hear their voice in dialogue.
How do you pick a good flashback scene? Well, it all depends on the kind of relationship your character has with the deceased, and what element you want to bring to the story. Do you need to create longing for a deceased mother? Show a sweet, everyday moment. Maybe they tease one another lightly, maybe they laugh about an inside joke. It doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, the characters should reveal their quirks and act human, rather than trying to be perfect in order to create a theme-heavy Very Profound Moment, just because one of them is dead and we’re in flashback.
Focus not just on the unavailable character, but also the protagonist’s interaction with them. Was it a time your main character almost said something important, but didn’t–then it was too late? Let the protagonist be an active participating so we get a sense what it was really like to be in the relationship. Just remember, it is your job is to reveal character via showing instead of telling. That’s the only time a flashback is powerful. If you’re writing superficial showing, like, “My mother was so kind and nurturing, I loved that she was the most selfless woman I knew” etc. then you’re not truly fleshing out that character in three dimensions.
How Often to Flash Back and When
Instead of putting all that pressure on one scene, you should use multiple short flashbacks to develop dead characters. Find several moments that reveal various shades of the character and their relationship to your protagonist. Insert them into the manuscript occasionally, and have your character reference them or think about them when we’re in the present.
One rule of thumb about when to include flashback: Develop information only when you’ve had a chance to add some action. Plot and pacing are about the balance of action and information. Some writers get caught in the trap of layering too much backstory, flashback, information, and other static elements, especially at the beginning of a novel. Well, information has a way of stopping plot cold.
So when you’re considering including a flashback to develop a departed character, evaluate the following elements:
Do we need information from or about this character by a certain point in the plot? Start building flashbacks in way ahead of time, instead of right before that information is relevant.
Are there information-heavy chapters or scenes before or after your flashback? Reconsider another informational moment and add some gas to your engine with plot instead.
Thinking about a flashback in the first chapter? Sustain a strong present moment for at least the first three pages before yanking us into any kind of past moment.
Is this a solitary flashback or one in a series about this character? Use individual flashbacks and memories to establish different shades of a departed character–make them multi-layered. Don’t just dwell on the same attributes.
Long story short, don’t let “off screen” characters play familiar stock roles. The temptation to do this is incredibly strong. They are often archetypes, even in the best books. Use the tool of flashback to really show them to a reader in all of their nuance. Push yourself to go further.
A well-crafted character is perhaps the most important element of your novel. That doesn’t stop at your protagonist, either. Hire me as your novel editor and we’ll whip the whole cast into shape.
One of the cornerstones of my writing craft philosophy is the concept of interiority. I always define it as a character’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions, even in picture books, and even (perhaps especially) in third person. This tool, to me, is the most crucial one in a writer’s arsenal. Unfortunately, its interpretation and application are quite open-ended, which makes it easy to understand but more difficult to teach.
This article will be intended as a comprehensive introduction to the topic, as well as my reasoning for why I consider this idea so terribly important to both writers and readers. If you sit down and read one Kidlit.com post in your life, I hope it’s this one.
What Is Interiority?
I define the term “interiority” as a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions and how we access them, whether it’s in first person or third, a picture book or a YA novel. It is any moment when you dive into your character’s head to add context, meaning, humor, or emotion to a situation. The moment in question can be big or small, the reaction can be casual or life-changing.
The important thing is to keep coming back to your character. Remind yourself that they are experiencing the moments you’re choosing for them (via your plot), and that, in real life, we react to stuff all the time. Whether it’s a private joke or a shift in mood, we go through our days very aware of what’s going on. You certainly don’t want to have every little thing elicit a reaction, but more often than not, characters don’t react enough. Keep reminding yourself that your character is in the moment, experiencing it. Is there any reaction warranted that could add some depth to the situation or bring the reader closer to your character’s rich inner life?
Specificity is the Key
Everyone experiences emotions in a different way. My “sad” might look very different from your “sad”, and it might be caused by very different things. Too often, writers name an emotion, eg, “She felt angry” and move on. But simply naming emotions doesn’t give me much to dig into, as a reader. I know what my angry is like, but I don’t care much about me right now. I’m reading to learn about a fleshed-out and compelling character. So I want to know what her “angry” looks like, what thoughts cross her mind, what places she goes when she’s feeling worked up.
Besides, there are a million shades of anger and a million reasons to be angry (or whatever emotion). Imagine this: A father brings home a pony to surprise his daughter, and she’s angry. What? That makes no sense. Why? If the writer simply showed her storming off, we’d get no specificity, and the reader would be left in the dark. But if we were to go into interiority, we’d have access to something like, “He thinks he can just buy my love after what he did?” Ohhh, now it makes a lot more sense. I would much rather have that specific thought on the page instead of the zoomed-out view of her storming off to sulk. Or her heart rate rising. Or her stomping her foot. (All external.)
Which brings me to my next key point about interiority. There are two ways of discussing emotion, internal and external. Too many writers rely on external only, and this is a huge missed opportunity.
The Limits of Using Physicality to Discuss Emotion
Writers who struggle with interiority tend to render emotions instead via physical sensations, a lot of which tend to be cliché. We have tears falling and hearts thumping and stomachs clenching, but these images are so familiar that they don’t invite the reader to dig deeper.
I often tell my clients, “I don’t care that there are tears. I care about the thought that finally makes them fall.” We are all familiar with this phenomenon. We are on the verge of crying all day long, but it’s not until one thought or idea crosses our minds that we actually go over the edge. I am much more interested in that thought, because it is going to be very specific.
If your manuscript is littered with references to the physical body reacting instead of the mind, there are ways to change your approach. Imagine yourself accessing deeper layers to your character’s experiences. This can be done by asking some very basic questions.
Digging Deeper, Asking Questions
Often, I jokingly refer to myself as a character therapist. Because I’m always sitting on my imaginary couch and asking, “And? So? How did that feel?” My notes to clients are littered with these questions.
Remember that your character is not an impartial security camera, recording events. Even in third person. We are going through their story because we want to know what the story is, sure, but because we also want to know how said story affects them. There’s a reason (or at least, there really should be) you chose that particular character to experience that particular story. How does one influence the other? That is what readers will attach to.
You are telling a story because you want readers to experience it. There is no better way to have them live vicariously than to have them read the experiences of their guide, the point-of-view protagonist. The deeper, more honest, and more intimate you can make your account of that experience, the closer your reader will feel to the character and the story. This is the core tenet behind pretty much my entire fiction craft teaching philosophy.
Interiority Resources From the Kidlit Blog
I’ve written a lot about interiority over the years, and I honestly hope to write a whole lot more. If you want to dig further, here are some of my favorite articles about it from the archives:
A few days ago, a potential client emailed me about their book idea, and our exchange triggered this post. He had a story heavily inspired by a conversation he’d overheard between his children. Lovely! So he wrote it out and decided to see if it was ready to be edited and published. There was an issue, though. He had written an idea. It wasn’t yet a manuscript. What’s the difference? And how do you go from idea to manuscript? Read on!
The Difference Between a Book Idea and a Manuscript
Book ideas are everywhere. For reasons I’ll go into a bit later, that have to do with a very notable writer’s own process, I have been thinking a lot about book ideas recently. The truth is, if we have our listening ears in, ideas are all around us. If we make it a point to be open-minded, observe, and keep track of our ideas, we may be surprised to find that the idea isn’t the most difficult part of writing.
Like my potential client, who overheard a snippet of conversation. He took the necessary step of committing it to paper, but then came an obstacle. And? So? What’s next?
Because an idea isn’t a book. Even in the very nebulous world of the “concept book”, which you may have heard of. An idea is an idea, and anyone can have one. The book itself comes from what you do with that idea. The execution of the book idea, therefore, lies in the manuscript.
What Makes a Manuscript?
An idea is often too straightforward in its original state. A writer’s job, therefore, is to keep track of what inspires you, but then make it bigger. An idea has “juice” if it reveals something universal and relevant to readers who perhaps didn’t observe or experience what you observed or experienced.
Think of it as alchemy, the magical transformation of one thing (a book idea) into another (a story). Take the potential client’s situation. He had an observed interaction between siblings.
My first question was, “What’s the bigger picture?” I understood why this interaction captured the writer, but not necessarily what I, a third party who didn’t know the children or didn’t witness the interaction, was supposed to get out of it. Basically: And? So?
Small Moments, Big Message
Though I hesitate to talk about a message in books, because I want you to avoid preaching at all costs, the concept applies here. If you take your book idea and come up with the bigger picture that you want to convey to readers, then you will potentially have a book idea that can turn into a manuscript.
Because thinking about what you want to say to kids everywhere (and parents, if you’re writing something that will be read aloud), then you can start thinking about what kind of characters need to be involved, and what kind of plot, in order to transmit your message.
Then you might find that you’re compelled to sit down and start writing, inspired by the bigger picture. Then it’s up to you to perform alchemy again. By giving a character a strong plot to experience, you will then force your message underground again. Let them come up with the moral themselves, and let them communicate that subtly to the reader through their experiences.
Repurposing Smaller Ideas
It’s possible, of course, that your book idea will not be big enough to become an actual book. I don’t know, for example, what will happen with this potential client and their overheard conversation. But all is not lost. Maybe this snippet of dialogue will turn up as part of another idea, or another book. That’s why I advocate keeping a file of ideas to draw from. You never know when an idea or a piece of an idea will click into something more substantial. This could happen even years later.
So keep an eye out for book ideas, and keep this article in mind as you decide which ones to pursue. Ideas are all around us, we just have to learn how to listen and look.