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.
This is a survey of published authors that I did on here (mumbles) over a year ago. But now I finally have a beautiful infographic to share on how to write a manuscript that succeeds.
The key takeaway, I think, is that so many of you have written more than ten manuscripts on your journeys, and how many of you enlisted outside help in the form of writing groups, critiques, beta readers, and editors.
What I’m seeing here? A lot of encouragement and perseverance. While it’s true that approximately 20% ended up landing an agent or publishing their first manuscripts, between 38 and 43% of writers ended up breaking through on their 5th through 9th manuscript, or even their tenth+ manuscript! That’s the majority of responders to the survey.
These writers have also taken the time to leave some very important words of wisdom to those of you who are still struggling with how to write a manuscript that succeeds.
Please take this to heart: you may publish your current WIP, or you may not. But a large determining factor of success is perseverance and self-education. That’s why you’re already ahead of the curve! You’re sitting here, learning about the writing craft, and adding tools to your toolbox.
Now all you need to do is keep going. Trust that one day you will crack the code of how to write a manuscript that succeeds, like the published authors who responded to the survey did.
Today, I want to talk about character thoughts, or more specifically, Characterizing Thoughts. What are those, you ask? Well, there are eight types that I’d love to dive into.
Character Thoughts vs. Characterizing Thoughts
Character thoughts can be anything your character thinks (and central to my idea of interiority), but Characterizing Thoughts? Those are thoughts that tell us something that contributes to the reader’s understanding of character.
In fact, I posit that there are Eight Core Types of Characterizing Thoughts!
Thoughts that convey: Who the character is
These are things like, “I don’t like to lose,” “If there’s another fight brewing, I’m calling it quits”
Thoughts that convey: Character change
These are things like, “I can’t do this much longer,” “It’s time to let go, I think”
Thoughts that convey: What the character cares about
These are things like, “I’ve never had a home before and I think I like it,” “When you look me in the eyes, I feel seen”
Thoughts that convey: What the character wants (objectives)
These are things like, “I’m going to get that scholarship or die trying,” “There’s only one girl taking Tyler to prom”
Thoughts that convey: Why XYZ matters to character (motivations)
These are things like, “This dog has treated me better than any of you, so he’s coming with me,” “Winning this isn’t just a victory for the team, it’s a victory for anyone who’s ever heard ‘no’”
Thoughts that convey: Context and story based information
These are things like, “I’ve been sitting here for three weeks, looking for a text that isn’t coming,” “If Gemma doesn’t come home from work soon—and goodness knows she probably won’t—I’m in the clear”
Thoughts that convey: Stakes and tension
These are things like, “I hear him coming up the stairs and I can’t keep this sneeze back any longer,” “Without Christian, I am nothing”
Thoughts that convey: Voice
a. These are things like, “It’s beautiful day in this lousy neighborhood,” “You complete my soul, you gorgeous creature”
Why Are These Types of Character Thoughts So Important?
Because we can’t know this type of stuff about a character without being told. Like, if a character is walking around, ready to draw the line in a relationship with another character, that idea will probably start percolating in their thought process, and then they may give their enemy character an ultimatum in dialogue. But without this thought process first building up in interiority, the eventual confrontation won’t be nearly as powerful.
Same goes for tears. If you only show a character crying, without diving into the thoughts behind the tears, then readers won’t feel the emotion of the moment. Readers don’t cry just because a character is shown crying. Instead, readers I want the thought that touches off the tears—the insight or realization that pushes your character over the edge. That is what readers are going to be connecting to more than just the visual of the character crying.
But let’s take this a step further.
Layering Characterizing Thoughts
The examples I gave earlier, about the eight types of Characterizing Thoughts, were somewhat basic, to help illustrate each kind of thought a character could have and what they convey.
But the truth is, as human beings. we’re more complex than that. Our thoughts are multi-faceted and layered. So must your character’s thoughts be too.
That’s when we can start combining types of thoughts together:
For example: Take a look at this thought a character could have:
“Without Christian, I am nothing.”
This thought combines “What the character wants” with a sense of “stakes.” The character wants Christian and the character believes they will amount to nothing if they don’t get together with Christian.
Another example is:
“I’ve been sitting here for three weeks, looking for a text that isn’t coming.”
Lots to unpack here. We get a sense of what the character wants, again, which is a text from the object of their affection, their lost friend, or whoever isn’t texting. We get some context—it has been three weeks—a sense of the character and their worldview, in that they pessimistically believe the text won’t come, rather than optimistically hoping it will, and finally, even a sense of change, I’d argue. The next sentence may well be something like, “I can’t wait anymore” or similar. It implies that three weeks has been enough and now … the character will do something different.
A lot of similar layers in “If there’s another fight brewing, I’m calling it quits.” This character declares who they are—a pacifist averse to fighting. They are probably at the end of their rope in a turbulent relationship. We also get stakes (one more fight equals quits), and also context: there has been a lot of fighting, and one more will break the proverbial camel’s back.
Even though I’ve nested all of these examples under one primary category, I hope you can see that they are rich with additional information for our reader-detectives to discover!
Digging Even Deeper With Character Thoughts
Another way to make a character’s thoughts more complex is to work in tension or conditional language into many of them. For example, if X, then Y. The action and the consequence. “If there’s another fight brewing, I’m calling it quits.” Well, when this character’s partner comes into the scene looking to pick a fight, readers will be primed to see what happens next. Will the character keep their word or will they cave?
The more layered and nuanced a thought is, the more you’re giving your reader to do and sink their teeth into. And layering multiple kinds of thoughts together, to reveal something new about your character is an excellent way to keep your reader engaged and an active part of the story.
And if you’re wondering how to properly format a character’s thoughts on the page, check out this article on formatting interiority.
This idea of character and digging deeply into this nuanced topic is at the cornerstone of what I teach as a developmental editor. Let me bring this level of nuance to your project personally.
A simile is a comparison that uses “like” or “as” to draw a connection between two things. Sometimes, images illuminate our understanding of what a writer is saying and bring us to a new level of awareness or appreciation. Other times, the simile is overkill. Are you guilty of this writing faux pas?
The Point of Imagery
Imagery, including simile, is best when used to evoke a feeling or idea that isn’t clear from the text itself. For example, if you want to say that “she looked as comfortable as a cat on a hot tin roof,” you’d mean that your character is awkward or uncomfortable or, worse, pained by the scene in question.
Imagery in writing is best used when it can bring additional dimension or meaning to a moment or scene that wasn’t there before. Whether or not to use an image, like a simile, should boil down to whether you want to evoke something specific in the mind of the reader. Ideally, something emotional.
However, many well-meaning writers end up with more imagery than they need by overusing the simile in particular. For example:
Grandma Lois had a collection of cactuses. Like a little desert in her living room.
He’d never felt so empty before, as if someone had scooped out his insides with a serving spoon.
The porch sizzled in the sun, like it was an oven turned on “low”. She fanned herself with her magazine.
If you take a look at all of these descriptions, one thing might hit you … like a baseball bat. They’re obvious. And not only that, but they’re redundant.
The use of simile writerly flair to these sentences, but is this something we need in the first place? Or will readers understand what you’re saying perfectly well without the additional explanation that the imagery brings to the table?
Paying Special Attention to Simile
Why have I singled out simile for this article, in particular, as being potentially redundant? Well, the trick is in the comparison. Sometimes, an image will stand alone without explanation. This is called a metaphor if it doesn’t use “like” or “as” and can refer to any use of imagery in your writing. But once you invite a direct comparison with “like” or “as,” it becomes a simile.
In order to make the comparison complete, you are naming at least two things that you then tie together. By naming the first thing and the second thing, you may be inviting redundancy … even unintentionally.
When you think of using simile in your own writing, ask yourself: Would this image best be served as a metaphor instead? Can you trust the reader to get your meaning without indulging in the temptation to explain?
Your use of imagery is a key part of voice. Hire me as your novel editor and learn whether your writing is as effective and evocative as possible.
The unique thing about kidlit is that there are many children’s book genres and categories to choose from, and the divisions in children’s books are much more segmented than, say, the adult fiction world. (The reason for this is simple—your audience is changing drastically in regards to their ability to read independently, they are also changing according to age, maturity, and a ability to process and understand information. These same kinds of changes simply don’t happen as rapidly to readers from other demographics.)
Many children’s book writers are interested in writing for more than one age group. Read on if you want to learn about writing in several children’s book genres and categories.
The Difference Between a Genre and a Category
First, one nit I like to pick: there’s a difference between a “genre” and a “category.” A lot of people call picture books a “genre.” Nope. But this line of thinking is so prevalent that I’m using the keyword “children’s book genres” to talk about categories so that more people find this post now and in the future.
A “genre” is a stylistic description. You immediately know that a romance is going to be a different style of book than high fantasy or hard sci-fi. That’s “genre” at work.
In children’s books, we have different “categories” or “audiences”. Books that fit into these are each written for readers at different ages, of different reading abilities, and in various stages of mental and emotional development. That’s simply because kids from age zero to eighteen make a ton of leaps.
Now that you know the lay of the land of children’s book genres and categories, let’s say you want to write for multiple audiences. This is totally worthwhile, and there’s more commonality between, say, a chapter book and middle grade than a business nonfiction book and a memoir for adult readers. The characters are similar in age, the language is similar, and the intended kid readers are going to be only several years apart from one another.
The first thing to know is that you must be very comfortable with multiple age categories before you attempt to write, say, a picture book on the one hand, and a YA romance, on the other. Understand the differences in your reading audiences in a holistic way first—what will each age of kid want to read about?—and then bolster that understanding by using appropriate language, word count, and character age. These differentiators are the bare minimums when it comes to writing across children’s book genres and categories.
It’s also crucial to understand that these category guidelines and requirements are going to be somewhat inflexible. You can always write a 300-page picture book full of words at a college reading level, yes. But your odds of publishing one successfully in the tradition or indie setting are going to be very low, because such a project is unlikely to speak to your target audience.
It takes many writers a while to learn and deeply understand the needs, requirements, quirks, and sensibilities of one children’s book category. If you can bring this keen understanding to two or more children’s book genres or categories, you may be a good fit to “double dip” or more.
Building a Career in Multiple Children’s Book Genres or Categories
Because of the intended audience in kidlit—children—we face unique considerations when we want to build a career writing across children’s book categories or genres. In my consulting practice, I hear variations of the following question all the time: I write racy erotica, but also board books. How do I market myself without scandalizing children or confusing the BDSM crowd?
This is obviously an extreme example, but the conflict remains. It’s also compounded by the fact that, through about middle grade, your readers are technically and legally unreachable online and you’re marketing to parents, educators, and librarians instead. It isn’t until upper MG and YA where you are actually reaching your intended target audience.
My advice goes back to what I learned as an agent when doing career counseling: You are welcome to switch children’s book genres or categories, if you can pull more than one off well, but only after you’ve established yourself. Write three really strong picture books, then attempt to publish and market a middle grade.
If your audiences are two different, consider setting up multiple areas of your website and social media, or multiple accounts altogether (in the example of your erotica presence vs. your board book marketing). I would discourage aspiring career-makers from hopping around, first to picture book, then young adult, then middle grade, then chapter book.
You can write all of these children’s book genres and categories at one time, if it keeps your creative fires burning, but I wouldn’t attempt to publish them in such a sporadic pattern. Make a name in one arena, then branch out. Otherwise, you may confuse your audience and waste precious energy and marketing resources duplicating your brand-building early on.
Looking for custom career advice? Hire me as your publishing consultant and we can draft your way forward together.
To increase narrative tension avoid the sense of “limbo” in your fiction, give your characters a sense of their past, present, and future. You want to spend most of your time in the present, sure, but if you don’t weave in the past and future of your character eventually … the present will start to feel like limbo. And readers will not want to be in limbo for long.
Start in Action
One of the notes I give the most in my editing work is to start in action, whether it’s a simple picture book or complex young adult novel. If you cannot choose a scene or moment that is sustainable for a page or two (this applies to novel or picture book), then it’s not the right place to start.
Most common is zooming away to fill in backstory. For example, “I sit in the assembly, looking around. There’s Phoebe, my best friend since kindergarten. The day we met …” and then we’re off to kindergarten.
Readers need a reason, like narrative tension, to keep reading your work, especially when you launch a new story. A scene that you sustain allows them to truly sink in. Ideally, there’s enough action to get them invested. Something is happening. The character is allowed to be active and proactive (readers love a proactive character).
And while some of us are trying to achieve a “be here now” mindset in our personal lives, this can actually backfire in your creative writing. Sooner or later, the character’s past and future need to come to the party to create narrative tension.
What is Narrative Tension?
To quickly define it, narrative tension means something in the story that keeps a reader invested in reading. My favorite thing to talk about (well, one of like 5,000) is loops. Humans hate an open loop—something unresolved. That’s why writers need to open loops as they go. Usually, the loop asks the question, “What will happen here?” Or, “Will the character get what they want?” Or, “Will this thing from the past ever be resolved?”
If our characters exist only in the present moment, going from scene to scene, we risk our power to create narrative tension, or open and close the maximum number of loops.
Weave in Narrative Tension and Context
Think of how your own mind operates. In a normal span of fifteen minutes, I spend woefully little time in the present. I’m usually “time traveling,” as I call it. My mind is either dwelling on something in the past, or worrying about something in the future. (Looking for meditation app recommendations, plz!)
Characters should spend a bit more time in the present than I do in my personal life, but you can use this tendency of the human brain to “time travel” to add narrative tension and open loops.
As for the past, think of your character’s wound and need. They have probably experienced something in the past that shaped them and needs resolving in the present or future. They may think about it once in a while to plant seeds and drive up tension.
As for the future, think of your character’s objective and motivation. What they want and why they want it. Maybe the wound/need (past) and the resulting objective/motivation (future) tie together into something the character can pursue in the present. (Hint hint: They should!)
Bringing It All Together
Think about your chapter endings. Ideally, this is where you’re really reminding your readers of the loops open in your story. I like to have characters either learn something new in the present, or set themselves to really pursue their future goals. This adds instant narrative tension.
Have you developed your character’s wound, need, objective, and motivation? If not, drop everything and start daydreaming.
Are you struggling with narrative tension in your picture book or novel? Let me be your freelance editor and we can find it together.
I often see fiction writers use the rhetorical question in their manuscripts to ramp up tension and get readers more engaged. Or so they think. Is this a worthwhile strategy? Or is the presence of a rhetorical question in your prose just a copout? (Do you see what I did there?)
Rhetorical Questions Do Not Help Character
Instead of asking a bunch of questions, I’m going to give you some statements. I don’t believe questions help further character or plot. They aren’t specific. They aren’t mysterious. They are a shortcut to doing the hard work of writing your story.
Not sure what I mean by a rhetorical question when it comes to the fiction or writing craft. Here are some rhetorical question examples:
But could she be trusted?
What would happen if he let himself believe?
Would it be worthwhile for her to follow the imp down the path?
I would imagine writers believe there to be a lot of mystery in rhetorical questions, and a lot of tension. But to my trained eye, they’re much ado about nothing because they don’t communicate a lot of substance.
How Do I Get Around Rhetorical Question Use?
In my editorial work, I push clients to go further. If you know a juicy, meaty, potentially emotionally engaging question to ask in your prose—answer it instead.
This forces you to plant your character’s flag one way or the other, decide, and then move on based off of that decision. Otherwise, characters can swirl around in an endless stream of questions without ever taking a definitive stance. You will likely not get character buy-in on crucial issues, and you are much more vulnerable to the deadly sin of flip-flopping that way.
Imagine if we addressed the rhetorical question examples above more directly instead:
He wanted to trust her, but he just didn’t. Not right now. She’d have to earn it.
Believing in magic was risky. It was foolish. It went against everything he’d been taught his entire life—everything his family worked so hard to protect. Order. Logic. Reality. But here, he saw magic in front of him, as real as his own reflection. If he let himself believe, he’d have to change his entire concept of himself. For the first time, that didn’t seem so scary.
She considered whether or not to follow the imp. Sure, she could play it safe. But then she’d never know. Everyone kept saying that she needed to listen to her heart. Well, her heart was telling her to take this once-in-a-lifetime chance.
Instead of questions, we have characters declaring themselves. Weighing their options. Considering the issues in more depth. Coming to decisions.
Nothing Rhetorical About It
At the end of the day, you’re the writer. It’s your job to present the story, put the issues out there, and lead readers through the character’s decision-making process so that we get to know that character on a deeper level.
I’ve recently had a rash of manuscripts where writers are relying too much on the rhetorical question in important moments—in essence, asking the reader to create part of the story and do the character’s heavy lifting.
Instead, answer these questions where you find them in your manuscript. You’ll be rewarded in terms of depth and nuance and a better understanding of your character and story, which you can them transmit to your readers.
Struggling with asking the right questions? With answering them? Partner with me as your developmental editor, and we’ll get down to the marrow of your fiction together.
By very, very, very popular demand, here’s a PDF download of a novel outline template. You have been asking for one for years, but the closest I’ve ever written is this short article on a novel synopsis. Well, I’ve rectified that today!
You can also grab it directly via this Google Drive link. (To use the document in your own Google Drive, simply make a copy of it by going to the File menu, then to “Make a copy”. You won’t be able to edit the original because I want everyone to have this template.)
Writers want to see examples of a novel outline template because there are so many ways to achieve this. What goes into a novel outline? How do you format it? This is certainly one way to organize an outline, but there are many other writers and writing teachers who have put together comprehensive advice and their own novel outline templates. (Two of my favorites are Fool Proof Outline and Outlining Your Novel).
Start here and see where it takes you. Most of my readers know that I’ve been teaching the concept of interiority for years, and so this outline goes into character arc a lot, not just plot arc. I think it’s the best of both worlds, but would love to hear your reactions in the comments when you use it!
As a freelance editor, I do the novel outline edit all the time. Do all the hard thinking ahead of time. Kick the tires of your idea. Pressure test your plot and character arcs. I can do one or multiple rounds to make sure you have a road map for your future draft nailed down before you sit down to write. This is honestly one of my favorite services to do because we can anticipate a lot of issues ahead of time and save you so much revision heartache.
Ever thought about writing the premise of a story before writing the actual story? No? Well, put on your open-mindedness hats, guys, because it’s about to get real. (Agents hate her! Learn the one writing secret to save yourself years of frustration!) No, but seriously…
What is the Premise of a Story?
The premise of a story is what your story is about. Simple.
Oh, you want more? Okay…
I give this talk on self-editing for fiction writers (which you can play on-demand on Udemy or wait for the free webinar) and I always start the talk very, very, very zoomed out. I ask writers about their “Mission Statement,” which is another way of talking about the premise or the “what is your story about”.
Basically, it’s a combination of your character’s main transformational experience (do characters have to change?), the story that takes them to that experience, and a sense of your theme.
A girl who is accidentally infused with moon magic must fight for the ones she loves, in a society bent on seeing her and the witch who saved her life as the enemy.
That’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. You’ll notice it’s not the whole story, but we have a sense of the character, what the character has to do (or how the character has to change), what the character is up against, and any other key characters or story elements. In this case, the witch (Xan) gets a mention, as does the society that “sacrificed” Luna to the witch when she was a baby.
What is your story about? Who is at the center? What do they have to do, or how do they have to change? What is the main conflict? (Or, if not the main conflict, a big conflict?) What is your theme?
Now, imagine that you’re not just doing this for your book after the fact…
Starting With the Premise of a Story
Let’s say that you’re actually creating the premise before you create the book. This is a smarter, more efficient way of writing. Remember, the first thing I ask of my revision students is: What’s your premise?
You’re going to have to know it eventually. But most writers don’t even start putting their premise together until long after they’ve written their story. Maybe even long after they’ve revised it.
Most writers don’t think about their premise until it’s time to pitch.
Why is this an issue? Well, you don’t want to spend five years on a novel only to realize that you may not have enough story to attract agents, publishers, or readers. (Even if you publish independently, you still have to attract readers. You still need to be able to tell them what your story’s about so that they click that all-important “Buy” button!)
What if you don’t have enough story to truly turn out a compelling, saleable project? This is why I highly recommend writing a premise (or the bones of one) for the project you’re about to start working on first.
Is there enough meat? Does it sound exciting? Or is your premise loose and vague, like, “A coming of age story about a boy who has to learn the true meaning of friendship.” I’d contest that there’s not enough meat on that bone yet. The story needs some additional layers, some specificity, some action, so that it doesn’t sound so much like a lot of other stories I’ve read.
Try It Backwards
Before you sit down to work on your next project, as you work on your current project, or before you revise a draft manuscript, stop what you’re doing immediately—do not pass GO, do not collect $200—and write out a premise.
You’re only doing it for yourself. You’re not pitching. There’s no agent hovering over your shoulder, watching you. Write out what your story is about. Is there enough? Do you have a solid premise of a story? Are you focused? Or do you need to add more layers, action, tension, and/or meaning to your work?
Catching potential issues and course correcting at this highest, most zoomed out level could literally save you years of work, and keep you from following a misguided path all the way to a disappointing conclusion.
If you haven’t tried this yet, you have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
What do you think of this bass-ackwards approach?
If you’re struggling to pressure test your story and see if there’s enough substance, or if you want to catch pitfalls and opportunities at the outline level, hire me as your developmental editor. Let’s get at it together!
Thank you to our last writer of this workshop series, E.S. This is an early draft of a middle grade fantasy.
The Workshop Submission
It started when the two faceless men knocked at the back door. If I’d known it was them, I would never have answered.
The potential for some solid tension here. The one thing I’d keep an eye out for, however: “I would never have answered” leaves the present moment. There’s this “If I’d only known” vibe. We go into some hazy, undefined future, from which the narrator is writing. It risks pulling the reader out of the moment to wonder, “When are we relative to the present moment?” My preference is to only use tension that’s available in the present. But since we don’t really know what’s going on in the present yet, I’ll allow it. 😉
Usually I wouldn’t have answered. I hate answering the door. It’s never anyone for me, anyway. All I want is to be left alone to mind my own business and have everyone else mind theirs.
“I wouldn’t have answered” and “I hate answering the door” are redundant. Consider this post about writing description. We get even more into the same point with the discussion of minding one’s business. This is also telling about the character, which I’d much rather avoid.
But I figured it was Mom with her arms full of groceries or something, so I answered the door. Because who else would come around the building and through the gate in the fence and past our sorry excuse for a backyard and knock on the back door? Anyone else would go to the front door. And Mom should have been home already, anyway. It was way past the time she usually gets home from work, and she hadn’t even called. She can be a real pain like that.
This is much more relevant to the present moment. I think that Mom not being home yet (tension) meets the element that it’s the back door, not the front door (tension) should be played up from the beginning, eg, “Nobody ever knocks on the back door. Only Mom comes in that way, and Mom would never knock…” Though I do love “our sorry excuse for a backyard” for voice purposes. This could be cherry-picked and used to start the novel.
So I just unlocked the back door and opened it. I expected Mom to come bustling into the kitchen, saying, “Samantha, young lady, have you finished your homework?” and puffing loose hair out of her face. But it wasn’t Mom. It was two tall, faceless men.
The difference between this opening and what the writer currently has is that this opening is in action. Samantha is expecting Mom (neutral) but it’s not Mom (tension!), it’s two faceless men (tension!!!!!!!). Give it to us in the moment. All the discussion of wanting to be left alone and blah blah blah is just telling. Give us the action instead.
Maybe they actually did have faces under all that bristly hair, but it was impossible to tell. Plus their tall furry hats were jammed down so far on their little heads that the hats would’ve covered any faces they had. Their arms and legs look like giant pipe cleaners. Creepy. And not brand new pipe cleaners either.
The rambling here (the long sentence about the tall furry hats) and the humor (though I love humor) undermine the shock or tension of the moment. Two random strangers have shown up at Samantha’s back door, and you ideally, I think, want the reader to be scared. But by making fun of their hats and faces and head shapes, you let the true fear out of the moment. Is she meant to be scared? This would be better for tension. Or is she just going to hang back and poke fun? This would be better for voice but … for the beginning, tension should be king.
That’s all they wrote! Thank you so much for joining me for this workshop series, and thank you to all the writers who have furnished your openings for potential workshop. I’m planning the next one as we speak.
If you’re struggling with your beginning, bring me on board as a novel editor and trusted writing partner.
I’m very excited to present this article on writing fantasy, exclusively for Kidlit by Gail Carson Levine.
The Magic of Fantasy Writing
The great thing about reading fantasy (and writing fantasy) is that we get to have experiences not available to us in ordinary life. The great thing about writing fantasy is that we’re able to take a deep dive into what those experiences might be like.
As a reader, I feel disappointed when the dive is a belly flop. For example, an invisible force field hitting an invisible, immovable object frustrates me, especially if the hero I’m rooting for is trapped behind the object. How can she engage with it if she doesn’t know what it is? Then, if she does engage and it gives way but I don’t know how, I’m doubly annoyed. I can’t rejoice with her if I don’t understand her triumph.
Here’s a confession: I don’t believe in magic or elves or fairies.
Seven Suggestions for Writing Fantasy
So I know that I face a high bar to persuade at least some readers to buy what I’m laying out. How do we do it? Here are seven suggestions for writing fantasy:
Start the fantasy early, before the reader has time to imagine a realistic world. Take Ogre Enchanted, my latest novel, a prequel to Ella Enchanted. My main character, Evie, is a dedicated healer, but her methods wouldn’t survive scrutiny by the American Medical Association. I introduce the magic in the first sentence of the book, when Evie’s friend Wormy forgets to mash her inglebot fungus—there’s no such thing as inglebot. Grimwood, a fever remedy, shows up a page later, and, soon after, pig bladder, which certainly exists, but no one uses it to heal sprains!On page 5, the adolescent giant Oobeeg is mentioned, though he’s too large to fit through Evie’s mother’s front door–a mite of sensory information. Oobeeg is there because his mother’s leg was gashed by an ogre and a healer is needed. Now we have giants and ogres. On page 9, Evie herself is turned into an ogre by the fairy Lucinda of Ella Enchanted fame. Giants, fairies, ogres, and weird medicine. The world taking shape and we’re just on page 9.
Writing fantasy elements that develop characters. With Evie’s transformation, I give the reader an understanding of how it might feel to be an ogre. Coarse hair grows on Evie’s hands. Her fingernails are long and filthy. She’s bigger than she was before, so seams have split; her apron is squeezing her stomach; the soles of her shoes are flapping. Significantly, she’s ravenous, even though she had breakfast only a little while earlier. Even more significantly, she calls Wormy’s earlobes “the sweetest part.” Not much later, I let the reader know how easily she gets angry, which is unlike her human self. Rather than an invisible force field, Evie’s ogre side becomes one of her antagonists. The way she deals with it, including what she eats and doesn’t eat, are important in defining her.
Set things up beforehand to prepare the reader. Much later in Ogre Enchanted I need Evie to get the better of a dragon, and dragons in this world are vastly bigger than ogres, plus they have flames and flight. It took me a while to figure out how to do this when writing fantasy, but when I did, I introduced on page 82 a historical enmity between dragons and ogres, and I showed the over-the-top reaction of Evie and the ogre band she’s with to the sight of just a dragon’s tooth. When she faces an entire dragon forty pages later, the reader is ready to believe she can survive.
Include detail, especially sensory detail. Sensation puts the reader there. Once we’ve made our world solid with sight, sound, touch, and smell, we can’t write an invisible force field, because it won’t fit.Smell isn’t our species’ strongest sense, but it’s uniquely tied to our emotions. In her ogre form, Evie sweats copiously–and stinks. Baths last only briefly. Her ogre side likes the smell, but her human side wants to crawl out of her hairy skin.
Make the humans and the creatures relatable. Evie, who craves relief from her isolation from humans, is painfully aware of her looks and her odor. And she can barely tolerate the terror she strikes in people. Anyone who’s ever felt unwanted, even for a moment, suffers with her.Not that appearance is the only way to make readers identify with fantasy writing. They feel for Ella in Ella Enchanted because of her curse of obedience–we’ve all many times had to do what we don’t want to. In my Princess Tale, For Biddle’s Sake, the very flawed fairy Bombina (who loves to turn people into toads) is sympathetic because of her desperate love for a girl named Parsley.
Writing fantasy that embraces the reader with touches of wonder. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, sorcerers are born when lightning strikes marble, which ignites a flame that contains the new sorcerer, who rockets into the sky. Just dreaming up this kind of thing makes me happy, a feeling I hope readers will share.
Invent your own creatures. Don’t go with stereotypes. Dragons don’t have to be big, and elves don’t have to be small, as Tolkien proved. At a conference, I once mentored a young writer who had a charming voice. My only criticism about his fantasy writing was that he leaned on stereotypes. When describing a certain wizard, he used direct address to say to the reader, “You know how wizards are.” I don’t. I have my own ideas, but this was his story, and I wanted to meet his wizard.
Writing Fantasy Isn’t Easy, But It’s Worth It
Just saying, all of this isn’t easy. Maybe none of it is. A young writer I know has an ongoing dispute with her brother about which is harder, writing or basketball. Writers know, and it isn’t even close. But it’s a joy to invent worlds with creatures who live under an unknown sun and to invite readers to share the fun.