Picture Book Structure

There are quite a few ways to think about picture book structure. Here, I’m going to present a looser “Problem and Solution” structure, and a more specific

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Look at that masterful plot twist in Act II! Didn’t see it coming at all…

The Basics of Picture Book Structure

Keep in mind that you are working with 24, 32, or 40 pages for most picture books, with 32 being the hands-down favorite. Take three or four pages away because you need to accommodate front matter (like the copyright and title pages), and I’d say you have about 28 usable pages to work with.

When you are planning your picture book, imagine telling the story in individual pages (either the right or left side of the book, “profile” view) or spreads (both pages, “landscape view”).

How do you fill those pages? Spend five of them describing the character’s favorite ice cream flavor and how nice they are? NOPE. You need to dive right into story without wasting too much time. Preferably, you will jump straight into action. Here are two examples of common picture book structure that you can work with.

Picture Book Structure: Problem and Solution

When I was doing some speaking on picture books in 2012, I wrote a talk that incorporated simple Problem and Solution picture book structure. Basically, your character is introduced in terms of a problem they’re having. Then they make several attempts to solve the problem, before some kind of resolution. It looks like this, assuming that your book starts on page 4 because of front matter:

Page 4: Character introduction

Page 5 to 6: Conflict introduction

Page 7 to 8: Raise the stakes (establish why the conflict fights the character, what happens if they don’t get what they want, etc.)

Page 9 to 18: First two attempts to solve the conflict, story stakes rising

Page 19 to 26: Third and biggest attempt

Pages 27 to 29: Climax and success hanging in the balance

Pages 30 to 31 or 32: Resolution, reversal, final image (whether you go to page 32 depends on if you end the story on the right side of the page or after one more page turn)

Note: These page number prescriptions are a starting point for helping you map out your thinking, they are not a hard-and-fast rule.

Character Development in Picture Book Structure

Nobody cares what your character’s name is or what their favorite ice cream flavor is. Sorry. You do, but nobody else does. That’s not what makes them a character. Fancy Nancy was a character not because she liked poodles but because her whole driving passion in life was making ordinary things fancy. This is a characteristic that will fire up reader imaginations.

So once you’ve established a character with an objective (something they want) and motivation (why they want it), you can give them a conflict that grates against who they are. This makes the conflict more powerful, and gives them extra reason to want to solve it. Is also establishes stakes–what happens if they aren’t successful, why it matters.

Otherwise, if readers don’t understand why your specific conflict is a big deal for your specific character, your whole story won’t matter. But if you create a strong foundation that ties character to plot, their attempts to solve the conflict will be noble, and the classic Problem and Solution picture book structure will work well for you.

A Reminder About Preaching in Picture Books

But keep in mind something I mentioned above. Their attempts to solve the conflict. That means you’re writing a proactive protagonist who is going to drive the story.

Preaching in picture books is very tempting but a huge no-no. You need to empower your main character, rather than having wise old Grandma swoop in and solve everything.

Examples of Problem and Solution Picture Books

You can check out the following simple narrative books that may not hew to the page counts mentioned above, but which follow a relatively straightforward attempt/resolution structure:

CLICK, CLACK, MOO, COWS THAT TYPE by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin
A GARDEN FOR PIG by Kathryn Thurman and Lindsey Ward
LITTLE BLUE TRUCK by Alice Schertle and Jill McElmurry
TOAD ON THE ROAD: MAMA AND ME by Stephen Shaskan

Picture Book Structure: Symmetrical Paradigm

This idea for picture book structure comes entirely from Eve Heidi Bine-Stock’s HOW TO WRITE A CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOK: VOLUME I: STRUCTURE. Her writing on the topic of picture books is definitely worth investigating. I’ll summarize the structure here but won’t reveal several fine-point components, in fairness to their creator.

The Components of Symmetrical Paradigm Picture Book Structure

This is a looser wrapper and more applicable to different types of story. It has a lot in common with the Problem and Solution structure, but there are some nuances. Here’s how it goes:

Act I: the Beginning or the set-up, about 20% of the story or 5-7 pages

Plot Twist I: a plot twist that separates the Beginning from the Middle

Act II: the Middle, or the primary action, about 60% of the story

Midpoint: a moment in the middle where the story splits into a “before” and an “after”

Plot Twist II: a plot twist that separates the Middle from the Ending

Act III: this contains the resolution or the Ending, about 20% of the story, or 5-7 pages

What I really like about this Symmetrical Paradigm is that it inspires writers to carefully consider what separates the different sections of their book, the plot twists and midpoint, which provide emotional layers to the character and story.

Examples of Symmetrical Paradigm Picture Books

Bine-Stock cites many classic examples in her book, and her explanations are worth looking into. They include:

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE by Maurice Sendak
CHICKA CHICKA BOOM BOOM by Bill Martin, Jr., John Archambault, and Lois Ehlert
IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE by Laura Numeroff and Felicia Bond
GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd

Other Types of Picture Books

There are exceptions to every rule. While the above are good options for narrative-style picture books, those aren’t the only ones around. Non-fiction picture books are their own animal, and need to be organized according to the narrative structure of their subject matter (for example, in a picture book biography, the subject’s life is going to provide its own flow).

Concept picture books or picture books for very young readers often have their own structure, and it tends to be very repetitive. Alphabet books are obviously organized according to … the alphabet. And concept books like DUCK RABBIT by Amy Krause Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld follow a Problem and Solution framework but only insofar as there’s a question asked, and then variations on an answer (or question) are given over and over. If you examine that example, there isn’t really a resolution at all.

Let’s dig into your own picture book project. Hire me as your picture book editor and get advice customized to your manuscript.

Writing a Proactive Protagonist

Writing a proactive protagonist is one of the single most important things you can do to set your novel up for success. I feel like I’ve been giving this note over and over in my freelance editorial practice lately: Your protagonist is too passive. They do not drive the plot. They are passenger, not driver. What is this problem and how can you address it? Read on!

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Your character needs a strong idea of where they’re going. They should be someone the reader will be compelled to follow.

Do You Have a Reactive or Passive Protagonist?

Novels are hampered when a “main character” takes a backseat to action. Higher concept plots are often vulnerable to this. (Because, remember, high stakes can be tricky.) If you have Ordinary Kid and you throw them into Extraordinary Circumstances, they are likely, a) not going to know what’s going on for quite a while, b) not going to know what to do, and c) going to rely on others for help.

You’ve perhaps made a plot that’s “too big” for your Everyman character. This thwarts them because they spend the entire novel either, a) learning the ropes, b) discovering their talents, and/or c) figuring out where the fit in.

Thematically, this makes sense, especially for a middle grade or YA novel. If every kid was self-assured at the beginning of their story, you wouldn’t have a relatable novel for tween and teen readers (who often feel incompetent or unsure). But it’s possible to make your character too impotent.

Take a look at your novel. Does your character spend a lot of time receiving instruction? Are there a lot of guide/mentor characters? Do events happen to your character, rather than your character making events happen?

You are in danger of having a passive protagonist. After a while, if the character doesn’t become “activated” and start acting with their own goals, desires, and agency, they are going to be the eternal backseat driver and their power to affect the story–and, more importantly, the reader–will evaporate.

Writing a Proactive Protagonist

No matter how unsure your protagonist is about their life, themselves, or their upcoming challenges, they still need to be a hero. For sure, this doesn’t have to happen immediately, or there’s no growth trajectory. But even better if there’s at least the hint of some confidence/ability at the beginning.

Everyone is good at something. And even if a character is not good at anything (or just believes they aren’t), they have a secret weapon that you shouldn’t hesitate to deploy: their desire or need.

Desires and needs are universally relatable and everyone has them. They come together to form your character’s objective and motivation. The objective is what they want, the motivation is why they want it. I define desires as things characters want, which can be external. Whether a physical object or an outcome. A need is something a character, well, needs on a deeper level, so it’s usually an internal conflict. They desire to win the championship but they need the validation such a coup would provide, for example.

The best thing about desires and needs? They make us brave and they make us active. I may not usually be outspoken (Ha! Obviously not speaking personally…), but if my desire is on the line, I’ll act.

Too many times, a character arrives on the page without strong desires or needs. “Ugh, I’m so ordinary. Ho hum. If only something good would happen.” This isn’t specific. Sure, everyone can relate to being bored, but boring characters are … boring. Sitting around and waiting for “something, anything” to happen is a prime set-up for a passive protagonist. This leaves them wide open to anything that comes along, but not really pursuing anything.

Instead, give your character strong goals and wants. Let’s see them chasing after something right away, even if it isn’t yet their central objective. And when the plot does kick in, solidify their objective, motivation, desire, and need. That way, even if the plot sweeps them along on a wild ride, they are always able to take proactive steps, they always have their eyes on the prize.

Better yet, the plot might threaten their objective. Then the stakes rise. They can’t lose X. They can’t sacrifice Y. They only have one shot at Z. Or else what? They go unfulfilled, because their deep need isn’t being met. If you have your character actively chasing, no matter what else happens, you give the impression of a hero.

Secondary characters and subplots help in this regard. A character can do things for others, or do things that dovetail with another plot thread. Ideally, all of these actions serve their core need (not every need should be 100% selfish, but you should always have strong personal reasons for selfless actions, too). If the primary plot puts your protagonist in a passive position for a moment, is there anything they can DO for anyone else?

Finally, too many writers hamstring their characters by not giving them enough information. Why? The misguided urge to save everything for a huge reveal at the 70% mark of the plot. Well, guess what? If readers aren’t compelled by a character or story right away, they won’t even get to the 70% mark. Too many writers withhold too much information, stalling until “the time is right” for a reveal. Instead, give your protagonist information earlier. Empower them. Allow them to act with some of the facts in hand. Otherwise, they’re sitting on their thumbs until you’ve decided to throw them a bone. This is a recipe for passive protagonist disaster.

Big Choices and Small Moments

Even if you can’t give your character a bunch of information or make them an ass-kicking hero from page one, you can let them be proactive from moment to moment. Study this article on writing active reactions. If they simply can’t participate just yet, at least let them be engaged. You’ll also want to take a few big risks and step outside of your comfort zone.

Keep training/explaining to a minimum, especially in the first 100 pages. It’s always better to have your protagonist act and pursue, even if they make a mistake doing so because they’re green or don’t have all the information yet. Really take a close look at all of these types of montages. I will bet that you can make some big cuts and redistribute key information elsewhere.

Perhaps the biggest choice you can make to empower your hero is to stop giving them so much help. The best friend who only exists to support them? Give that friend some nuance and conflict, or they’re just going to be boring scaffolding for your protagonist. The older, wiser mentor who gives the trainee the lay of the land? Let the character start to discover things for themselves, make assumptions, and get out there, ready or not.

Remember, fiction is life elevated. Big stories. Big characters. Big stakes. Most of us feel like we’re just along for the ride in our daily lives. When we come to get away from it all and read fiction, we want to see protagonists who take risks, make choices, chase dreams, and grow into their power. There’s definitely an aspirational component to relating to character. Make sure your hero is someone readers can be inspired by, warts and all, and put them in the driver’s seat. What are you waiting for?

Are you struggling with the intersection of plot and character? Hire me as your novel editor for actionable, hands-on manuscript advice tailored to your story.

How to Write Big Character Life Changes

Many writers wonder how to write big character life changes, massive events that rock your characters to their core. But this is a necessary discussion to have, since, ideally, your novel will be grappling with huge life stuff. So how do you render these events in a believable and relatable way? Read on.

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Rendering character life changes on the page takes a light and thoughtful touch.

Coping With Big Life Changes

Two recent editorial projects come to mind where a novel’s protagonist has been thrown into an absolutely new life. In both cases, these were thrillers, so it was a life of sudden crime, badass skills, high stakes. Two perfectly nice small-town young women suddenly became Lara Croft in the span of one life-changing event each.

In both cases, the writers just ran with this new “badass persona”, without paying a lot of attention to the idea that big, identity-shifting life changes often come with a lot of angst. I can’t be walking my neighbor’s dog one day, then breaking into a bank vault with a Glock the next, without some kind of psychological upheaval.

The thing is, big stakes are hard because they’re so big, so unbelievable. When your character inevitably goes through a huge life event, your job is to follow them through the transition in a way that takes many steps.

One leap from Girl Next Door to Action Hero is not believable. Any huge shift to identity demands several steps. When the unthinkable happens to your protagonist, what are the layers they feel?

Let’s take our Lara Croft example. When she wakes up the next day, suddenly charged with stopping a money laundering ring, and she finds a gun in her hand, how many different ways does she feel?

Scared of the potential outcome? Guilty for what she has to do? Worried about the people she’s leaving behind? Empowered that she has the chance to do something big? Like she wants to crawl back into bed? All of these are different.

Of course, in the interest of your plot, you want your character to embrace their story, to run with it. To buy in, as I call it. But too many times, I see a character going from Mode A to Mode B so seamlessly, that it’s like Girl Next Door never existed. She did, and she’s instrumental to keeping your reader attached to the plot that happens next.

Life Before and After

Speaking of which, be sure to give your character enough of a life “before” the big event. Something that can act as a touch point. Do they think about a childhood pet (a symbol of comfort) when things get intense? Do they remember previous moments of triumph when they need motivation in their new circumstances?

In both of the manuscripts I worked on recently with this issue, one of my big notes was that there wasn’t enough of a “before”. But if the character is too thin when they launch on their big adventure, there’s something too glossy about their new personality. It’s hard to relate to. I’ve never held a Glock. I’ve never woken up as an international jewel thief. (All of the examples I mention are made up, they don’t have anything to do with client manuscripts.) I can’t relate as well to our protagonist now that she is these things.

So that “before” life is going to come into play to not only help her weather the storms of her new predicament, but to help me connect, as a reader. Character life changes are incredibly powerful tools in your plot. They keep your action moving forward, and they are very necessary to creating good fiction.

But remember who your characters were before their lives changed, too. That’s years of rich material you can draw on, especially if present circumstances are rocky or larger than life.

The Bigger the Event, the More Nuanced the Reaction

There’s a note I often give about melodramatic writing. You know, when the boy’s girlfriend dies and he all of a sudden becomes a poet and weeps about “the darkened chambers of my heart”. A big reaction to a big event is not always the best choice.

The problem is, we don’t often know how to write nuanced and compelling reactions to big events. Matching big event to big tone often results in purple prose. Souls shattering. Angels weeping. That sort of thing. These have become cliches.

As you consider your character’s reaction to big life events, think instead of the small thoughts he or she could have. Everything is falling apart around them. With a pang, they suddenly remember the treehouse where they used to hide out when their parents argued. What they wouldn’t give for that childlike sense of safety and security, to hide away until everything blows over.

Or when their best friend falls into a coma. They could drop to their knees and rend their hair, sure. Or they can remember that time they filmed an N*Sync music video in their backyard*. They even went to Ross and got matching costumes. How they laughed when they played it back.

Look for contrasts. Big events/quiet thoughts. High action/small realizations. I’m always on my editorial clients to aim for complexity, to add layers to their work, to connect in unexpected ways.

When your novel serves up big life events for your characters, the first reaction that comes to mind may be a familiar one that readers will expect. Take a step back. What else is available to your imagination? There, you might find the fresh, nuanced choice to really reel your reader in.

*Absolutely, positively not something I did in the seventh grade. Okay. Okay. But it was my best friend’s idea…

Are your characters coming across as you’ve always envisioned? If not, hire me as your novel editor and learn how to make them a reality.

Writing Emotional Meaning

Writing emotional meaning can be very difficult because most writers are so focused on getting information down on the page. What it all means, how it makes the reader feel, how to get the most out of it…these are higher order concerns that sometimes don’t enter into a first draft.

And they don’t necessarily have to. Sometimes we don’t know what our books are really about until we’ve written them. But that’s what revision is for! If you have no idea what “emotional meaning” even, well, means, read on.

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Sometimes writing emotional meaning feels like juicing truth out of a rock. A very meaningful rock.

Writing Emotional Meaning for Character

Writers often get caught up in putting character details down on the page. Your character’s eye color, favorite food, quirky hobby. For some, this is the stuff of spreadsheets. The contents of the character’s room or locker or backpack are meant to tell the reader who they are.

I do not understand this, nor have I ever. Sure, if they like mumble rap instead of country, this tells me something about them. Some vague, mass market, cookie cutter thing. But it doesn’t give me their soul.

Instead, I am looking for how things matter to a character, instead of what matters to them. This is a pretty subtle difference. Keep in mind that your character has had a past, they have a present, and they are hoping for a future. Instead of just the facts about each of these, I want to know how your character is letting these things affect them.

For example, your character grew up in an abusive home. Instead of just detailing the abuse in flashback, surprise the reader. Maybe your character thinks of the treehouse where they escaped from everything. Or maybe they felt empowered in the midst of tragedy by making pancakes for their siblings before the mom got up and the day started on a bad note.

An Example of Emotional Meaning

If the character relates to this fact from their past with some nostalgia, or even fondness, there is richness there. How do they think about the past? Compare this example:

I was abused ever since I could remember. Mom would come home late from one of her benders, then it’d be up to us to stay quiet all morning while she slept it off.

This is very factual. We get just the straight truth here. Now compare it to this one:

Th smell of maple syrup always sets me off. I remember cooking as quietly as possible. Huddling everyone around the table. But instead of the fear, I remember watching everyone eat and smiling. For just a moment, we are all safe in the kitchen and it’s because of me.

This character has a tough backstory. Sure. Everyone knows that child abuse = bad. But don’t just make that preconceived notion in your reader’s mind do all the work.

Finding an emotion that’s more than “just the facts”, and maybe a surprising emotion, adds some interest and intrigue to the character attributes you’re creating. You can have the character react with the same level of complexity about their present and future. For example, they are about to receive a full-ride scholarship to an elite prep school. Amazing. All their dreams are coming true.

But how else might they feel about it? Resentment because they’ll have to actually work hard, unlike some of their fancy new classmates? Pressure?

Don’t stop at “what”. Move past it to “how” and “why”.

 

Layer Emotional Meaning In Before You Need It

The other day, I was reading a client manuscript about two best friends who really miss one another, because the main character moved away. The friend is mentioned briefly in the first chapter (by name, with the attribution “best friend”), then it’s not until a dozen chapters later that they are able to talk on the phone.

Now, the writer has done a few things wrong here. First of all, if it really is a best-friendship, why does it take ten chapters for them to get on the phone after a traumatic separation? Second of all, it’s not enough to just say “Oh, she’s my best friend and I miss her” and then count on the reader’s idea of a best friend to do all the heavy lifting.

What this writer should’ve been doing is writing emotional meaning into the friendship in every chapter. Does the character think to text their BFF, only to sadly remember that it’s past midnight on the East Coast? Does someone at their new school remind them of their friendship? Does mint chocolate chip ice cream not taste as sweet without their amiga?

Have Your Characters Think About the Important Stuff

I read a lot of manuscripts where the character says something like, “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about my BFF. I miss her so much.” And yet in 50 pages, the protagonist hasn’t thought of the friend once, except to name them and tag them “best friend”. I have access to their thoughts! I’ve been looking! Not one thought on the actual page. So “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about XYZ” rings incredibly false.

All this is to say, if something is meaningful, put it on the page early and often. Try to find surprising emotional meaning behind it. Add depth and richness. By the time we get on the phone with BFF in chapter ten, we should know something about their friendship. We should have feelings about it that are inspired by the character’s feelings. We should know much more than, “Oh yeah, that’s the best friend character she mentioned.”

Plant seeds. Add layers. Writing emotional meaning is a job to undertake from the very beginning for those elements of your story that are truly important.

All of your details are on the page, but the emotions are falling flat. Work on your character’s interiority and your emotional writing with me as your novel editor.

Writing Child Characters

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.

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Writing child characters takes strength and vulnerability.

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 When Writing Young Characters

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. Writing young characters for picture book and 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 writing young characters for 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.

Writing Active Character Reaction

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 and character reactions in general?

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The best protagonists make things happen and react to what’s happening, both are crucial elements to keeping the reader engaged.

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:

And?

So?

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.

Character Turning Points

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.

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You want to literally be able to point to a change of heart on the page.

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.

Bringing Dead Characters to Life

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?

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‘Tis the season to talk about those dearly departed characters.

“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.

What Is Interiority? An Interiority Definition, and Why It Matters

One of the cornerstones of my writing craft philosophy is the concept of interiority. I always define it as a character’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and inner struggles, 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 define interiority and teach it.

This article will be intended as a comprehensive interiority definition. An 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.

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Interiority is a tool to express your true commitment to seeing events through your character’s perspective.

What Is Interiority?

I define “interiority” as a character’s thoughts, feelings, reactions, and inner struggles, 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. That is the interiority definition. 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.) Specificity is a big part of my interiority definition.

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.

Interiority is 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 define interiority. It’s to have readers 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:

Want to dig deeper into interiority as it applies to your work? Hire me as your developmental editor, and get customized, actionable advice on how to use this powerful tool.

Commit or Omit

This is more of a general writing advice/philosophy type of post, because I haven’t done one of those in a while. I’ve been giving this note a lot to editorial clients lately, and it has me thinking.

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What do you focus in on and what do you let go of when you’re writing?

Picking and Choosing Elements to Include in Your Writing

One of the most difficult decisions you make as a writer is what you include in your novel or picture book. You can’t include everything. I often reference the image of a spotlight operator when I talk about this. It is, after all, your job to direct your reader’s attention to important elements, and downplay or omit those elements which aren’t important, at the end of the day.

For example, you are writing a YA novel set in a quaint beachside town. (For some reason, three of the novels I’ve worked on in October so far are all set in quaint beach towns! Maybe to make me homesick for California!) There is an adorable bed and breakfast in this quaint beach town, and you take great pains to describe its weathered lavender paint, curved gables, blah blah blah. Probably because you spent your honeymoon in an adorable bed and breakfast very much like this one. But we never see the B&B again, nor is it part of the action in any significant way (nobody has the decency to be murdered in it or anything!). It’s just, well, window dressing. So the question becomes, is your page and a half of description necessary?

Another example: you’re writing a picture book that isn’t in rhyme. But you have this totally awesome rhyming phrase that you want to use. Does it fit the manuscript you’re writing? Or is random rhyme in the middle of a non-rhyming story going to seem odd to the reader?

In both of these cases, I’d probably counsel you to remove those elements. These examples are rather clear-cut. But there’s also another consideration. What if you have a necessary element to your story, but you don’t exactly know what to do with it?

When Commitment Fades In and Out

I recently read two manuscripts, back-to-back, actually, where a character was clearly important to the story, but they disappeared for long stretches of time. One of these characters was, essentially, the story’s villain. Another of these characters was more of a symbolic foil to the protagonist who represented a big life change in the main character’s life.

The first character showed up pretty infrequently, and only when the plot had reached a crescendo. The second character only showed up twice–once in the middle, and once at the very, very end, to make sure the reader knew that Something Significant was happening.

In both cases, the mantra “Commit or omit” crossed my mind. Both writers knew this element they’d chosen was important, but neither seemed to know exactly how to integrate those elements.

Obviously the antagonist’s role is to stir up trouble. He’s not going out to coffee with your protagonist or spending a lot of time laying low. However, this character only did the bare minimum in terms of appearances in the plot, and as such, I felt the writer missed out on a lot of opportunities to develop the antagonist further. Remember, we want our villains to be fleshed out characters, too, not just caricatures. It almost seemed like the writer knew she needed an antagonist, so she threw this personality into the mix, but only when strictly necessary. If the villain had more “screen time”, perhaps they would’ve been a more compelling part of the action.

For the character who only came around during Emotionally Significant Moments, that’s an issue of giving him more to do, too. You don’t want someone who is just a walking/talking thematic element or harbinger of change. That character needs to become more real, or maybe the decision is that you don’t need him, and you can get your significance elsewhere. Commit or omit.

The common thread with both of these characters is that they end up in the novel but under-utilized and, as such, they end up feeling one-dimensional.

Checking Out Your Own Novel or Picture Book

The simplest check for any element in your manuscript is this: Does the character, setting, or plot point only play one role? Are you fully committed to developing this element, or are they just there because you feel you need them?

If you have critique partners (and if you don’t, the recent Critique Connection could help!), consider if there are any characters, plot points, settings, or writing choices that they’ve misunderstood or felt underwhelmed by. These might be the very elements you need to either commit to, or omit from the project.

Is something simply not working in your project, but you don’t know what, or you don’t know what to do about it? Invest in an expert set of eyes, and hire me as your freelance editor.