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 Tension Instead of Teasing

There is a big distinction between writing tension and merely teasing the reader along. Unfortunately, a tease is not enough and doesn’t respect your audience. Here’s how to recognize if your scenes have enough tension, and how to fix it if you have a teasing issue.

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Tick tick tick, keep that tension high without teasing…

Have you ever written a sentence like:

If only she knew then what she knew now, she would’ve done everything differently…

They enjoyed their ice cream, not knowing what was about to hit.

These are examples of a classic tease. Writers usually use this kind of language when nothing is going on in the present moment, but they want readers to tag along until something more exciting happens. This is a fine instinct–you know you need more tension than you have, so you are trying to create it. However, it’s not the best approach. Read on to find out why, and how to create genuine reader interest without gimmicks.

Why Teasing Doesn’t Work

Teasing is especially problematic for middle grade and young adult fiction, because those novels tend to be very immediate. The character is in the moment, and there’s none of this, “I’m telling the story from the future, looking through the hazy sands of time.” When you resort to the “If I only knew then” ploy, that puts your actual character’s storytelling in some undetermined future and pulls your reader out of the present moment of the story.

Sure, the reader may wonder what’s about to happen, but this is a short term fix to a moment that lacks other tension. It may not be enough. One or two sentences of teasing might give you a very temporary tension boost, but if you are working with a global lack of tension in that scene or chapter, it’s not going to be enough.

Even more problematic is the idea of teasing repeatedly. Every time you mention a tension-building event, it loses a bit of power. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s a simple application of the Law of Diminishing Returns. If you keep teasing without actually putting the climactic event on the page (and soon!), readers will lose interest as the tease becomes more and more transparent. If you simply must build tension this way, try to add new information with each tease to keep readers engaged.

Writing Tension In the Present Moment

Teasing is especially problematic for middle grade and young adult fiction, because those novels tend to be very immediate. The character is in the moment, and there’s none of this, “I’m telling the story from the future, looking through the hazy sands of time.” When you resort to the “If I only knew then” ploy, that puts your actual character’s storytelling in some undetermined future and pulls your reader out of the present moment of the story.

Ideally, you will be capitalizing on tension that is present in the moment that you’re writing. This is hard to do, because sometimes your moment doesn’t have a lot of tension. You know it needs more. You just don’t know how to create it. So you tease about the future. This often happens in chapters where there has been a lot of telling and the writer is eager to pick up their pacing.

This isn’t the answer you want, but it’s the real answer: You need more tension. If you don’t have it, create it. Or maybe the moment you’re putting on the page isn’t working because there’s not a lot going on. Really analyze the moments where you’ve been using teases. Do they work? Is there more that can happen there? Can you create conflict via character? Maybe loop in other characters or bring in a secondary plot thread? Have a bigger world event happen to shake the characters up?

If the moment isn’t doing heavy lifting, you need to inject some. Ideally, you wouldn’t have a scene or chapter without capitalizing on tension that’s currently happening.

Conflict is the engine that drives plot forward. You should be creating tension on the page at all times, no matter what else is going on. That’s why big globs of world-building, information, or backstory tend to fizzle out quickly. Action is the easiest way to create tension, whether it comes from something happening in your world or character conflict.

Teases are a cheap fix. If you really want to hook readers and keep them engaged, really invest in writing present moment tension.

Are you orchestrating the right amount of tension? Bring me on as your developmental novel editor and we can dig into your plot together.

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?

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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.

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.

 

Creating Compelling Consequences for Characters

When you’re writing fiction and trying to make your reader care, creating consequences for characters is a part of that puzzle. Consequences for actions and ramifications of decisions are important to stakes and tension, as well. This is one of those areas of the fiction craft where character and plot really intersect. For thoughts on how to tackle it, read on.

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Really give your characters…and readers…something to think about.

How Consequences for Characters Work in Fiction

By “creating consequences in fiction,” I mean giving your character’s actions a reaction. This is crucial for establishing stakes and tension. For example, if your character has a very strict mother, it’s not enough to simply tell the reader that Mother Dearest is strict. Because one of the cornerstones of the fiction discipline is the concept of showing vs. telling.

Instead, a more active and compelling way to demonstrate Mom’s strict side is to give your character consequences. If she’s late for curfew, the hammer comes down. She talks back? She’s grounded. She applies to a college Mom doesn’t approve of? Mom goes so far as to sabotage her on the morning of SATs. This last example is rather extreme, but don’t limit yourself to the usual suspects. Put your characters in real trouble. Unique trouble.

But, most importantly, there has to be trouble. Because without consequences, the reader will become less and less invested in the story. Your stakes will be low. There will be nothing to worry about, so why would the reader end up caring deeply when your character makes a choice or takes a risk?

How to Create Consequences for Characters

When you’re crafting your plot, let your character experience consequences early and often. If your protagonist comes out of the gate strongly insisting that Mom is strict…but we never see it in action… Is she really strict?

This is a very common issue. If my principal sees me, I’m toast… Then the principle ends up treating the character delightfully. If my insomniac Dad catches me… Looks like Papa picked this night to sleep like a log. The threat is never realized, the punishment is never carried out.

What’s behind this common error? Writers like to take it easy on their characters. We can all sit around and agree that trouble and tension are the fuel of the story engine. You can’t get very far without them. But when it comes to actually executing them and letting your character suffer? Many writers are simply too nice.

So build emotional anticipation and establish strong consequences. But don’t stop there. If your character risks an action that triggers those consequences, let them befall him or her. Write that scene. Put that obstacle in your own way. Sure, obstacles are tough for the writer because you have to write around them, too.

The Effect of No or Low Consequences

The simple fact remains, however, that readers aren’t going to care about a story where your character has it too easy. By promising consequences early on and not following through, you are handicapping yourself. Because the reader won’t believe you in the future. All of your threats will start to sound empty. If consequences for characters never materialize, but you need to really make your reader nervous down the road–you’ve taken away your own best weapon to build stakes.

Love the trouble. Write the trouble. Tangle up in the trouble and untangle yourself and your character. Do it early and often. That way, you will have your reader’s attention for when the stakes are truly high.

Having trouble with stakes, tension, and hooking your reader in? Work with me as your developmental novel editor and let’s see what kind of trouble we can get into!

Writing a Novel Subplot

Writing a novel subplot doesn’t always come intuitively. Writers often have no problem thinking of their primarily plot, or at least the beginning and end of their story (the Muddy Middle trips people up quite a bit, of course). But sometimes a story ends up seeming too linear. Current events take over and yet, something is missing. This is where the tool of novel subplot comes in.

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Be wary of making your plot too linear. Does your novel need a few turn lanes in its road?

Do You Need a Subplot?

If your story goes too neatly from A to Z, has too few characters, or focuses almost entirely on one story, and you’re not writing an early reader or chapter book (where straightforward stories tend to thrive for very new readers), you may want to look at adding a subplot.

Same thing if your novel manuscript is on the lean side or drastically below the usual word count guidelines. If you have a 35k word YA novel, for example, or a 15k word and you’re gunning for the middle grade category.

Another thing to consider is number of characters. If your story focuses almost entirely on the protagonist and isn’t necessarily populated by other personalities, it could be in this category. Secondary characters and antagonists add a lot of texture to a work of fiction. If we’re dealing with a contemporary YA where a girl has to overcome a lot of her lack of confidence to audition for a play, for example, and we really only have the girl, her single mother, and her encouraging drama teacher–the conflicts inherent with some of those relationships–it’s very likely that your character is on a straight and lonely road.

It’s pretty difficult to judge your own work for “thinness”. A critique partner or an outside editor would be most helpful to diagnose this issue. If someone says that your novel needs more meat or substance or something else happening, you can be pretty sure that your plot is too linear. A subplot might just be the thing to address your problem.

Writing a Novel Subplot: Ideas and Pointers

It can be frustrating to try and give advice on using subplots, because subplots can be any number of things:

  • A secondary story for your protagonist (she is a budding actress but is also dealing with her actress inspiration’s recent death, or her grandmother’s illness)
  • The story of a secondary character (her best friend is really struggling at school and wants to drop out)
  • The story of an antagonist (the rival drama girl at school is causing trouble for your main character)
  • Something going on in the world of the novel (the theatre department is set to be closed due to budget cuts, and the beloved drama teacher will be out of a job)

These examples start close to your character (another storyline for her) and zoom all the way out to a concern in the larger environment. Subplots are like a seasoning. I can’t give you a recipe for how many to use, or what kind. But each one will add flavor.

How Much Subplot and Where Do You Use It?

Sometimes one additional subplot is all you need to spice your dish. The addition of a largely internal conflict for your main character will add depth to your madcap plot. Sometimes, though, one or two or all of the ones mentioned above are necessary.

Suddenly, the story has all sorts of layers. It’s about a girl, who has a fraught personal conflict, who starts to see herself as part of a more complicated web. She must save her best friend from making a bad decision (if dropping out happens to be a bad decision in this story), she must battle off the rival girl, and she also feels tremendous responsibility, maybe, for the success of the theatre program. This story isn’t just about her audition now. It’s about fighting for who and what she loves.

The beginning and end of your novel really should be reserved for building out your novel’s primary elements. Establishing the character, starting off strongly (in action) with their primary conflict, layering in some tasteful backstory along the way, then, on the back end, wrapping up the story in a way that’s thematically rich and brings the initial problem full circle.

You can and absolutely should plant the seeds of subplot in the beginning, and resolve the additional plots by the end. For example, she’s driving to school and sees a sign on the school lawn about the budget cuts meeting. By the end, it’s announced that the theatre program is saved. But the place where subplot thrives is the middle. That’s where you will weave it in and develop it.

How do you know exactly where and when?

The Role of Subplot in the Novel

I advocate for subplot because it’s wonderful for one crucial thing: to raise stakes and tension. If your primary plot is starting to sag–check in with one of your subplots! The drama teacher gathers everyone around to make the sad announcement that there may not even be auditions this year. Boom! That’s enough to get your protagonist in a tizzy and send her off in one direction or another.

Or you can reverse engineer it. Read through your manuscript and pick 4-5 places where even you’re bored of reading it. They are calling out for some tension. Is there a common element? Is there a plot thread that you could create and weave through all of your “problem spots”?

Play around with it. Hopefully the types of subplots listed above have touched off some ideas.

Thin plot? Short novel? Muddy middle? Boring? You may know there’s an issue, but not what to do about it. Check out my freelance editorial website for more about developmental editing services.

How to Choose Which Scenes to Include in Your Novel

It can be very difficult to choose which scenes to include in your novel. There’s simply so much to write. There’s your plot, your character’s backstory, any world-building you need to do, and then there are the transitions–the moments that link everything together. I have some criteria here that will help you decide what to keep and what to chop.

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Each component of your novel is a tool to help get your reader engaged.

The Best Kinds of Scenes to Include in Your Novel

The best scenes to include in your novel are those that move the needle forward. Now, “the needle” can be one of many things. Here’s a short list:

  • Something that informs character (main or secondary)
  • Something that informs character relationship
  • Something that informs plot
  • Something that informs world-building
  • Something that conveys mood
  • Something that conveys theme/bigger picture meaning
  • Something that informs (information-wise, that is!)

Often, in my editorial work with clients, I find myself asking the question: “Does this earn its keep?” That can refer to a scene or sometimes an entire chapter. More simply, “Does something happen?”

That something doesn’t have to be in the realm of zombies flooding down out of nowhere–in other words, a climactic event. But every scene and chapter needs to have a “something” from the list above. It needs to matter to your story and exist other than just because you felt like writing it.

The Level of Action or Information In Your Scene

The other important consideration here, other than what the scene does, is what your scene is: Is it action or is it information? I have long contended that all writing is a balance of action and information. The more information you have, the less action you’re going to insert, and vice versa.

In order to keep readers awake during those necessary scenes where you deliver information, you need to have action/plot/external conflict, and a lot of it.  When choosing what scene to include in your novel, I would favor those scenes that contain action. If it’s a scene heavy with talking, information, exposition, backstory, flashback, etc., that might be worth a review right there.

Order is important, too. If you have too my information in chapter after chapter, you are spending all of your “information capital” and going into deep debt (or, likely, boredom). Refill your coffers by including action. That buys you more leeway to do some info-dumping after you work on plot.

Look very closely at all of the dense sections of telling/information/backstory in your novel. I have reason to believe you could cut or reorganize these, and make sure to space them apart between plenty of action.

A Tale of Three Scenes

Please consider these examples and try to guess if I’d suggest you keep them in your novel:

A scene where two characters sit down over ice cream to hash out their quarrel about an ex-boyfriend they both share?

That informs character, informs relationship, conveys mood, and sets up some plot (I’d imagine). Best of all, there is tension. They are talking about an emotionally charged subject. It’s obviously a keeper, even though the scene is rather static and passive (they are sitting and talking rather than doing stuff or having stuff done to them). Depending on how well the conversation goes, there could be the potential for fisticuffs, too, so this could translate into a more active scene.

A scene where two characters sit down over ice cream to talk about the upcoming Harvest Festival in town?

Well, this one takes all the tension off the table. (Unless it’s a Harvest Festival where the serial killer strikes every year. In which case, carry on…) So the answer becomes less clear-cut. If you are able to make any progress on world-building (setting the scene for this particular place and event) or tension or character relationship, include this scene, but keep it short. But if they’re just chatting excitedly about the festival, we already know about the town and its customs, and there’s nothing else going on, it might be nice, but “nice” ain’t good enough.

A scene where two characters sit down over ice cream and talk about the Harvest Festival they went to yesterday where nobody got serial killed?

Absolutely not. Here, this scene is a bad idea all around. They are sitting around and talking (passive), nothing else is happening, the chitchat is rather pleasant (unless something truly twisted happened at the Harvest Festival), and they are rehashing material that the reader has already read. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. Cut it.

How to Handle Transitions in Your Novel

Which brings me to my last salient point: spend less time on transitions. If nothing is happening, you don’t need to labor over it. Get your reader from point A to point B without too much fuss.

Just because we eat breakfast every day and use the restroom every day (one would hope), there’s no need to put it on the page. I’ve worked with some manuscripts recently where writers felt duty-bound to describe every element of a character’s day because, well, that character needed to get out of bed somehow before they could go to the Harvest Festival.

This is a common but misguided urge. Instead of going through an entire school schedule to get to the event that happens at the end of the day, simply stick in a short and sweet transition: “After an ordinary day at school…”

The bottom line? Get the reader to the good stuff quickly. Cut whatever doesn’t move the needle. Trust the reader to fill in the bathroom breaks.

Struggling with plot? We can work on an existing novel, or even your proposed novel outline, together. Hire me as your novel editor today.

How to Hook a Reader and Leave Them Hungry for More

Like any fiction writer, you’re wondering how to hook a reader with your story, especially those all-important first pages. (Heck, this should probably be “first page,” singular, since sometimes that’s all the opportunity you have.) Information plays a key role in how you manipulate an audience. Make no mistake, you’re not just telling a story or getting your character/plot down on paper. You’re trying, with every page, to make the reader care, which is your number one job as a writer.

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Strategic information release is much more effective than information deprivation when you want to string readers along (in a good way).

How to Hook a Reader by Creating Suspense

As I’ve written before, confusion is not the same as mystery. You want to leave your reader hungry to continue reading, not flummoxed about what’s going on. Information release is the tool at your disposal to accomplish this.

Sometimes the most dissatisfying manuscripts I read are the ones that trying the hardest to hook a reader. Why? Because a lot of writers think that withholding information is the way to go. That’s the definition of suspense, no? The reader doesn’t know what’s going on. Right? This is what we want!

Unfortunately, it’s a very murky line between suspense and not enough information. If you don’t provide a lot of context for what’s going on, the reader might not care as much as they should. Or, worse, they  might become utterly confused.

How to Combat Confusion

I’m of the school that some context and information about a suspenseful situation is actually desirable.

Let’s say that your character is wandering into an abandoned house. We’ve all seen that scene in a horror movie. Imagine, first, the “maximum confusion” version. The character arrives at the house and walks through the creaky front door. Everything is in shadow. The creepy music swells. The horror element may be just around the corner. The character tries a closet door and…

Scary, right? Well, kinda. There are a few pieces of information missing. The scene overall would be much more “grabby” if we knew any of the following:

  • Motivation (Why is the character at this horrible house?)
  • Objective (What do they need to get/see/etc. while there?)
  • Stakes (What could go wrong in this scene and how might it affect the whole?)
  • Antagonist (Who or what has the potential to be hiding in the shadows?)
  • Past (What’s happened to lead the character here?)
  • Future (What do they hope will happen after? What do they worry might happen instead?)

Some of this information will be situational. If you’ve done your plot work correctly, the reader should know why we’re at the house, for example. A lot of this information can be filled in via interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) as the character approaches the house and begins to explore. (A related post would be how to create emotional anticipation.)

With two or three additional pieces of context, the scene takes on more weight in a reader’s mind.

Your Goal is Creating Hungry Readers

Imagine yourself arriving at a cocktail party. If you keep from eating beforehand in anticipation of the event, most likely you’ll end up too hungry, show up, and start diving into whatever hors d’oeuvres you can find until you’ve satisfied that initial hunger. It doesn’t feel good to be that hungry, and you don’t really taste the first few bites.

On the other hand, if you have a little snack at home, then go to the party, you’re not desperate for food, so you’re able to enjoy yourself and taste the offerings. Each one might leave you wanting more, but you’re not starving for the next bite, either.

Think of a reader as this party guest. They satisfy themselves on information and emotion. If you go into a scene with too little of either, you’re making your reader hungry…and not in a good way. You want them craving more, instead of starving for it.

Are you pacing your writing correctly? Is it “grabby” enough? General advice can only go so far. Work with me as your novel editor, and I’ll give you actionable, supportive, hands-on feedback.