Voices

What to consider when writing stories for children

By Don Long

21 October 2016 - 11:35

Have you ever dreamed of writing stories for children? New Zealand children’s author and editor Don Long offers a few tips to lift your writing to the next level.

Good stories from all traditions tend to have certain things in common, including convincing dialogue, strong characters and memorable settings. This goes for children's stories as well as stories for adults, although there are some important differences.

Stories for adults, for example, aren’t usually illustrated. And, depending on the age of the children you are writing for, there are elements of violence and sexuality you'll want to leave out or handle with great caution.

But the following tips can apply to all stories for young and old, and have certainly been useful to me when writing stories for children.

1. Try different ways of organising your ideas

There is more than one way to tell a story. The 53 countries of the Commonwealth, for example, embrace many different ways of telling stories for children. For a wonderful introduction to this, see A River of Stories: Tales and Poems from Across the Commonwealth.

The world is hungry for stories told in fresh ways. That’s exactly what we writers offer whenever we take inspiration from the storytelling traditions of other cultures. Every story-telling tradition offers its own rich treasures.

You need to be careful though. Polynesian folk tales, for example, are sometimes structured around a metaphor, as when the ancestor Maui is said to 'fish up an island'. When other people first encounter this tradition, they don’t always understand it. This is why you still occasionally see children’s books of Maui stories with illustrations that show Maui in a canoe literally hauling an island up to the surface on the end of a fishing line. What they should really show is an experienced navigator in an ocean-going canoe applying a complex set of navigational skills in a successful attempt to discover a previously unknown island.

Of course, the story structures that are familiar to many English-speaking audiences, such as the classic European folk tale, also offer a rich set of ideas for how to organise your ideas in a story – and sometimes, these structures are much richer than you might first suspect. Try reading translations of some of the original folk tales that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm recast in the 1800s. You’re in for a surprise.

But why organise your ideas at all? Well, try writing a story for children without the slightest sense of where your story is going – and you’ll soon see why it helps to organise your ideas before you start. There’s nothing worse than finding yourself adrift in the middle of a story with no idea of what to write next. Story structure gives you a road map to follow. While you are writing one part of the story, you have a good sense of where the balance of the story is likely to go. Crucially, this allows you to embed hints of what’s to come – something readers love. This, in turns, allows your readers to realise, in retrospect, that a seemingly minor detail they barely noticed before now turns out to be terribly important.

2. Hook the reader with your opening line(s)

In A River of Stories, there is a story from Brunei Darussalam that begins:

'At the beginning of the world, smoke was a man. At that time, there was a boy named Si Lasap, an orphan, who was constantly harassed by the village youths…' (from ‘The Beginning of Smoke’ in A River of Stories volume 4, 2016)

Where is this going? It’s almost impossible to resist reading on. Writers call opening lines such as this one ‘hooks’. They are all about reeling the reader in.

Notice how much you can pack into a hook. In this example above, we know within 30 words who the main characters are, when the story is set, and what the problem is. Meanwhile, there’s the intriguing stuff about smoke – that in the beginning, smoke was a person!

Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile includes a brilliant guide on how to write hooks. This New York literary agent urges us to think of opening sentences and paragraphs as ‘propellants’. Use them to convey a character, a narrator, a setting, and a shocking piece of information. Above all, use them to tell your reader what to expect next.

And then, don’t let your readers down.

By the way, how stories for children begin is changing, influenced by how television programmes and films start. Where the beginning of stories used to include a fair amount of scene-setting and character-establishment, now stories begin right in the middle of the action. Whether you approve of this change or not, it is conducive to capturing a reader’s attention – which is precisely the point of a hook.

3. Create authentic settings, but don't describe every detail

Here’s a strange thing about a story’s setting: as a writer, you can say too much about it.

Readers don’t need you to describe every little detail. Indeed, that can be counter-productive. It’s enough to tell a little – just enough so that the reader’s imagination paints in the rest.

For example, the Cooks Islands author Johnny Frisbie and I are currently co-writing a story set on the Peruvian slave ship Rosa y Carmen in the 1860s. Our teenage characters are captured on the island of Pukapuka and escape in the Kermadec Islands.

The one thing we don’t want to do is over-describe this 151-ton barque. Notice how unhelpful those details are, by the way. You don’t need to know the tonnage to imagine the conditions on a slave ship in the 1800s, as fever sweeps through her packed hold. Nonetheless, a few telling details do make a huge difference – for example, the main characters overhearing the Peruvian sailors talking in Spanish.

'He lay in the darkness of the hold with his back against the body of a dead man, facing his sister. He knew she had caught the sickness sweeping through the Rosa y Carmen, taking the people one by one. And now he knew the name of the sickness. The sailors had called it "la disentería". And they crossed themselves when they said this.'

The trick is to make these details propel your story along.

It doesn’t matter how exotic the setting is – whether the Chukchi Sea in an Arctic winter or the hold of a Peruvian slave ship in the Pacific in the 1800s – the challenge is to turn the setting of your story into a character itself.

Noah Lukeman gives a great example of this. He says, imagine a father and son talking in a room. Then imagine that room is the visiting room in a prison. See what a difference that makes?

So here’s a test. Find the point in the current draft of a story you are working on – the point where you first describe, or hint at, the setting. Does the description stop the story in its tracks, or does it suddenly change everything? Any mention of the tonnage of the Rosa y Carmen would leave our story dead in the water. But the word the sailors use not only help convince the reader that the story is taking place on a Peruvian ship, it also propels the story forward.

4. Write convincing dialogue

There's nothing like unconvincing dialogue to make a reader feel something isn’t quite right in a story. The trick is not to overdo the dialogue. For example, how should a conversation sound between two locals setting off for a night’s fishing off the southwest coast of Jamaica? The solution isn’t to produce an impenetrable transcript of dialect and patois. That just risks caricature and stereotype.

Here’s the gifted St Lucian writer Jacintha A. Lee getting this right in A River of Stories:

'Compere Lapin could not stand gossip. He always got really annoyed any time he came across a group of animals discussing other people’s affairs.

"But what wrong with them – they only talking about other people?"

Compere Lapin tried telling them that this was a bad habit…'

(From 'Compere Lapin Pays a Price' in A River of Stories volume 4, 2016)

Jacintha’s judicious use of a local way of talking provides just the hint her readers need. Their imaginations can then do the work of 'overhearing' the dialogue in a chorus of St Lucian voices.

Try this less-is-more approach the next time you are trying to write authentic dialogue.

5. Revise and edit

I can’t help myself. As soon as I’ve written something, I think it’s marvellous. This is an all-too-human sense of things you should never trust. Fortunately, there’s a technique for overcoming this.

Close the file on your computer, or put a printout of the story under the socks in your drawer. Don’t look at it for a month.

It’s stunning how well this technique works. Stories that felt great in first draft quickly reveal their flaws a few weeks on.

It is in your second and subsequent drafts that you can refine the dialogue, work on how you describe the setting, review how you’ve structured your ideas, and so on. It’s in the second drafts that the craft of storytelling truly comes into its own.

Want to know more?

Visit any bookshop or public library and you’ll find heaps of how-to books for writers. I’m continuously inspired by Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile and The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life. Also, try Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screening Writing.

These books are not specifically about writing for children, but they are all brilliant. And yes, it does seem odd to be pointing children’s book writers to a guide on scriptwriting. But in Story, Robert McKee offers outstanding insights into what makes a story tick and how to achieve this as a writer.

There are also lots of courses for aspiring writers. A great place to start is Writing for Young Readers: Opening the Treasure Chest. This massive open online course offers an opportunity to join a dynamic community of voices from around the world – and it has the distinct advantage that participation is free.

Are you a teacher? Do you live in the Commonwealth? Then why not enter a story into the Commonwealth Class Story Writing Competition, or get your pupils to enter the children's category. This year's theme is belonging. Entries close on Monday, 14 November 2016.

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