Does Your Story Need a Heart Transplant? by @BonnieAdamson and #GIVEAWAY

Three case histories

Sometimes I have what I think is a great idea for a story. I plot it out, polish the text, start thumbnailing scenes and begin working on character design. And then I hit a wall. Many of the elements are there, but the story just won’t come to life. This happens most often when there’s something in the way of the characters.

Character = engagement = heart. When I haven’t fully engaged with my characters, there’s no heart and the project flatlines. In that case, the task is to give the characters some breathing room. Maybe the plot has taken over, or  there’s too much detail choking the story—or maybe I simply haven’t given the characters enough to do.

AdamsonB_post art 1

Whose story is it?

For a long time, I didn’t know who the main character was in this story. I didn’t *care* who the main character was. A fellow who has accumulated enough points to win the big prize at the rodeo, doesn’t.  Misunderstandings ensue, plus slapstick humor and a surprise at the end. I liked it. I really, really liked it. But the story wasn’t breathing on its own.

The fix

A critique partner read the manuscript to her daughter. She reported that the daughter was sad when the fellow at the beginning didn’t win the trophy. Sad??? This was only a minor plot point! What about the funny stuff and the twisty ending? What did it mean?

It meant this young listener had found the heart I wasn’t even aware was missing.  Eventually, after much whining and thrashing about,  I realized I had to commit to the trophy-less cowboy. The immediate solution was to switch from a storyteller’s voice to close third person. The opening went from something like “Have you heard the one about . . .?” [plot-centered] to “Pete never met a trophy he didn’t like.” [character-centered]

Bam.

The lesson

Find your star player and make it *all* about him.

Read your manuscript to an actual child.

AdamsonB_post art 2

The lock-up.

I thought I had this one nailed—a classic underdog-saves-the-day story with heart built right into the concept. Yay! But was saving the day enough? What if readers didn’t care about my little bumbling bee from the start? I was also having a lot of trouble coming up with a visual identity for her main rival. Worse, this seemed to be the main character’s only story. I know you’re not supposed to think in terms of sequels, but I had a character I liked who was totally boxed in by a dead-end plot.

The fix

The Miss Marple Trick. Agatha Christie’s famous sleuth solves mysteries by observing behavior she can relate to that of inhabitants of her tiny village. One day while trying for the umpteenth time to come up with a sketch for my main character’s nemesis, I suddenly thought of two girls I had known in high school. One was better at *everything* that ensures popularity in that environment. The other was not so much an underdog as simply and thoroughly eclipsed by her friend. Eureka! Once I understood the dynamics  the story became more about the relationship than saving the day, and future story possibilities opened up.

The lesson

Draw on real people you’ve known to flesh out tropes like “the class clown,” or “the homecoming queen.”

Read vintage British murder mysteries.

AdamsonB_post art 3

A thicket of details.

For this story, I did oodles of research to make sure the setting was authentic, accumulating notes upon notes about jungle habitats. I had a hook and a decent text and even some quirky character traits for the main character. But the obsession with the setting and the research had used up the energy that should have gone to showcasing the characters. My quirky crocodile didn’t have enough to do and came off as merely  part of the scenery.

The fix

Pure serendipity. In  organizing a list of portfolio pieces by project, this one happened to be followed by a wordless story that had its own problems. How about a mashup? What if the protagonist in the wordless story showed up in the jungle? Bingo! The crocodile leapt at the chance to reveal himself as a method actor, uncovering motivations I had not been aware of. The text hasn’t changed, but now there’s a much richer subtext playing out in the illustrations, and the secondary characters have gotten into the act as well.

The lesson

Energize your characters with something totally unexpected.

Have more than one idea in your portfolio.

If  *your* stories lack heart due to characters that are hidden in plain sight, boxed in by the plot, or smothered by the scenery, check out the download for exercises that will help you find the right treatment.

Meanwhile, the stories above are all off life-support and should be up and around soon. Stay tuned!

BonnieAdamson-2016 b&wBonnie Adamson is the illustrator of Bedtime Monster and the “I Wish” series of picture books for Raven Tree Press, as well as Rutabaga Boo!, written by the lovely and talented Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and due in Spring 2017 from Atheneum. Visit Bonnie at www.bonnieadamson.com.

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Bonnie’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area—only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

GIVEAWAY! Bonnie is kindly giving away a Kidlit Summer School tote bag, featuring her fabulous design. For a chance to win, please leave a comment below.

Don’t miss your chance to get perfect attendance! Leave a comment on this post within the first 24 hours. Moderators have to approve first-time commenters, so your comment may not show up immediately.

160 comments on “Does Your Story Need a Heart Transplant? by @BonnieAdamson and #GIVEAWAY

  1. Mavis Penney says:

    Draw on real people that you know … And … Observe behaviour.
    Absolutely! That’ll bring it all home! 🙂

    Like

  2. fireurchin says:

    Great reminders! Working on a story with more characters than my usual. Definitely need to relook with your words in mind. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

  3. marlainagray says:

    I’ve written stories with the wrong main characters. It definitely changes things for the better when you pick the right one. Thanks for the on-point advice, and I adore these illustrations!

    Like

  4. Sandy Perlic says:

    First off, I just have to say that your artwork for Kidlit Summer School is perfect! And second, I really appreciate these “case studies” – some of my stories suffer from these problems. Hopefully your suggestions will help me find the perfect fix.

    Like

  5. I’m looking forward to trying this exercise. Thanks for the post.

    Like

  6. knespoli says:

    Energize your characters with something totally unexpected.
    Got it! Thanks

    Like

  7. Great examples to make the points you are teaching us. Thank you.

    Like

  8. Gabi Snyder says:

    This post is filled with great advice. I especially like the idea of drawing upon real people to flesh out tropes. Thanks, Bonnie!

    Like

  9. Alex Borns-Weil says:

    The thing you said about the storytellers voice versus close third person really hit home for me. That’s exactly what I was working on and revisions today. The distance of the story tellers voice that I used in my first chapter really wasn’t working for my story. Thanks for articulating it so clearly.

    Like

  10. I always enjoy getting the perspective of the illustrator. Such a helpful post at a most need time for me! Thank you, Bonnie. Also, your illustrations are delightful!

    Like

  11. Your characters are so sweet! Thank you for your tips on using personal experiences.

    Like

  12. ritaborg says:

    loved reading this. great article

    Like

  13. writeknit says:

    Thanks for the tips – now to look over my stories to see who needs a heart transplant – STAT!

    Like

  14. Thank you for the fresh ways to approach blue in the face characters.

    Like

  15. I love these lessons! Thanks for sharing your hard-won tips to give our characters heart!

    Like

  16. Thanks, Bonnie! Energizing characters adds life and heart to our manuscripts. Your artwork tells stories on their own, They are so detailed and full of wonderful expression and life. I particularly love the female bumblebee.

    Like

  17. laurielyoung says:

    All great lessons that I can use in my current WIP—thanks!! And your illustrations are delightful!

    Like

  18. laura516 says:

    This post was super-helpful. Thanks for sharing your struggles, fixes, and lessons!

    Like

  19. debrakayschmidt says:

    Bonnie, it was so generous of you to share your thought process as you found clever fixes for each of you wonderful stories. Thank you!

    Like

  20. Thank you, Bonnie, for the suggestions to energize my characters. Time to think of something unexpected.
    ~Suzy Leopold

    Like

  21. Caroline says:

    Your first example might one of the best examples used I’ve seen on creating character-driven stories. Thanks for all of the great tips here!

    Like

  22. shirley Johnson says:

    Enjoyed reading this post. Thank you.

    Like

  23. Kate Giard says:

    I love the variety of solutions. Thank you!

    Like

  24. Natalie Lynn Tanner says:

    First of all, I LOVE your logo design for Camp this year! TOO CUTE!!! Your advice: “Energize your characters with something totally unexpected” = PRICELESS!!!! THANK YOU!!!

    Like

  25. Jenifer says:

    Very nice advice and I think it takes a good heart to be a writer for children

    Like

  26. judyrubin13 says:

    Bonnie, thank you for sharing your insights.

    Like

  27. Jenifer says:

    Also, I missed the e-mail with the password to go to the exercises. Yes! I did register, and I don’t know who to contact to go to the password protected areas.
    Any help in this matter would be appreciated. Thanks.

    Like

  28. Sheri Radovich says:

    Bonnie,
    Thank you for sharing and giving me new ideas into character development and creating heart. Thank you.

    Like

  29. Andi Osiek says:

    Excellent character development advice. Thanks so much for this post… very helpful!

    Like

  30. Juliana Lee says:

    Thanks for all the spot on advice. Without the heart of the character, the story really is just a series of events.

    Like

  31. What an information and inspiration packed Friday post about bringing characters to life!

    Like

  32. Jill says:

    I almost missede this one. But it’s only 8:00 here, so I’m still awake and can appreciate this latest post.

    Like

  33. Phyllis S Cherry says:

    Thanks for sharing your story of looking for the character of your story. Sometimes he/she shows up in the strangest places. Now I’m looking for a name because my character is sitting with arms crossed staring at me because she doesn’t like her name.
    Phyllis

    Like

  34. Debbie Austin says:

    I love how you explain the problem, the fix, and the lesson. I probably have one or more of these issues in my WIPs right now. Thanks for the great advice!

    Like

  35. janebuttery says:

    Bonnie what agood couple of tips to have on my birthday.I agree that reading to a child gets it right.

    Like

  36. Dawn Simon says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I have a couple picture book ideas I’m trying to find the heart in, and this is helpful.

    Like

  37. Kristen Browning says:

    Thanks for the great tips! I have a couple flatliners that I keep messing with to no avail. Hoping your advice helps!

    Like

  38. ashley samson says:

    Great exercise and post, thank you!

    Like

  39. Angela says:

    Can’t wait to see how these all played out in print.

    Like

  40. kimchaffee1007 says:

    So well explained. Thank you for this post!

    Like

  41. Barbara Senenman says:

    Great post! Extremely helpful.

    Like

  42. These are great tips! I especially connected with the one about making sure everything is character driven.

    Like

  43. msvukidlit says:

    Examples you gave were very helpful as was the exercise sheet. Thanks. It is sometime hard to know what your character is lacking. Really great tips.

    Like

  44. Excellent post on connecting to the heart of the characters!

    Like

  45. Kristen C.S. says:

    Very thought provoking. I need to analyze a few of my pb ms for these. Thanks! =)

    Like

  46. Keila Dawson says:

    Loving that mashup idea. Helpful examples! Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  47. Aw, man, this is so great! And to think, I missed it (not to mention my chance at perfect attendance) because I was impirsoned with a never-going-to-bed child in a hotel room halfway between my house and Grandma’s house when I could have been reading these wise words. Thanks!

    Like

  48. katmaz2012 says:

    Thank you for your words of wisdom. I pointed my in the right direction.

    Like

  49. Lynn Alpert says:

    Great post, Bonnie! I’ll be looking for those books!

    Like

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