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.
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.
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]
Find your star player and make it *all* about him.
Read your manuscript to an actual child.
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 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.
Draw on real people you’ve known to flesh out tropes like “the class clown,” or “the homecoming queen.”
Read vintage British murder mysteries.
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.
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.
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!
Bonnie 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.
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