Tipping The Scales Between Heart And Humor by @leezaworks and GIVEAWAY

Recently, I saw Penn & Teller live. It was a riveting show filled with mystical “ooohs,” enlightened “aaaahs,” and of course, plenty of laughs. The magician-entertainers are dubbed as a comedy duo and they delivered right on point—tricks, tension, punch lines, you name it… all tied up into one gratifying package.

When I began tinkering with ideas for this blog post wondering what on earth I could possibly say that you might find helpful in writing/illustrating this year’s theme, I couldn’t help but think about the show. Or, rather, the relationship between Penn and Teller, their relationship with the audience—and their balance between heart and humor.

Penn—aka the tall, chatty one with glasses—took viewers on a journey, spinning tales of yesteryear. He harkened back to childhood, celebrated the pair’s relationship that has spanned four decades and walked us through old-school magic tricks such as the classic pull-a-rabbit-out-of-a-hat number and an impressive fire-eating act. He built up tension in between each illusion, and from start to finish, verbally narrated the evening that culminated with a satisfying ending.

He was the author. He told us a story full of heart.

Teller—aka the silent one—entertained us visually with magic acts. He expertly mimed with comical delight, using a wild array of facial expressions, props and body language (I’m still gaga over the turning-pennies-into-goldfish trick!). And he did it all without uttering a single word.

He was the illustrator. He painted the pictures and gave us the humor. (Not to mention being the epitome of “Show, don’t tell!’)

Hernandez_PennTeller

Setting Up

The warm-up act was a jazz musician who played piano for an hour during which, he invited the entire audience to inspect a large wooden barrel and box set up on stage. It was an unexpected surprise to me. I realized he had deliberately set the tone for what lay ahead in the show. Was that orchestrated by the magicians? Of course!

Clearly Penn and Teller’s success is rooted in the strength of their working relationship with one another and knowing how to composite great live entertainment. For me, the performance had just the right balance of heart and humor, interspersed with tension, drama, and unexpected twists.

This led me to thoughts of the working relationship between author and illustrator—and how we find just the right balance in our work between heart and humor. Maybe you can have a lot of one, but need a little of its counterpart to create harmony.

That doesn’t necessarily mean exactly equal parts. I doubt you would paint a room exactly half black and half white. But rather, when you work up a first draft, dummy or outline, you step back and see where to emphasize your main focus (heart or humor), pepper in a little of the other where it’s needed most and perhaps round out with some tension, drama or unexpected twists—with the idea of delivering one gratifying package to your viewer: the reader.

Invite your audience to inspect the wooden barrel and box

Front matter of a book—endpapers, title, copyright and dedication pages—offer valuable real estate that can help set the tone of what lies ahead (heart, humor, or both) before your story begins.

It’s easier, yes, if you are the illustrator or illustrator/author, but even if you are not an illustrator there’s nothing to stop you from making suggestions. Be sure to give whatever you’ve suggested a reason to exist, not just because it’s funny or sweet, but that it contributes to the storytelling. As well as thoughtful illustrations, cleverly-written dedications, disclaimers, or special notes to the reader can set up the tone of your book.

Know When To Lighten Things Up

When your story’s scale tips toward sweet or sad, offer up some subtle comic relief to give your characters and readers hope—plus a way to stay engaged. If you have kids, or recall your own childhood, think about an emotional time when you or another family member used humor to help them (or you) snap out of a mood? Or did someone discover you actually cared all along, but you wouldn’t admit it and immediately you made fart sounds with your armpit to create a diversion from … you know… your ‘feelings’?

Give Reason To Care Beyond the Jokes

When the manuscript’s scale tips to the funny or silly, make sure you pull on that heartstring once in a while to strengthen the bond between your character(s) and story. A book filled with a list of one-liners won’t give your readers any real reason to care—or desire to know how it all turns out—basically it’s just a joke book.

Add Surprises

Once you’ve established your basic structure, look at where you can then: add a dash of tension (even when a comically-clumsy magician thrusting swords into the box that currently contains the beautiful assistant can still cause a reader to catch his/her breath); sprinkle drama to create some anticipation to wild shenanigans (cue the page turn, or cliffhanger); or feature an unexpected twist that can cinch the deal to that satisfying ending.

Think Less is More

And, if you’re caught trying to shove the playing cards back up your sleeve in hopes that no-one notices, you might be trying too hard. Keep it simple. Take a break. Deconstruct your work then build it back up. That’s what revision is for, right?

With the Penn & Teller show, the comedy was expected. The tricks looked simple and effortless (although I am sure countless hours were spent perfecting every nuance of the performance). In the end, the heartfelt narration was a nice surprise that made me care about these two in a deeper way, far more than I did before walking into the theater.

So, whether illustrating or writing: Get all your props together, find that balance, hit the stage and deliver a gratifying and magical package to your favorite audience—your readers!

HernandezL_HeadshotLeeza Hernandez illustrates (and sometimes writes) picture books including Dog Gone! and Cat Napped! and Never Play Music Right Next To The Zoo written by John Lithgow—as well as The Eat Your Homework series by Ann McCallum. She’s currently on lockdown in her studio illustrating Amy Parker’s This Is Your Day (Scholastic, Fall 2017). No really, she’s been locked in and no-one will let her out until she meets her deadline! You can find Leeza on Instagram and Twitter @leezaworks or visit leezaworks.com

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

GIVEAWAY! Leeza is giving away a magical goodie box filled with surprises (including a 20-minute chat coupon where she’s happy to answer any of your burning questions) and fun props that may make you laugh, cry or both, plus three runner-up note packs. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win a prize, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

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.

DON’T FORGET THE PET: A Tried and True Way to Imbue Your Story With Heart by Suzanne Selfors and GIVEAWAY

Do I have a secret for pulling on heartstrings? You bet. It’s furry, or feathery, or scaly, and it’s often my favorite character in my story.

I give my child hero a pet.

Selfors_SmellsLikeDogFirst, a disclaimer—I’m a fan of happy pet stories. I’m still upset with Ms. Rowling for killing Hedwig. In fact, I may NEVER forgive her. She’s at the top of MY LIST of authors who’ve unnecessarily killed fictional pets I love. This is not to say that I won’t put my fictional pets into harrowing circumstances, but I do my best not to kill them, as evidenced by the opening letter in Smells Like Dog in which I promise my readers that no dogs will die in this book.

Whether or not you kill your fictional pets is up to you, of course, but just be aware that I will add you to MY LIST.

Which brings me to the first reason to give your hero a pet: Readers Care. We all love animals, and sometimes we root for them more than we root for the human characters. Animals make us feel good. Why else would we spend so much time watching kittens on Youtube? Or guinea pigs? Or baby sloths? Seriously, I’ve got a problem. But the truth is, a pet will elicit protective emotions in your child or adult reader and give them another character to care about.

I grew up in a bit of a zoo. My father kept ducks as an organic way to deal with slugs. The ducks obliged, slurping up gastropods to everyone’s delight and disgust. Then my dad went out and got a pair of piglets. “Food, not pets,” he explained, but that didn’t stop my sister and me from naming them Stinky and Pork Chops. I housed generations of gerbils in my room, building mazes for them out of books. Throughout the years, rabbits, parakeets, and frogs came to live with us. But for me, the most important creature was my cat, Bonnie, who shared my entire childhood, passing away a few weeks after I left for college. She was my confidant. My constant companion. My first best friend.

Which brings me to another reason to give your hero a pet: Unlocking Secrets.

Your fictional kid probably won’t tell her parents what’s worrying her. Or her teacher or soccer coach. The world is loud. It’s full of bullies, and pressures, and expectations. But when your hero is alone in her bedroom, she can whisper those fears to the one friend who will never break her trust. She might even share her secret dreams. Sure, a diary works too, but diaries don’t cuddle or look right into your eyes with pure love. A pet gives you, the writer, a great device for unlocking your hero’s deeper feelings.

Selfors_ImaginaryVet

If you need further convincing, I give you one more reason: Power.

Kids feel powerless. Kids are powerless, for the most part. But a pet gives your hero the chance to take care of something. To be unselfish. To be in charge. There’s a lot of good and bad that comes with the responsibility, and there’s always the risk of loss, which is something we all must experience. But the relationship between child and pet will definitely enrich your hero’s character arc.

Happy Writing!

 

SelforsS_headshotIn 2017, Suzanne Selfors will launch a new middle grade series with Harper Collins called, Wedgie and Gizmo, about two very special pets and the kids who love them. Please visit her at www.suzanneselfors.com

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

Suzanne is generously giving away an audio CD of Next Top Villain: An Ever After High School Story plus a paperback collection of The Imaginary Veterinary, Books 1-6. 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.

#KidlitSummerSchool Week 2 Begins Tomorrow!

Yay for Kidlit Summer School 2016!

You did it! You made it though week one, and the fun isn’t over yet, not even close! Enjoy today relaxing and having fun in the sun (psst… it’s #nationalicecreamday today) and get ready for tomorrow because it’s … drum roll please … WEEK TWO!

As a friendly reminder, for the most successful school experience, try your best not to skip class! They’re offered Monday through Friday right here on the blog through our fabulous faculty guest bloggers. All you have to do is virtually show up here. If you subscribe to this blog, you can have the school come to you instead. And don’t forget if you’re not already subscribed, just head to the right sidebar and subscribe—it’s that easy!

Now, take a look at your class schedule for the week ahead. More great info, wisdom and learning heading your way!

As always, please help us share the love for #KidlitSummerSchool by posting about it on Twitter, FB (including in groups of writers), Pinterest, and all other forms of social media. Simply use the tag #KidlitSummerSchool wherever you post. If you want, you can copy the ready-made tweet below and paste it into your feed. Super-easy!

More HEART&HUMOR on the 2nd week of #KidlitSummerSchool with blog posts, webinars, exercises, and more! http://www.nerdychickswrite.com

If you still didn’t get to it yet, no worries, here’s our check list of ways to get the most out of Kidlit Summer School:

  • Make sure you are on the email list! Do this by registering this year. All passwords, webinar links, etc. will be sent out through email ONLY. If you are not getting emails, please click HERE to troubleshoot. Because there are so many of you, we ask that you read this carefully before contacting us about a problem. A regular weekly email will be sent out (usually on Sundays). Look for it to make sure you get it!
  • Join our Facebook Group! If you have registered for Kidlit Summer School 2016, follow this link to ask to be added if you haven’t already.  If you haven’t registered, please register HERE, even if you registered last year
  • Participate in our Twitter #30mdares: This year, Rebecca Petruck will post prompts on Twitter and Facebook twice a week so students have the freedom to arrange group dares that suit their schedules and time zones, or do them on their own. The only “rule” is to set a timer and go without stopping for 30 minutes. You can find her on Twitter at @RebeccaPetruck.   Prompts will be posted Tuesday at 9p ET and Saturday at 10a ET. To get prompts, check the Twitter hashtag #30mdare or visit the Facebook group.Publisher’s Weekly covered Rebecca’s first experience with the #30mdare. You can read about that HERE.
  • FAQ page: Check out the pages for FAQs in the navigation bar for more information on webinars, email, and #30mdares.
  • Cafe Press: Soon our 2016 design will be ready to order from our Cafe Press store. You can have your own Kidlit Summer School uniform. 😉
  • Webinars: Stay tuned — we’re still working on these.
  • New to School? If this is your first time attending Kidlit Summer School, check out our updated ABOUT page for a brief explanation of how things work!

GIVEAWAYS:

  • Perfect Attendance: Remember the blue-star-thumbperfect attendance award? You can get one for attending Kidlit Summer School! We’ll hold a drawing at the end of Summer School for people who commented on every post here on the blog within the first 24 hours of it going up. When Summer School is over, there will be a post explaining how to be entered for the drawing for the Perfect Attendance grand prize.
  • Author Giveaways: Some of our amazing authors will be sponsoring giveaways with their posts. You must comment on their post to qualify for these. Details will be at the end of each post.
  • #30mdare Giveaway: Students who complete at least five of the seven dares will be entered to win a 20-page critique and follow-up phone call from Rebecca. 

ALL PRIZES WILL BE AWARDED AT THE END OF KIDLIT SUMMER SCHOOL 2016!

We’re off to grab some ice cream, but looking forward to another great week … See you in class!

The Kidlit Summer School Board of Education.

Follow us on Twitter: @dawnmyoung @kamikinard @leezaworks @marciecolleen @sudiptabq

POP QUIZ WEEK 4

Alright, are you ready to show off all that you have learned in our FINAL Pop Quiz? We know you’re all going to nail it and will surely show off your plotting prowess! Take this quiz to see what you learned during week three of Kidlit Summer School.

On Monday, Megan Miranda taught us to thrill our readers by…

  1. Asking ourselves “What’s the worst that can happen?”
  2. Adding even more tension.
  3. Finding moments to surprise.
  4. All of the above.

On Tuesday, Lori Degman asked questions regarding plot in rhyming stories…

  1. Does the story have a strong beginning that introduces the setting, characters or problem in a way that makes the reader want to keep reading?
  2. Does every line add to the story and move it forward?  
  3. Does the pacing (the length and rhythm of each line) match the mood of the story?
  4. All of the above.

On Wednesday, Julie Sternberg suggested using conversation-based techniques such as:

  1. Eavesdrop on your main character as (s)he tells his/her best friend what’s happened.
  2. Brainstorm your plot ideas with your writer friends, and keep brainstorming as you continue to write.
  3. Whenever a particular moment, or the plot as a whole, isn’t working, open a new document and have a conversation with yourself about why that might be.
  4. All of the above.

On Thursday, Christine Fletcher gave us tips for writing effective conflict

  1. Bring your protagonist face-to-face with the need to grow and change.
  2. Conflict has to directly impact the protagonist’s goals, fears, and/or flaws.
  3. The reader needs to know why the conflict and its outcome matter so much to the protagonist—because then, and only then, will the reader care too.
  4. All of the above.

On Friday, John Cusick showed us how to escape the murky middle of our stories by…

  1. Dropping your hero and a few pals into a new setting.
  2. Exploring what your characters are doing a week, a month, or a year from now.
  3. Writing a scene in which all of your characters attend the same party.
  4. All of the above.

On Saturday, Joyce Wan helped us learn to twist our endings through…

  1. An ending that echoes something that happened in the beginning of the story
  2. Role reversal in which a character is revealed to be someone else in the end.
  3. Challenging the perception of the reader.
  4. All of the above

How did you do? A++ right? 6 out of 6? If you’re not sure or think you missed something, that’s easy, simply go back and check out the posts from Week Four. This is an open blog test. You don’t even have to turn it in. Grade yourself and then pat yourself on the back!

Julie Sternberg: Let’s Talk This Through and GIVEAWAY

I spend a lot of time trying to trick myself into believing that writing is easy—that if I would just sit down and open my laptop, words would fly across the page. It helps to say to myself, All you have to do is tell a story. That’s it. Just take a seat and tell a story.

JSternberg_Freindship_CoverWe know how to tell stories. We’ve told them since we were kids, in countless conversations with friends and more-than-friends and sisters and brothers and parents and teachers and neighbors. “You are never going to believe this,” we’ve said, and then we’re off. We’ve listened to plenty of stories, too, and we know good ones from bad.

Because conversation feels so much easier than writing, I use it in various ways as I figure out what should happen in my story. (That’s how I like to think about plot: just, what happens in my story. That’s it. Nothing to be afraid of here.) I can’t move forward without my primary characters and at lease one pivotal problem, so I come up with those first. Then I try this technique, suggested by my friend and mentor Amy Hest: I sit somewhere quiet and pretend that my main character and her best friend are nearby. My main character is chattering away, telling her friend everything that’s happened (either in a particular scene or over the course of the whole book). Sometimes I think, That can’t be possibly be true, and my main character backtracks a little and tweaks what she’s said, then continues. Eventually, I start taking notes.

JSternberg_Covers

I talk to real, live people, too, and probably not often enough. It’s surprisingly easy to get caught up in the solitude of writing and forget how useful it can be to brainstorm plot ideas with others. In my writing group we usually submit draft pages, but sometimes I’ll ask if we can discuss what should be happening in my story instead. Those sessions can feel life-saving.

Finally, each and every time I struggle with a particular moment in the story (this happens embarrassingly often), I open a new document and start a written conversation with myself. These conversations go something like this (except they’re a lot harder to read than what I’m about to type, because I’m not allowed to pause or edit, and I often skip the punctuation):

Okay, what’s the problem? Why isn’t this working?

I think maybe Sadie’s too angry given the circumstances. It doesn’t feel real. 

So she has to dial it back, right?

Or maybe something worse needs to have happened. Like, let’s say, x instead of y. If x had happened, it’d make perfect sense for her to say what she did. Or she could even say ‘Z’ instead. Yeah, Z is better.”

JSternberg_IllustrationOnce I reach the “Yeah, Z is better” point, then I can close out of my just-talking-to-myself document, make the change in the manuscript, and revise my sense of what’s going to happen next.

In essence, I often use a “there’s no such thing as talker’s block” approach to avoiding writer’s block—including when it comes to plot. I suggest these three conversation-based techniques:

  • Eavesdrop on your main character as (s)he tells his/her best friend what’s happened. If it feels too strange to imagine them sitting in the room with you, then have your main character write the story out in a letter to the best friend. (Letters are a great way for drawing out a character’s voice. I highly recommend having your character write a letter or two.)
  • Don’t forget to brainstorm your plot ideas with your writer friends, and keep brainstorming as you continue to write.
  • Whenever a particular moment, or the plot as a whole, isn’t working, open a new document and have a conversation with yourself about why that might be. It’s surprisingly helpful.

Good luck!
Julie_Sternberg 115_2Julie Sternberg is the author of the best-selling Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie; its sequels Like Bug Juice on a Burger and Like Carrot Juice on a CupcakeThe Top-Secret Diary of Celie Valentine series; and the picture book Bedtime at Bessie and Lil’s. She is also the creator of Play, Memory, a podcast about stories from childhood. Formerly a public interest lawyer, she is a graduate of the New School’s MFA program in Creative Writing, with a concentration in writing for children. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York. You can learn more about Julie at juliesternberg.com.

Julie is giving away a signed copy of LIKE PICKLE JUICE ON A COOKIE. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

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

 

Lori Degman: Plot, Shmot! Right? Not Quite! and GIVEAWAY

Because I write in rhyme, most of the time (but not always), the Nerdy Chicks asked me to discuss plot in rhyming picture books.

Whether you’re writing in prose or rhyme – plot matters!  You can be an excellent poet and write awesome poems with perfect rhyme and meter, but that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to write a rhyming picture book.  Because what rhyming picture books have, that most poems do not, is a plot.  So, even if you have perfect meter and amazing rhymes, if you don’t have a plot – you don’t have a story.

When critiquing other author’s rhyming picture book manuscripts, or when editing my own, I ask myself these three questions about plot:

LDegman_CDoodleOops_Cvr1. Does the story have a strong beginning that introduces the setting, characters or problem in a way that makes the reader want to keep reading?  

When writing in rhyme, it’s so important that the first few stanzas be perfect, in meter, rhyme and content.  The meter and rhyme need to be flawless and you want the reader to get hooked by the story, so they’re not even thinking about the rhyme.

Here’s an example of a bad start, from an early draft of Cock-a-Doodle Oops!.  The story began:

Early one morning, (without any warning),
Rooster delivered a speech,
“I’ve saved up my money to go someplace sunny.
I’m taking a trip to the beach.”

Though the meter and rhyme were fine, I realized the reader needed to know why Rooster leaving for vacation created a problem.  What was at stake?  So I added this to precede it, and it became the first stanza of the book:

Farmer McPeeper was such a deep sleeper,
not even an earthquake could shake him.
A poke or a pinch wouldn’t budge him an inch,
‘cause only his rooster could wake him.

Now, Rooster’s decision to leave town has obvious consequences, which will make the reader want to turn the page.

2. Does every line add to the story and move it forward?  

When writing in rhyme, it’s so easy for the rhyme to take the story in the wrong direction or to add elements to the story that don’t move it forward.  With such a low word count – and with the limitations created by the meter, every line must be vital to the story.

In Cock-a-Doodle Oops!, when Rooster came back with a sore throat and couldn’t crow, I let the rhyme dictate what happened next (and the meter’s pretty bad too – gulp):

“You can’t let us down. You must wake Farmer Brown. 
We worked hard to keep the farm running.
We plowed and we hoed.  We reaped and we sowed.
While you lay on the beach all day sunning! 

This stanza introduces new elements that don’t help the story (working the farm, plowing and hoeing . . .) and takes the reader out of the present action (refers back to Rooster being at the beach).  So, instead I wrote a stanza that responds directly to the problem and heightens the tension:

“It’s hopeless,” said Goat.  “If he’s got a sore throat,
his crow will be too soft hear.
Since Rooster can’t do it and each of us blew it,
He’ll probably sleep for a year!”


LDegman_1ZanyZoo_Cvr3. Does the pacing (the length and rhythm of each line) match the mood of the story?

When writing a rhyming picture book, plot is more than just the story arc – you also have to think about pacing.  Sure, you need a strong beginning, a climactic middle and a satisfying ending, but the way you pace it helps create the mood of the story.  Here are three examples of how pacing impacts your story:

  • The number of lines in each stanza can impact the tone of the story and/or improve the read-aloud-ability.  Here’s an example from 1 Zany Zoo:

While you stood here waiting
with nothing to do,
I snuck through the gate
and into the zoo.

Changing this to a two-line stanza not only improves how it reads (less choppy) but it also makes it sound more like natural dialogue and prevents an unnatural pause in the middle of a sentence.

While you stood here waiting with nothing to do,
I snuck through the gate and into the zoo.

  • The rhythm and line length can set the tone for the story.  In this first example, a boy is giving an excuse to his teacher about what happened to his homework, so he’s speaking in long sentences told in a hurried, almost breathless voice:

A monster ate my homework, Ma’am; I swear to you, it’s true!
It swallowed it with one big GULP; it didn’t even chew!

This example is from a story in which the students and teachers are chasing an escaped chick through the school.  I used shorter phrases to support the panic and action of the chick running through the school:

Counting chicks when one escapes.
“There it goes!” The teacher gapes.
Children scramble. “Hurry, grab him.”
Teacher hollers, “Someone nab him!”

  • Don’t be afraid to break up a stanza to control the pacing and create the experience you want the reader to have.  For example, the last line of Cock-a-doodle Oops! is a big BA-DUM-BUM punch line.  So, when I formatted it on my manuscript, it looked like this:

He joined them outside and pulled Rooster aside.
“Your crow had a bit of a screech.
I see that you’re sick and I’ve got just the trick.
What you need is . . .

a week at the beach!”

So, to sum things up:

In rhyme or prose, everyone knows
It helps a lot to work on plot!

EXERCISE
Choose a rhyming story you’ve written, or write a new one, and ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Does the story have a strong beginning that introduces the setting, characters or problem in a way that makes the reader want to keep reading?
  2. Does every line add to the story and move it forward?
  3. Does the pacing (the length and rhythm of each line) match the mood of the story?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, then make the changes necessary to change those answers to “yes”!

Lori DegmanLori Degman is teacher of the deaf and an award winning picture book author. She has two books: 1 Zany Zoo, Simon & Schuster (Cheerios New Author Contest winner);Cock-a-Doodle Oops, Creston Books (2015 ILA Honor Book); and Norbert’s Big Dream, Sleeping Bear Press, coming July, 2016.  You can find her at: Loridegman.com on Facebook Lori Grusin Degman or Twitter @LoriDegman.

Lori is giving away signed copies of her books 1 ZANY ZOO and COCK-A-DOODLE OOPS! If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

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

Megan Miranda: What’s The Worst That Can Happen?

Tips for Plotting a Thriller

MMiranda_HysteriaFor some people, the term thriller might conjure up thoughts of a fast-paced, heart-pounding, action-packed plot. For others, a thriller might be twisty, ominous, and full of quiet menace. There are so many different types of thrillers, from the action-heavy plots to the unsettling psychological thrillers. And I’m a fan of them all.

For me, a thriller needs to have that sense of danger, whether real or implied, to keep readers on the edge of their seats—or just on edge.

Here are three elements I think about when developing a thriller:

ASK
Whether developing a big plot or a smaller scene, I often ask myself: What’s the worst that can happen?
In Hysteria, I had the idea for a character who committed a crime in self-defense, and therefore couldn’t be charged. To find the bigger story, I asked myself: What’s the worst that can happen, for this character, in this situation. I came up with this list:

  • She’s framed for another crime
  • The family of the victim wants revenge
  • She doesn’t know if she’s guilty

Each of these answers helped turn the premise into the bigger pitch for the book, which was: A girl who can’t be charged for a killing she does commit is then framed for one she doesn’t commit, all the while being haunted by something that may or may not be real.

MMiranda_FractureBut this is also a tool you can use within a scene itself to find the mini-cliffhangers that keep a reader unable to put the book down at the end of each chapter.

In the opening scenes of Soulprint, a girl is on the verge of escaping from a lifetime of captivity. She’s been held on an island her entire life, and she’s planned for this day for years. She successfully reaches the cliffs at the edge of the island—all she has to do now is jump.

What’s the worst that can happen?
She doesn’t know how to swim.


ADD TENSION
Tension is the thing that keeps me turning pages as a reader, that makes me unable to put a book down. According to the dictionary, tension is a state caused when two forces act in opposition to each other.

I try to find as many of these opposing forces as I can in my story to create more tension and conflict. In Fracture, one character wants to stop death, while another wants to speed it up. Their goals are at complete odds. This is the pivot point for the book, and the place from which the story grows.

MMiranda_VengeanceBut there are many opportunities to add tension in smaller moments as well: What does a character fear, and what must they face in light of that fear? Are their internal goals at odds with their external goals?

See if you can find those elements already in your story. If you don’t have them, see if you can create some more by complicating relationships, or putting motivations at odds.

FIND THE MOMENTS OF SURPRISE
As a reader, I love to be surprised.

There are books that have a big twist—maybe a character is not who you thought they were, or maybe you suddenly realize nothing is as it seems—but there are also plenty of opportunities to use a smaller twist mid-scene, something that surprises the reader and keeps them on the edge of his or her seat. That moment when the danger jumps out at us, or, possibly, when the danger hidden in plain sight is finally revealed.

TO TRY

  • For your pitch, or a character, or a scene, ask yourself: What’s the worst that can happen?
  • Make a chart of opposing forces in your story. Can you add even more tension?
  • Find your moments of surprise to keep the reader hooked

And happy thriller writing!

 

Megan

Megan Miranda is the author of the young adult novels Fracture, HysteriaVengeance, and Soulprint (all from Bloomsbury). Her debut adult suspense novel, Disappear, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2016. Megan has a degree in Biology from MIT and currently lives near Charlotte, North Carolina with her husband and two children. You can read more about Megan online or over at  Twitter / Facebook / Instagram

Megan is giving away signed copies of FRACTURE and HYSTERIA. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

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