From Paper to Pulse: Character with Heart by @TerraMcVoy 

Creating a character with real heart is hard.

It isn’t like slapping a wristwatch into a Tin Man and telling him he suddenly has one.

Writing a character who possesses true heart requires the same amount of dedication, the same kind of connection and patience, that a relationship with someone else who actually HAS a heart takes. It requires time, and honesty, and sometimes conversations you don’t think you can bear to get through. It demands understanding, and knowing, and letting yourself fall a little in love. (Even if  you aren’t, you know, romantic about them in That Way.)

thisisallyourfaultFiguring out how to  do this—how to write a character whose heart is real—is one of the most important things to me when it comes to writing. But it’s also one of the most complex. How do you do it? How do you really get in to someone in such an intimate way? How do you become more than Victor Frankenstein—not merely assembling the body parts and bringing the lighting, but also make something live?

When I step back to think about it, I —as I’m sure you do, too— get really, really intimidated.

So instead of getting overwhelmed by the Big Picture, I try to recall my poetry background and focus on the details.

Because, while we are all much more than the sum of our parts, those small parts—what we listen to, where we go, the things we care about day to day—can give others (and ourselves, really) a better idea of Who We Are.

So I start very, very basic. Asking the kinds of questions of my characters that I would ask anyone else I’m first getting to know. What is your favorite color? A movie that moves you? What you like to eat when you’re sad? It may seem silly (especially when you’re only trying to develop the stepmom who only appears three times in a story), but sometimes the best devil really is in these details.

To get you started with these questions, here’s a worksheet I give my students when we’re in the early stages of developing character, and ultimately story. You may not have answers to every single question, and some of them might seem irrelevant, but I find, for me, that asking what my character carries with him or her every day really can shine a light on bigger matters of heart.



But another thing I think a lot about when it comes to character, and heart, is relationships. Who are the most important people to my character? Best friend? Parent? Romantic love? Boss? Coach? Who is on their radar but to a lesser degree? A friend’s mom? A teacher? A sibling who now lives far away? Thinking about the important relationships in your character’s life will help determine their actions during the course of their story. For whom are they willing to fight? Who inspires them to hatred that leads to mistakes? The great Harry Potter, after all, may not have been moved to do what he did if it weren’t for his friends, his teachers, his parents, too.  Dobby.

indeepcoverpbSo here’s a map I draw for myself, connecting my main character (in the center) to the
Most Important People, and then the Second Most, while also connecting those Most Important People to each other. Because your mom certainly has an opinion of your girlfriend. Your best friend has thoughts about your evil boss. And those connections might influence your decisions when it comes to all of them.

Of course I understand these two exercises may not be enough to fully animate a corpse. To do that takes a lot more time and practice than I can address in one lesson, but I do find that these detail exercises at least get the muscles twitching. Get my characters acting and speaking in more complete ways so that I can see better who they really are. How they move. What they love.  It at least gets the two of us out the door on our first date together, where, I hope, with more questions and more conversations, we’ll both ultimately see each other’s real hearts. And fall in love.


  • Developing character relationships to better understand motivation.
  • Learning specific details about character in order to make them more complete and real.
  • Understanding that building character is the hardest and most complicated aspect of writing, but is worth the time.

photo credit: Jamie Allen

Terra Elan McVoy is the author of six acclaimed YA novels and two middle grade, most recently This Is All Your Fault, Cassie Parker from Katherine Tegen Books. She is also an independent bookseller and creative writing instructor, and lives in Atlanta GA with her husband and a lot of shoes. To learn more about Terra and her books visit

You can also find her on Facebook by clicking HERE. Or find her on Twitter = @TerraMcVoy, or Instagram = terraelanmcvoy

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Terra’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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Christine Fletcher: Writing Effective Conflict and GIVEAWAY

One of the first things you learn in writing fiction is that you have to have conflict. Lots and lots of conflict. Without conflict, in fact, you don’t have a story at all.

But there’s a difference between just-any-old-conflict and effective conflict. Effective conflict ramps up the tension and stakes. It moves the story forward and keeps readers on the edge of their seats. Ineffective conflict, on the other hand, leaves readers unmoved.

CFletcher_TallulahFalls_CvrIf you’ve ever sat bored during a car chase or a shootout scene in a movie, you know what I mean. Why were you bored? Probably because you knew the director wasn’t going to kill off the protagonist halfway through the film. True enough. But probably also because the conflict, spectacular though it may have been (cars hurtling through the air! flames shooting all directions!), didn’t impact the story in any new or significant way. The bad guys wanted to kill the good guy…but you already knew that. The good guy didn’t want to get killed…but you knew that, too. In terms of the story, nothing was happening. The only things truly at stake were the poor movie props. That kind of action leaves the viewer with a bad case of the “so-whats”.

In our novels, “so what” isn’t exactly the reader experience we’re going for. But to build effective conflict, first we need to know what purpose conflict serves in our stories. For that, lets look at a definition of story from Wired for Story, by Lisa Cron:

A story is about how the things that happen affect the protagonist.

The “things that happen” are the events that make up the plot. But notice something really important: The plot is not the story. Rather, the purpose of plot is to cause the protagonist to grow and change in such a way that he can never go back to the person he was before. How and why the protagonist changes—that’s what your story is really about.

So what does this have to do with conflict?

Let me ask you this: How easy is it for people to examine their beliefs and habits, their actions and attitudes, and realize: “Wow—all this time I’ve been wrong, and I need to change!” Happens all the time, right?

Hahaha! Of course it doesn’t. Most of us have to be backed into a corner with no way out before it dawns on us that maybe we’re wrong. And even then, we often resist making actual changes in how we think or what we do. Change—genuine internal change—doesn’t happen spontaneously. Not in real life, and not in fiction.

CFletcher_TenCents_CvrThe job of all that conflict in your plot is to force your protagonist into that corner, bringing her face-to-face with her need to change. To do its job—to be effective—conflict has to:

  • Hit your protagonist where he lives. If it doesn’t touch on what he wants and/or what he fears, then it won’t mean much to him. And if the conflict doesn’t mean anything to the protagonist, it won’t mean anything to the reader, either. It’s just noise on the page.
  • Have a consequence that matters. Consequences can be either positive (something the protagonist needs or wants), or negative (something the protagonist fears.) Whatever it is, it has to be something your protagonist cares deeply about.

So for every conflict, no matter how small, ask yourself: what’s at stake here for my protagonist? What does she stand to lose…or gain? Will the outcome get her closer to her goal? Or set her back so impossibly far, she’ll never succeed? Does the conflict force him in some way to confront the fears and flaws that are holding him back? Most of all, why does it matter to your protagonist? What does it mean to him emotionally?

For example, say your protagonist’s goal is to be chosen for the school math team, even though she hates math. In order to be considered, she has to pass a qualifying test. If she fails the test, the consequence is that she’s out of the running. Why does it matter to her? Because if she fails, she’ll disappoint her mathematician father, whose approval she desperately craves. If she can’t get on that team, he’ll think she’s even more of a nobody than he does already.

To understand what a conflict means to your protagonist, don’t be afraid to explore deep. Conflicts and their consequences don’t have to be life-and-death. But in order to do their job—to cause your protagonist to grow and change—they have to directly impact her goals, fears, and/or flaws. And they have to matter so much to your protagonist that they matter to the reader, too. Because the bottom line is this: No matter how big, well written or cleverly plotted the conflict is, we won’t care unless we can connect emotionally with what’s at stake. Make us care, and we’ll be on the edge of our seats rooting for your protagonist from first page to last.

Let’s Recap

  • The job of conflict in your plot is to bring your protagonist face-to-face with the need to grow and change.
  • To do this, conflict has to directly impact the protagonist’s goals, fears, and/or flaws.
  • 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.



Christine Fletcher is the author of Tallulah Falls and Ten Cents a Dance, which YALSA named a 2009 Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults. She’ll follow a compelling story into just about any YA genre: contemporary, historical, sci fi, and most recently, steampunk. You can find her on Twitter @cm_fletcher or on her website.

Christine is giving away a signed hardcover copy of her historical YA Ten Cents A Dance. 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 Christine’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:

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.

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.

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.


  • 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 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.

Jennifer Latham: Building a Mystery–Plotting the Perfect Whodunnit for Older Readers and GIVEAWAY

So you’ve read Robin Newman’s great piece on plotting mysteries for younger readers, and you’re good to go on the basics of setting up your mystery—scattering clues and red herrings, wrapping things up with a big, satisfying bang.

But what if you’re aiming for an audience that craves the juicy stuff – you know…sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll (or maybe just first kisses, frappucinos, and Spotify). For older readers, your plot will need substantial complexity, your character development should have a long arc, and your sleuths will need to find themselves in sticky situations where the stakes are intense – maybe even life and death.

So where do you start?

First, you need a solid premise and an intriguing character or two to draw readers in. For Scarlett Undercover, I went with:

  • Wisecracking Muslim girl detective in classic hardboiled mold
  • Vulnerable little girl client presents case that’s not so simple as it seems—a suicide that was actually a murder

Latham book coverOnce I have my primary mystery in place, I decide “whodunnut” and what will need to be revealed for the mystery to come full circle. It’s kind of like doing a Google Maps search, where you have to know the beginning and end points before you can start driving. For the most part, the route in between is going to look like the mountain climber plot chart we all know and love. But here’s the trick: when you’re writing a mystery, your plot chart and your clues are interdependent, but need to be strong enough to stand on their own. In other words, clues aren’t plot, but your plot can’t advance without intriguing clues.

I make up most of my clues as I go. But before I start writing, I settle on 3-4 major pieces of information that my detective will need to discover. For example, in Scarlett, one of my major bits of info was that the boy who died had joined a cult. Scarlett learned this over the course of several scenes, through suspect interviews and texts she retrieved from the dead boy’s phone. In other words, multiple clues revealed the important fact that the dead boy had joined a cult.

Once I decide on my beginning, end, and 3-4 major clues, my pre-writing is basically done. I’m not an outliner; if I try to map out specific chapters ahead of time, I WILL sink into a grumpy puddle of rumination and stagnation. If outlines are your thing, though, bravo! Map out your story, seed in those clues, and figure out exactly how your main characters are going to grow and change over the course of the novel. But be warned: teenage characters are moody little suckers with a tendency to do things you don’t expect. So give yourself permission to stray from the outline as you go, and to make as many new versions as you need.

As for me, once my figurative Google Map is set up (Starting Point + Desitation + A Few Must See Stops Along the Way), I hit the road. That means I build the plot scene by scene, keeping in mind that every chapter and sub-chapter needs a good balance of the following elements to keep things humming along:

  • Action that advances the plot
  • Dialogue that advances the plot
  • Character development shown through my characters’ actions and decisions, not through exposition.
  • Clues or the precursors to clues (e.g., find the key that opens the safe deposit box that contains the map that will lead to the old warehouse with the hidden room where the antique locket with the picture of the murderer’s grandmother is hidden…)

This is the process that works for me. I like it when my characters force me to take detours and back roads instead of doing 75 on a major interstate all the way to my climactic scene. That said, quirky side trips and back roads cannot, cannot, cannot drag down your plot or bore your readers. So to be sure I’m keeping things moving, I like to stop every once in a while and re-read what I’ve written, rating each chapter on a 1-10 scale for “excitement.” And by “excitement” I mean that a big clue is revealed, an action sequence takes place, a character faces a major psychological challenge, etc. It’s subjective, but I know excitement it when I see it. And so long as slower chapters (ones I rate a 4 to a 5) are interspersed with more exciting ones (6s-8s), and so long as I have a 9 or 10 in the middle of the book and a 10+ at the climax, I figure things are on track. If I find 1s, 2s, or 3s, I re-work them until they’re at least a 4.

Finally, I can’t stress enough how important it is to be willing to revise as you go. Mysteries are tricky. A clue that seemed subtle when you wrote it into chapter 3 might seem ham-handed and obvious when you get to your climax. Clues you thought you’d practically written in neon might not be obvious to your readers at all. So when you think you’ve got your first draft done (or when you get stuck halfway through and need to recharge), I suggest re-reading what you’ve written and building a new outline based on what’s actually there. Even if you pre-outlined, this can be a really eye-opening exercise.

So to sum up, when you’re building your own MG or YA mystery, try the following:

  1. Set up the basic mystery and decide on what you think it’s resolution will be.
  2. Establish 3-4 major pieces of information your detective will need to learn. How you reveal this information (i.e., through actual clues) can be decided ahead of time, or you can decide as your story and characters develop.
  3. Allow some clues and plot elements to emerge as you write. Your work will feel more spontaneous and organic this way.
  4. Revise as you go. Clues and plot points may need to be moved around as your manuscript progresses.
  5. Be flexible. A particular scene or clue you were POSITIVE you had to include may end up being a dud. Re-write, re-organize, re-think when you need to.

Rest assured that to build a good mystery for teens, you’ll have to tie your brain up in knots of your own devising. But if you can created a story complicated enough to keep readers guessing but not so gnarled that they get lost in the details, you’ll have pulled off something pretty great. And when you do, let me know…I love a good whodunnit.

Recommended Activity
This isn’t so much an exercise as a homework assignment. Pick three mysteries that you’ve enjoyed and/or think are particularly well done. These can be adult, MG, or YA, your choice. I suggest a traditional detective story for teens (Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, The Hardy Boys), a traditional adult mystery (Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie) and a more contemporary MG or YA mystery. For this, I highly recommend The Westing Game.

Take your time reading each book, creating an outline of the story as you go. List clues as they’re revealed (you may even have to re-read to find them all). Highlight clues in one color on your outline, major plot points in another. See how the author has distributed clues and balanced them with major plot elements. You’ll likely find a fairly tight, well-constructed underlying structure, even though the reader experiences the story as a flowing, organic thing.



Jennifer Latham is an army brat who moved so much as a kid that books were always her best friends. She’s worked as a school psychologist, yoga teacher, Montessori guide, autopsy assistant, and plenty of other things, too. Her debut mystery, Scarlett Undercover, was published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in 2015. Her second, Dreamland Burning, is scheduled for Winter 2017. To learn more about her, you can visit her blog or find her on Facebook or Twitter (@jenandapen)

Jennifer is giving away a signed copy of Scarlett Undercover. 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 Jennifer’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.