How to write a story

  • Story Structure
  • in
  • Children’s Books, Novels and Beyond
  • A short explanation of story structure
  • The basic structure of story has been passed down through the ages. These basics apply to any form of fiction (novels, picture books, movies, theater) and are often applied to non-fiction as well.
  • Why? Well, because stories written in a particular form have a way of speaking to us. Stories written in a different form usually leave us uninterested.
  • As a professional writer of fiction, I like to think I have a decent sense of story structure. And as the owner of this site, I also have a fair sense of when a writer doesn’t know the basics of structure.
  • If you visit our free stories from visitors page, you’ll see many examples of imperfectly structured stories.
  • I could be wrong, but I think you’ll find them less satisfying than the books you buy in stores or online.
  • After you read this page, I think you’ll have a better idea of why.
  • Character and Story Structure
  • The protagonist
  • Even the simplest story should contain a protagonist.
  • Protagonist is a great word. It has a more specific meaning than
  • main character
  • viewpoint character, and
  • hero
  • The protagonist can be all of these things, but not necessarily. So who is a story’s protagonist?
  • Protagonist, definition: The character to whom the events of the story mean the most.
  • Why is this the case?
  • Because a protagonist is a character in crisis. The reason a story is worth telling is because it features a protagonist trying desperately to improve his/her unfortunate circumstances.
  • Consider the story structure of The Cat in the Hat. The protagonist is not the cat! (Nor is it the fish or the sister.)
  • The protagonist is the boy trying desperately to get the cat out of the house and the house cleaned up. He is in crisis because his mother is coming home and he’s responsible for having let the cat in in the first place!
  • And that makes the cat…
  • The antagonist
  • Antagonist, definition: the person (or animal or object or situation) that is operating in most direct opposition to the protagonist.
  • An antagonist is an essential part of story structure. A story without an antagonist is boring, because it lacks conflict. If the protagonist isn’t facing opposition, there’s little to hold a reader’s attention.
  • Even a young reader.
  • Q: Does an antagonist have to be an enemy?
  • A: No. An antagonist is just an entity whose actions create problems for the protagonist. An antagonist could be, for instance, a storm. Or a loved one!
  • In a romance, the two people who are “meant to be” are typically protagonist and antagonist. They tend to spend a lot more time causing trouble for the other than they do being in love. Watching two people simply be in love would get tiresome quickly!
  • Story Structure and the Arc of a Story
  • When writers talk story structure, you’ll hear some speak about three act structure while others insist a story should have a beginning, middle, and an end.
  • They’re all saying the same thing.
  • A properly structured story begins with a protagonist in what I like to call stasis.
  • Stasis means balance, or steadiness. It describes a state of existence in which no major surprises are in store. In stasis, your protagonist knows that he/she is going to wake up in the morning, do something pretty typical during the day, then go to sleep at night.
  • In other words, your protagonist is living a life not worth telling about! But then…
  • Something happens.
  • Stasis is the first act, or beginning, of your story. Then something happens, and it quickly becomes apparent that this occurrence is the end of your protagonist’s stasis. He/she can no longer live life as before!
  • If we’re talking about The Cat in the Hat’s story structure, the cat is now in the house and doing damage.
  • Something has to be done!
  • Once something has happened, and now that something has to be done, you are into the second act (or middle) of a story.
  • The middle of a story is always the story’s longest part. It’s the part that makes the story worth telling.
  • This second act of a story consists of the protagonist trying to get his or her life back in order.
  • Of course, if the first thing the protagonist tries results in success, you end up with a very short story. So fiction is usually characterized by protagonists doing lots of things that DON’T result in success. In fact, good story structure features the protagonist’s circumstances getting worse before they get better.
  • In The Cat in the Hat, Thing One and Thing Two are introduced after the cat has already made his own mess. They only make things worse!
  • So when does the second act (or middle) of a story end? Well, when the awfulness of everything that’s happened reaches a climax and the protagonist takes his or her most dramatic and heroic action. In The Cat in the Hat, this happens when the boy manages to catch the Things in a net and tells the cat to get out.
  • The third act, or end, reflects a new stasis, or life as it will be from this time forward. That is, resolution.
  • The Cat in the Hat could have ended with the cat and his companions locked out of the house and the boy and his sister facing the mess that resulted. In all likelihood, they would have been unable to clean up before their mother arrived home.
  • Their new stasis probably would have included punishment and new rules regarding staying home alone. There would probably be an unwanted babysitter in their future.
  • But instead Dr. Seuss decides to reward the protagonist’s moxie with a more positive resolution. The cat suddenly reappears with a device capable of rendering the house as tidy as it was before.
  • As a result, the new stasis looks like the original stasis, except the kids now are faced with a moral dilemma regarding what happened:
  • Should we tell her about it?
  • Now, what SHOULD we do?
  • Well…
  • What would YOU do
  • If your mother asked YOU?
  • Think of three act structure as looking like this:
  • Stasis, then something happens, resulting in
  • Crisis and craziness, leading to
  • Climax and new stasis (resolution).
  • The Arc of a Character and Character Development
  • Exactly who a character (what traits he/she possesses) and how a character evolves (how those traits change) are important aspects of story structure.
  • Character Arc
  • Think of a story as the most important event in a character’s life. After all, the things that we do every day aren’t worth writing a book about. A fictional story is, on the other hand, by definition a story worth telling!
  • As consumers of fiction, we tend to expect that our characters change as a result of a story. After all, who wouldn’t change as a result of such dramatic events!
  • These changes in character are a character’s arc.
  • Special TV exception to the character arc rule
  • I should note that while many TV shows are fictional, oftentimes their characters lack an arc. Why?
  • The whole notion of a show featuring the same characters every episode is based largely on the characters NOT changing. TV viewers are looking to invite the same characters into their home every week. If the characters were always changing, it wouldn’t feel like the same show!
  • Remember that these characters are exceptional in another way too: They have once in a lifetime adventures every week. No wonder they don’t change. They’re used to it!
  • The TV exception can apply to other serial storytelling as well, like a book series.
  • Character Arc, continued
  • A protagonist tends to be a somewhat different person at the end of a story as compared to the beginning. Usually, he or she grows in some way, i.e. becomes a better person.
  • That growth may even have given him/her the ability to overcome the antagonist in a way that wouldn’t have been possible at the beginning of the story. He/she might not have had
  • the patience
  • the tools
  • the foresight
  • the skills
  • In The Cat in the Hat, our narrator goes from ignoring the poor fish – who keeps telling him that the cat will cause trouble! – to listening and realizing he has to take charge. In other words, the protagonist matures, and he learns that strangers are not to be let in the house.
  • Character Development
  • Character development refers to the writer’s ability to make his/her characters seem distinct and real. Is a character optimistic or pessimistic? Kind or cruel? How do those characteristics come into play during the story? Presumably, an optimistic character will behave differently than a pessimistic character, will make different choices.
  • The more important a character is to the story, the more that character should be developed.
  • And character development is NOT something that occurs
  • only at the beginning of the story, or
  • only by virtue of the author describing the character
  • The best way to “describe” a character is by virtue of his or her choices! A character who stoops to pick up a penny is different from a character who doesn’t. A character who keeps a wallet (and its contents) is different from a character who strives to return the wallet to its owner.
  • This is what writers mean when they say, Show, don’t tell. It’s also part of what they mean when they talk about the difference between good exposition and bad exposition.
  • Want to learn about exposition in a fun way? Go rent the Austin Powers movies and pay close attention to the character, Basil Exposition. He’s bad exposition personified!
  • Story structure and viewpoint
  • I referred earlier to the notion of a viewpoint character. Most well-structured stories are told from a single viewpoint. This is especially true with shorter works, like children’s books.
  • In other words, in good writing we are usually privy only to the thoughts and experiences of a single character.
  • We witness only what that single character witnesses. If he/she didn’t go to the baseball game, the only way the reader will hear about the game is if the viewpoint character hears about it.
  • Make sense?
  • Stories can be told in the 1st person (I went to the game), 3rd person (He went to the game), or even the 2nd person (You went to the game). A story does not have to be told in the 1st person for the character to be a viewpoint character!!!
  • When a 3rd person narrator only has access to the thoughts and experiences of a single character, that character is the viewpoint character.
  • Exceptions:
  • A fully omniscient narrator can have access to the thoughts and experiences of any or all of the characters. Unless handled by a professional, though, omniscient narration is likely to seem simply like bad or lazy writing, especially in a shorter story.
  • A longer story might feature multiple viewpoints. This is a common feature of novels for grown-ups. However…
  • Even then, the author tends to stick to one viewpoint at a time. For instance, chapter one will be through the eyes of one character, then chapter two through the eyes of another.
  • The reason? We are more likely to identify with a character if he or she is the only one through whose eyes we are seeing the story (or a portion of the story).
  • Most often, the viewpoint character is the protagonist. This, however, does not have to be the case.
  • Note also that a story can be told in the past, present and even future tenses.
  • For a beginning writer, though, I recommend using the past tense, as it’s the least likely to be awkward.
  • A writer who mixes his/her tenses marks him/herself as a sloppy amateur.
  • More essential elements of story structure
  • A story has action, and this action consists largely of the playing out of conflict as the protagonist tries to solve the problem he she faces.
  • A story without action or conflict (or a problem) is not worth telling. It’s boring!
  • We experience the action and conflict vicariously through the protagonist. We feel for him/her. We place ourselves in his/her shoes and get to experience the story as if it were happening to us…without actually putting our existence at risk!
  • That’s the magic of good story structure.

3 responses

  1. Aesop’s Fables

    Appearances can be deceptive

    Beauty is only skin-deep

    Be prepared

    A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

    Birds of a feather flock together

    Every man for himself

    Evil-wishes, like chickens, come home to roost

    Fair weather friends aren’t worth much

    Familiarity breeds contempt

    Liars can’t be trusted

    Look before you leap

    Might makes right

    Mind your own business

    Necessity is the mother of invention

    No act of kindness is ever wasted

    One good turn deserves another

    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

    Pride goes before the fall

    Quality, not quantity

    Slow and steady wins the race

    United We Stand, Divided We Fall

    You are known by the company you keep

    Rhyming Aesop, by Jean de la Fontaine

    The Fox and the Grapes

    The Grasshopper and the Ant

    The Hare and the Tortoise

    The Lion in Love

    The Wolf and the Fox

    Fables from India

    Bad news travels fast

    Know which way the wind blows

    Wickedness yields to wisdom

    October 1, 2011 at 12:12 PM

  2. Part2:

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Preparation – Step 1

    (Please open a word processing program now. This project works better on the computer than longhand.)

    First, let’s brainstorm. We need subject matter. Think about your child. (Or whatever child you’re writing for.)

    What does your child struggle with? Think of a particular behavior that bothers you and that – more importantly – causes you concern.

    A stubborn behavior that you fear if it persists will cause your child hurt later on.

    Now I’m not talking about the BIG stuff. I don’t want you to tackle a subject like, say, obsessive-compulsive disorder – something for which experts need be brought in.

    No, I’m talking about a simple behavior your child exhibits that is common to many children. For instance:

    Difficulty cooperating or compromising
    Unwillingness to sleep alone
    Excessive jealousy

    Good fiction should always be about a character struggling to solve a problem. I can’t teach you how to write a children’s book if you don’t have a character with a problem!

    The story would go NOWHERE…

    Once upon a time there was a princess, and she was very happy. And she stayed very happy. Had everything she wanted. Lots of friends. Very happy. Very VERY happy…

    You get the idea. Have you picked your problem behavior yet? Good. Let’s move on…

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 2

    You need a main character, someone your child can identify with. Of course, the person children are best equipped to identify with is THEMSELVES!

    Okay, so you’re going to write a fictional story starring your child… only you aren’t going to let on that it’s your child. You’re going to give the child a different name.

    I like to pick fun names. My daughter always gives wacky names to her dolls, so I just pick a name that sounds like the names she makes up. (Remember, you want your audience of one to identify with the main character.)

    The name I gave the character in the first book I wrote for my child was Balooga. Do you have your name yet? Good. Let’s move on…

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 3

    Okay, you’re still brainstorming. You should be typing in your notions so you don’t forget.

    Now it’s time to think about how your main character’s problem behavior is going to play out.

    You see, in your book, the main character’s behavior is going to cause him/her some unpleasantness.

    I’ll use my book as an example. Balooga’s behavior – insisting on getting her own way with peers – results in peers not wanting to play with her.

    Now it’s time for you to figure out how your character’s behavior will play out negatively. Try to sum it up in a sentence.

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Caution

    I want you to tread carefully here. If all this starts feeling TOO familiar to your child, defenses will go up.

    My goal is not to teach you how to write a children’s book that gathers dust. If your child senses an agenda, the book might not go over as well as hoped.

    For instance, if your son is always leaning his chair back on two legs, and YOU’RE always telling him he’s going to crack his head open…

    …then a story about a child who leans his chair back and cracks his head open is not going to go over well. Your child is young… not stupid!

    We writers have a term for subject matter that’s too obvious. We call it “on the nose.”

    If you think your step 3 answer is too on the nose, you need to change it. Consider outcomes that your child hasn’t already heard about repeatedly.

    If you’re having trouble, go back to Step 1 and consider different behaviors.

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 3, continued

    Okay. Have you figured out how your main character’s problem behavior will play out negatively? (But not TOO negatively. You don’t want to traumatize your child!) Good. Before we move to Step 4, let me give you some writing secrets to remember…

    How To Write A Children’s Book – What To Keep In Mind

    In case you haven’t realized it, books for young children tend to have HAPPY endings! Your book will too. In a moment it’ll be time to figure out how to write a children’s book that ends happily ever after.

    But, as we’ve discussed, before we get to happily ever after, the main character has to have an unpleasant time of it.

    So how do we get from unpleasant to happily ever after? One thing you need to know about any piece of good fiction: the main character (often called the hero) is generally at least partly responsible for his or her own salvation.

    In other words, your hero’s parents shouldn’t just step in and solve the problem!

    One other thing: your hero’s path out of his or her bad situation shouldn’t be too easy for your hero to accomplish.

    In other words, a story where the hero waves a magic wand to make the monsters go away isn’t a satisfying story. That is, unless the hero worked and sacrificed to get the magic wand!

    “Well, what about Cinderella?” you might ask. Excellent question. Let’s examine her story.

    Yes, Cinderella gets to the ball by virtue of her fairy stepmother’s magic. But getting to the ball is FAR from the end of the story.

    Remember, Cinderella’s problem isn’t that she doesn’t go to enough parties…it’s that she’s stuck living with her cruel stepmom and stepsisters. Her final triumph isn’t the ball, it’s that she gets to move out!

    And the reason Cinderella gets to move from the worst living situation in the kingdom to the best is because she did the hard work of being nice!

    She obeyed her cruel step-relatives. She didn’t take out her unfair treatment on anyone. She was nice to little animals. She didn’t feel life owed her anything.

    And that’s why, at the ball, the prince only had eyes for her! (That and her tiny feet, I guess.) Because, in the fairy tale world, no one is a better judge of female character than a prince!

    Got it? Remember:

    Hero solves own problem, at least partially
    Solving problem isn’t too easy

    Okay, moving on…

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 4

    How will your main character choose to solve his or her own problem? And how will another character help to make that choice possible?

    Remember, the problem is the hero’s own behavior. That means the solution is most likely going to be about finding inner strength. About making the somewhat difficult choice to behave differently, to:

    Eat her broccoli
    Stop beating on his little brother
    Turn off the TV voluntarily
    Try harder at soccer, at violin, at school…

    Whatever the problem is, your hero needs to contribute to fixing it!

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Going A Little More In Depth

    Now that you understand Step 4 involves the hero/main character solving his or her own problem, it’s time to take another look at Step 1… and at your own child.

    Get in your child’s head. Why is the problem behavior so persistent? Your child knows you don’t like the behavior, right? And your child generally likes to please you… right again?

    Think: what is your child getting out of the behavior?

    This is important to know. Because in the book, you want the main character to stop experiencing success with the behavior. Only then will (s)he have motivation to change.

    If your child fibs, is it to stay out of trouble or because she doesn’t want to disappoint?

    If your child keeps to himself, is it because friends have rejected him or because he’s too shy to make friends?

    Does your child insist on sleeping in your bed because she’s scared of monsters or scared of you leaving?

    Move forward when you have your answer.

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 4, continued

    Okay, you were trying to figure out how your main character is going to find the strength within to correct the behavior.

    Luckily, since the character is only a child, he/she has parents to help! They can identify the problem and present choices.

    (You may choose later to have someone other than a parent provide direction. But let’s assume for now that it’s a parent.)

    In the first story I wrote for my daughter, the mommy suggests that the reason Balooga’s friends no longer want to play with her is because Balooga has turned bossy.

    To illustrate, Mommy takes Balooga to a playground. She shows Balooga two toddlers unable to cooperate – one of them ends up in tears.

    Then Mommy shows Balooga some older kids cooperating in order to accomplish something.

    Observe: Mommy shows Balooga – in addition to telling Balooga – that the behavior Balooga is exhibiting doesn’t work.

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Showing Versus Telling

    In fiction, as in life, showing works better than telling. No one likes simply to be told what to do – not even children. They like the feeling of learning for themselves.

    Your child will enjoy a book where the child is given that kind of autonomy. He/she will identify with the hero and feel empowered.

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 4, continued

    So can you answer the question now – two questions, actually?

    How will the parent in the story frame the bad results the hero is experiencing as a result of the problem behavior?
    How will the hero choose to change in a way that makes it feel like it’s his/her own choice?

    Note your answers when you have them figured out, and don’t feel in a rush to move on.

    It just so happens that the “heavy lifting” in story writing is this work that you’re doing now.

    That’s right! The hardest part for most writers is figuring out the story. The fun part (which you’re getting amazingly close to) is the actual writing.

    When you’re confident you have both your answers, you’re ready to move on to…

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Some Actual Writing!

    Step 5 – Introducing The Character

    You’ve done much of the hard work already. Let’s reward you by putting some words on the page.

    (Open a 2nd document for this. You’re going to be bouncing back and forth between your notes and the actual text of the book.)

    The first thing you’re going to do is start your story by introducing your main character, your hero. (Your hero, remember, bears a striking resemblance to your own child.)

    Now I want you to introduce your hero in his/her pre-problem state. In other words, if the problem behavior is needing to sleep in Mommy and Daddy’s bed, introduce a hero who doesn’t yet have that problem!

    Here’s a sample intro for such a hero:

    Once there was a big girl named Sonora. She slept in her very own bed in her very own room.

    Note that not only does Sonora not yet have her problem, but she’s described in positive terms. She’s a “big” girl and she “owns” things: her bed and her room.

    Kids love to be “big” and they love having their own stuff! Make your hero a kid that your own child wouldn’t mind being.

    (Now that was a very short intro. You may choose to be more expansive about your hero.

    But remember to keep it from becoming apparent to your real child that he or she is the hero.)

    Got it? Okay, write the opening paragraph(s). And if you have trouble getting started, these four words might help.





    When you’re done, read this:

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Start By Cutting Yourself Some Slack!

    Before we go any further, I want to urge you not to get too hung up on your exact wording at this early stage of the writing process.

    One of the things we writers like to say is, “Writing is rewriting.” When you’re done with your story, you’re going to go back over it and fine tune it.

    What you’re doing now is just your first draft. So loosen up and just write!

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 6

    Okay, you’ve written your introductory paragraph (or paragraphs). Time to set up the circumstances that lead to the problem. We do this with something many writers call “the inciting incident.”

    I just like to call it “something happens.” For instance:

    Then Sonora’s parents had a baby, and the baby got to sleep in Mommy and Daddy’s room!”

    Give this some thought. If your actual child’s problem behavior had its own inciting incident, pick a different inciting incident. (You’re learning how to write a children’s book that’s fictional, not fact-based.) But make sure the inciting incident is something your child can identify with.

    An inciting incident is an event that changes the hero’s life situation. Your description of it is as long as it needs to be…but no longer.

    It could be only a sentence long – like the one I wrote above – or it might be five paragraphs. It depends on the circumstances.

    Okay, write. Then…

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 7

    Now you need to describe your hero’s reaction to the inciting incident. The reaction should

    be logical and understandable, and
    lead to the problem behavior

    Keeping with Sonora:

    Sonora didn’t think it was fair that the baby got to sleep with Mommy and Daddy, so Sonora insisted upon sleeping in Mommy and Daddy’s room too!

    Got it? Wrote it? Good. We’re moving along, aren’t we? Okay, now take a breather and just read this next section…

    How To Write A Children’s Book – The 2nd Act

    Here’s another writer’s fact: fiction writers in all genres speak of the three act structure. Beginning, middle and end. Congratulations! You just finished the first act!

    (But don’t get too excited. The second act is a lot longer than the first.)

    The beginning of your book describes life as it was before the inciting incident. Life was good. Life could have been fine if only things had stayed the same…

    But things didn’t stay the same. Something happened!

    The thing to remember about the 2nd act of your children’s book, the middle, is that things get progressively worse for your hero.

    We writers call that “escalation.”

    The inciting incident sets in motion a chain of events that makes life miserable for your hero! (Or at least not so enjoyable. Again, let’s not get carried away and traumatize anyone.)

    It’s the growing unpleasantness of life in the 2nd act that will cause our hero to need to make new choices in order to regain happiness.

    Make sense? Let’s move on.

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 8

    Time to establish tension. And by tension I don’t mean, “Is the guy with the knife hiding downstairs?” What I mean by tension is a lack of harmony.

    I’m going to be very specific. Mom and/or Dad aren’t very happy with the new behavior. This creates disharmony between hero and parents.

    Still, since we’re at the beginning of the second act, this is no big deal for the hero.

    (S)he hasn’t yet experienced anything but positive results from the behavior, so the parents’ distress – and the parents’ efforts to correct the behavior – are ignored.

    After awhile, the baby was sleeping through the night and began sleeping in his own room. Mommy and Daddy told Sonora it was time for her to get back to being a big girl and sleeping in her own room too. But now that Sonora was used to sleeping in her parents’ room, she didn’t want to leave!

    Sonora goes on to explain that she’s afraid of the dark, afraid of monsters, etc. Any excuse to stay in Mom and Dad’s room!

    Mom and Dad string up enough night lights in Sonora’s room to make it look like Christmas! It doesn’t work. Why? Because no amount of light is going to make Sonora’s room more appealing than a room with Mom and Dad in it.

    Okay, time to write this part of your children’s book. Try to think like your own child while you write. Why?

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Identification With Main Character

    The part you’re about to write should be one of your child’s favorite parts of the book, and therefore one of the most important. Why? Because it’s the part where the hero prevails over the ineffectual parents.

    For a child, what could be more exciting and empowering than that? If you write this part well, you’ll have your audience of one hooked!

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 8, continued

    So now you need to really engage your reader. Take some time to write this part and get the identification with main character right on target. Okay?

    Then move on to…

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 9

    Now you’re going to expand on the work you did in How To Write A Children’s Book, Step 3. In this step you get to indulge your natural tendency to worry about your child!

    (And we’re back to note-taking. Put aside the text of your children’s book for awhile and return to the note-taking document.)

    Think about the real-life problem behavior. Think about why it causes you concern for your child’s future. Could the behavior cause:

    peers to make fun of your child?
    poor performance in school?
    parents to discourage their children from contact with your child?
    pain or injury?
    something else?

    Make your own list, the longer the better.

    (Your How To Write A Children’s Book, Step 3 notion might just be one item on the list. Or you might get more specific about it and expand it to a number of notions.)

    This is the time to let your parental imagination run wild. What all could result from your child’s problem behavior?

    Don’t continue reading until you have your list!

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 10

    Okay, unless you’re cheating, you have your list. Let’s start by removing

    any outcomes that are too severe or traumatizing, and
    any outcomes that don’t occur until the hero grows much older

    I’m always tempted to have my main character step through a time warp to find out, for instance, that her childhood choices have resulted in her only adult job option being that of dogcatcher.

    Two problems:

    Right now, my daughter thinks dogcatcher is a great job, and
    For children, the future is five minutes from now

    So always remind yourself that you’re writing this book for your child, not yourself!

    Do you have your new, narrower list now? Good. Now…

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 11

    Time to write backwards!

    Consider each negative outcome one at a time. Starting with the first, how do you imagine your hero came to that outcome?


    Sonora’s friends stop coming over. Why?
    They think she’s a baby. Why
    Because Sonora no longer has her own room. Why?
    Because her Dad converted it into his office. Why?
    Because bedrooms are for sleeping and Sonora is no longer sleeping in hers.

    Got it? Now write a backwards “why?” list in your note-taking document for each of your outcomes. Take your time. Then…

    How To Write A Children’s Book – How Well You’re Progressing

    If you had five outcomes, you should now have five backwards “why?” lists.

    Wow! Does it feel like you’re moving along? You are.

    Want to hear something exciting? If you have five “why?” lists, you now have five completely different ways to tell your story. And you probably worried about coming up with even one!

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 12

    Time to choose among your separate backwards “why?” lists.

    Which do you think you could turn into the most satisfying children’s book?

    Keep in mind what I said about things getting progressively worse for your hero. Make sure the “why?” list you pick describes a nice progression from the least consequential (at the bottom) to the most (at the top).

    Have you made your choice? Time to resume writing…

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 13

    I’m about to leave you alone for awhile.

    When you last wrote, you were establishing tension between hero and parent(s). Now it’s time to do some serious writing using your backwards “why?” list as a guideline.

    This is the biggest chunk of writing you’re going to do. First, though, I’m going to give you a lot to think about.

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Character Viewpoint

    Your story should be seen through the eyes of your hero. While you will write of your hero in the third person (“he” or “she”), you will describe events through the viewpoint of the hero.

    For example: “Sonora saw,” or “Balooga wanted.”

    It’s okay though, on occasion and when needed, to describe another child character through that character’s eyes. For instance:

    “Matinga didn’t like when Balooga yelled at her.”

    But I would avoid describing adults through their own eyes. In other words, “Daddy looked sad,” is okay, but “Daddy didn’t like when Balooga yelled at him,” is not.

    “Daddy looked sad,” describes the hero’s perception of Daddy. “Daddy didn’t like it,” describes Daddy’s perception. Get it?

    And remember this: your hero is a little clueless! (He or she is a child, after all.) During the 2nd act, the hero doesn’t much recognize that the problem behavior has any links to all the negative outcomes (s)he is experiencing.

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 13, continued

    Okay, it’s time to write. When you finish this part, you’ll be very close to the end of your children’s book.

    Remember to connect events clearly. (One thing leads to another.) Remember to “escalate” events, to make things progressively more unpleasant for your hero.

    Are you ready to write? I think you are. This is the part that separates those who want to know how to write a children’s book from those who can write a children’s book.

    Remember to keep your backwards “why?” list close at hand. It’s your outline for this biggest section of your book!

    When you finish, return here…

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Look Where You Are!

    Congratulations! If you finished step 13, you’ve finished the longest part of your book – the middle. The 2nd act. In fact, you’ve started writing the 3rd act – the resolution – without even knowing it. Wow, you’re good!

    In fact, you’re very nearly done. I told you I could teach you how to write a children’s book! The only thing that could cause you to quit now is a pathological fear of success!

    Using your backwards “why?” list, you’ve written from the bottom to the top. Things now are as dark as they get for your hero. Now it’s time for things to get better.

    I’m going to have to leave this a little more up to you than I have in the previous steps.

    That’s because while I may know how to write a children’s book, you’re now the expert on your children’s book. Just like you’re the expert on your audience of one.

    But I can still provide some guidance. The kind your hero needs right now!

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 14

    This is a thinking step, not a writing step. Think about your hero’s current predicament. How can (s)he find his or her way out? Who can help?

    Guidance can come from a parent or someone else. It can be delivered intentionally or unintentionally.

    But remember: no magic wands appearing out of the blue.

    Balooga’s mom, as I mentioned earlier, shows Balooga the difference between cooperative play in older children and selfish play in younger children.

    Balooga, given her recent negative experiences resulting from selfish play (she’s lost her friends), finds the strength within to make the right behavioral choice.

    In Sonora’s case, what prods her to better behavior is the comment of a peer. Her disapproving friend Kalimba says,

    “You know, big kids have their own rooms and sleep in their own beds.”

    Peer pressure is a powerful thing. It gets a bad rap when it drives kids in the wrong direction, but in this case Kalimba’s comment leads Sonora to go to her parents and demand her room back.

    Which, of course, is what the parents wanted! But it’s so much more empowering for the character – and the reader – if the character comes to that place as the result of a personal journey.

    That’s what a story is: one character’s personal journey.

    So consider where guidance is going to come from. Parent? Peer? Teacher? Who is best situated to give your hero the nudge (s)he needs?

    It should be a character who has already appeared at an earlier stage in the story.

    (If you decide that it needs to be a character you haven’t yet introduced – and that’s very possible – you’re going to need to go back at some time and introduce that character. I suggest doing it now!)

    When you know who your guide is (and they’ve been written into the earlier part of the story)…

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 15

    Okay, now that you know who’s going to provide guidance, it’s time to figure out the nature of that guidance and how it’s going to be presented.

    Remember, showing beats telling. No one likes to be told what to do.

    Relatedly, the guidance should be suggestive, rather than completely obvious.

    In other words, make sure your guide leaves your hero to make the last step of the psychological journey on his or her own.

    For instance, Balooga’s mom doesn’t tell her, “Hey, if you behave more generously you’ll get your friends back.”

    Instead, Mom shows Balooga the consequences of ungenerous behavior in others, leaving Balooga to draw the final conclusion and resolve, “Hey, I can behave better than that!”

    Okay. So when you’ve figured out how your guide is going to help lead your hero to the place where (s)he can make that final leap of logic…

    Write it! Then…

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 16

    Now it’s time for your hero to take the ball and run with it. To seize the initiative and resolve his or her own problems.

    To take control of life in such a way that the hero – and your audience of one – feels empowered. Feels like the master of his or her own destiny.

    So remember during this step to stay firmly in the hero-child’s point of view. Think about what makes your own child feel triumphant, then describe events in such a fashion that the hero feels that same feeling.

    This is the “I can do what I thought I couldn’t do” moment in the hero’s story. Or maybe the “I will do what I didn’t think I needed to do” moment.

    Write it! Then…

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Step 17

    You’ve made it! It’s “happily ever after” time. All you have to do now is let us know how your hero’s life gets back to being great.

    Think of the three act structure this way:

    1st Act: Life is great…then something happens.
    2nd Act: Life spins out of control until the hero…
    3rd Act: …seizes control! Then because the hero seized control, life becomes great again!

    Let your reader know how life becomes great again. Let your reader know that the hero has endured and has reason to be proud.

    Write it! When you do…

    How To Write A Children’s Book – Congratulations

    I knew you could do it. I don’t know if you knew you could, but you did it. You wrote a children’s book.

    Here’s what to do now: pat yourself on the back and go do something else.

    I’m not kidding. Here’s what I don’t want you to do now:

    Start rewriting
    Read the book to your child or show it to someone else

    Here’s why. If you take a fresh look at the book you’ve just written tomorrow – or in a week – you’re going to see ways to improve it. You’re smart, right? Given a little distance, you’re going to see things that can be smoothed out. Improved.

    Writers who jump ahead and start showing their work to people – friends, family, spouses, their child – bypass an important part of the process: the self-critical part.

    You see, you know more about your book than those people, and you probably know more about how to write a children’s book now than they do. Don’t let the inborn talent you have for improving your own work be overwhelmed by the praise of people who love you.

    Keeping this thing to yourself right now is the secret to making it the best it can be.

    So take a break…then take a look later. See what can be smoothed out, what can be improved. Maybe reread this whole How To Write A Children’s Book page too. It might help in a different way the second time. But not now.

    Seriously! I’m sending you away. Banishing you from the page. So remember to bookmark it, then come back at a later date and page down to this point. Then follow this link to the page where we

    Finalize Your Book

    Or you can fill out the Reminder To Come Back form at the bottom of this page and I’ll email you a reminder that you can keep in your inbox with a link back to this page.

    Hey, do I strike you as someone with a lot of writing ideas? (Because I am!) Do you sometimes get writer’s block? Then you’ll want to visit my children’s book ideas page.

    October 1, 2011 at 12:10 PM