Children’s Writing Weblog

Write Children’s Fiction: Let Go Of Your Ending and Take Your Readers on a Memorable Journey

Posted on: November 10, 2009

One of my favorite bits of wisdom found in William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways: A Journey into America (including the first line: Beware thoughts that come in the night.) is included in an exchange Heat-Moon had with a man he met in Tennessee. The man asked him, “Where you headed from here?” Heat-Moon replied, “I don’t know.” Grinning, the man pronounced, “Cain’t get lost then.”

There’s something truly liberating about not knowing where you’re going. We rarely have this freedom in our day-to-day lives. We have to plan the next project for work, or whose turn it is to drive the kids to school, or what we need to pick up at the grocery store for dinner. So when we have the chance to actually let go and float with the current, we should take it. For writers of children’s fiction, it’s essential to embrace the unplotted course.

I can’t count how many stories I’ve read where it’s very clear that the writers began with the ending. They knew where they wanted to end up; the lesson they wanted to impart, or the message they needed to convey. Then they worked backwards, manipulating their characters and plots to arrive at preconceived destinations. This always — always! — results in manuscripts that are heavy-handed, contrived, and often don’t make sense.

Instead, I suggest to these writers that they start with their protagonist, and brainstorm from there. Ask “What if?” What if this character reacted to the problem differently. What if another character worked against him. What if you flipped some character traits, from confident to shy, from bookish to musically gifted, from being a football player to a skateboarder. Where might you end up?

Some authors can’t let go of their ending. It’s too scary, not knowing where they’re headed. They need assurance that their work will have a purpose before they invest the time and effort to write it. What if they try a new direction and it doesn’t pan out? Then they’ll have to begin all over again. Or (and this is really scary for some authors), what if they embrace a new direction, and the whole meaning of their book changes? Instead of teaching kids that everyone should be valued for their special talents, their book might evolve into a story about not taking life too seriously. And that’s not the message they want kids to hear.

Sadly, these writers probably won’t get published. To them, the theme is more important than the plot. The message more important than the story. The destination takes precedence over the journey. What they don’t understand is that when a child opens a book, it’s the journey he’s looking forward to. The ending has to be good, but getting there must be great.

Magical, unforgettable journeys aren’t always planned. Sometimes they happen by accident. If you have the heart and soul of a writer, this shouldn’t scare you. In fact, it’s exciting. If you’re open to working a long time on your protagonist, so you know this character inside and out and he has many facets to his personality, then at some point the protagonist takes over. He’ll show you where the story needs to go. If you’re comfortable with brainstorming and actually putting any idea that pops into your head down on paper without editing, you’ll make subconscious connections between ideas that you didn’t even know you had. And if you’re committed to story, not message, you could end up with a book that’s bigger than anything you ever imagined.

We often talk about the structure of fiction: a character who has a problem to solve, a catalyst that gets the plot moving, an ending that resolves the problem in a believable way. These techniques are still a vital part of writing, but don’t worry about them until you know exactly who your protagonist is and what that character needs. If you try to think of a catalyst before you know what your character wants, you can’t possibly put that character in a situation that drastically effects his life. Wander around and explore your options before you worry about your story’s foundation. Let yourself get lost before you find the perfect place to settle down.

What about nonfiction? Surely you need to know where you’re going when you’re writing factual material, right? In this case, you probably will know where you have to end up; what topic you’re going to explore, or what points you want to make. But how you get there is still up for grabs. Do you want to write about medieval life from a humorous perspective, with short bursts of information interspersed with jokes, trivia and quizzes? How about a day in the life of a 12-year-old peasant? Maybe a collection of recipes for everything from celebratory feasts to common dinners to medicinal concoctions? As you’re researching, keep an open mind. You may stumble across a gem that completely changes the direction of your book for the better. Or, you’ll amass so much material that you’ll have a book and five articles, all with a different focus.

One of the perks of writing for children is that your options are endless. Getting there is half the fun. As long as you’re open to infinite possibilities, you’ll never lose your way.

Interested in learning how to write a book and send it to children’s book publishers? Come on over to The CBI Clubhouse for audios, videos, insider writing tips and much, much more!

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