Originally Posted: January 2014
by Lauren Shapiro
“It’s hard to write a story in 1000 words or less, preferably a lot less, that has character development, conflict, and rising action,” said Deirdre Jones, Assistant Editor at Little Brown Brooks for Young Readers. “But,” she says, “it can be done.” At the SCBWI meeting on November 12th, she presented her theory as to how.
“What I’ve learned is that the narrative arc is the bones of the story. Once you’ve figured out how the arc is going to play out, then you can develop your character,” and her observations of how successful writers accomplish this has led her to conclude that “What I think makes a lot of books work is a nine point formula.”
Those 9 points are:
- Introduce the character
- Set the scene (where we are, what we’re doing)
- Introduce the problem
- Increase the tension
- Build the themes/characters/message
- Reach the climax
- Resolve the problem
- Show character growth
- End on a memorable note
Ms. Jones illustrated these points via a structural analysis ofAwesome Dawson by Chris Gall, a book she is proud to have assisted in editing from start to finish. She picked it as a model of using the formula to create something unique.
“In the first two sentences of the story we learn Dawson’s age, that he goes to school, that he likes to put things together, he’s creative, and that he doesn’t have many friends. On the next page, we learn that his parents wish he’d clean up their yard/house, and that Dawson has a secret workshop. This exposition is quick.
“A big pitfall is spending too much time or text on the beginning,” says Ms. Jones, “and the short exposition allows readers to spend most of their time in the middle trying to solve the problem. A little bit goes a long way in a picture book.
“Then comes the problem: Dawson’s parents ask him if he’s done his chores, and of course he doesn’t want to. This problem was foreshadowed when his parents were introduced as wishing he would spend more time cleaning the yard. Now we’re officially in the middle of the story.”
The middle section “should not be a plateau. Don’t spend time telling us ‘he went here, and then he went there, and then he did this.’ If the main character is just walking around, it’s not interesting. The more you do in the middle, the more fun for the reader.”
“Dawson finds a vacuum cleaner, and this is how he’s going to solve the problem. But then the vacuum starts sucking up everything. And so here we not only have rising action,” Ms. Jones points out, “but a change in perspective. Up to now, everything is somewhat believable. Once the vacuum becomes alive, the story enters the realm of fantasy, which is another way to ramp up the excitement. The vacuum is sucking up his father’s car, the problem is getting bigger, not smaller, the adventure is getting bigger—we’re out of the workshop and into the town. All of these are ways to increase tension and move the story forward in its arc at the same time.”
Ms. Jones said that once Dawson realizes he may have made a mistake, we see character development. “When he’s trapped inside the vacuum wishing he was just raking leaves and doing his chores, this is a huge moment. Every page increases the tension as Dawson tries to fix the brain of the vacuum, but it’s also important to show how he’s learning from the experience.
This book is classic narrative arc: there’s a problem, three attempts to fix it, a black moment when it looks like it’s all over, and then finally a resolution.”
She smiled. “That’s how you create a narrative arc in a picture book. There are lots of ways to do it—this is just one of them. But it’s a classic arc for a reason. It works, and as I said in the beginning, you can use it as a very basic formula to get started. There are no hard and fast rules. Figure out the bones of your story, and then twist and change the formula to create something totally unique and exciting.”
Lauren Shapiro is a freelance writer. She has published over 50 articles in diverse publications including Crain’s American Dry Cleaner, Dance Spirit, American Small Farm and WorldandIOnline. Her article on Archie Comic Books and Literacy was published in Education Update in Manhattan, and reprinted in parent papers in Staten Island, New Jersey, Mississippi and Pennsylvania. She is hoping to find a way into the children’s book market.