Gail Anderson-Dargatz

Resources for Writers

On Developing Conflict and Structure

As I’ve talked with well-known children’s authors like Caroline Adderson, Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang , and, most recently, Paulette Bourgeois -- author of the outrageously successful Franklin series -- I was struck by both the differences and the similarities between writing for children and for adults. I admit I was more surprised by the similarities. What applies to literary fiction so often applies to writing for kids as well.

In bold below, Paulette Bourgeois offers her top ten list of advice for budding authors. Under each of her suggestions is my advice for budding literary writers, writing for adults. Let’s see how they compare:

1. Forget the "lesson". There is a tendency for new writers to want to write a moral within a story. The Grimms already did that.

Amen. The old adage: don’t preach to your reader and don’t let your characters preach either. Cut the lectures.

2. Tell a great story without a lesson. See point #1.

We want our literary fiction to have themes, of course, but I believe those themes should arise naturally from the situation and characters, from the story. Too often authors enter into their writing with a point they want to make, an “idea” they want to get across; when they do, well, here come the lectures.

3. A great story for children is the same as a great story for grownups. Characters you care about, and a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Exactly, but finding that structure, unique to each literary novel, is the real work of the novelist. It ain’t easy.

4. A flawed but ultimately loveable main character is a must.

In adult fiction, the protagonist doesn’t have to be loveable, but must be engaging or fascinating. A reader must care enough about the protagonist and her conflict to read on.

5. Simple language works. Flowery language detracts from the story. He said, she said, is better than he exclaimed! she protested!

Keep it simple, sweetheart. The best literary fiction ain’t filled with high falutin’ prose. Keep the language simple and to the point. Apprentice writers often strain too hard for the poetic and overshoot.

Also, as Paulette points out here, avoid describing how a thing is said (he slurred). The dialogue, beats and context should do the job.

6. Keep the exclamation points to a minimum!

Yes! The apprentice writers I work with often fill their rough drafts with overly dramatic action, a lot of screaming, slamming, falling off of chairs in surprise. The literary version of the exclamation mark.

7. A story for children must reflect the world they live in or wish to live in. Adults are not always kind and wise. Children are not always happy and carefree.

As writers, we often protect our characters from their conflicts, just as we might try to protect our children from theirs. We come up with ever new and inventive ways to avoid getting our characters in trouble. Why do we do this? I’m not altogether sure, but I suspect we avoid our characters’ conflicts for the same reason we avoid our own: conflict makes us uncomfortable. As fiction writers, we can’t afford to do this, of course. We must constantly challenge our protagonists, and make sure their conflicts are compelling.

8. There must always be a hopeful ending to a story for children even if the story is about something sad, bad or crazy.

Here’s where writing for grown-ups and writing for children often differs, of course. In literary fiction, the endings are not always happy. However, the ending should offer the reader that satisfying sense of completion.

9. Villains in children's stories can be really, really, evil.

Again, here’s where writing for kids and writing literary fiction may differ. Creating antagonists for literary fiction requires a subtle hand. The best antagonists are complicated, characters we can relate to on some level. Seeing ourselves within them makes them that much more compelling and, perhaps, frightening.

10. Every book for children must make the reader laugh out loud at least once.

Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh. My first love was writing humor, but I quickly realized that in Canada at least, writing humor as genre was a tough go. (Which is strange, because we’re a very funny people.) Still, I make a point of writing patches of humor into my literary writing, so I have something fun to read out loud at readings. Wakes up the audience.

There you go: whether writing for children or writing for adults, a good story is a good story. No big surprise, then, that so many novels aimed at children and young adults are read by grown-ups.

I’ll end this blog with one last bit of advice I received from a master in the field of children’s writing, the wonderful Robert Munsch. In a recent email he told me he had only one piece of advice: “TRY OUT YOUR STORIES ON KIDS.” The caps are his, of course, as is so much of the good stuff is in his stories. His is sound advice for writers of adult fiction as well: try out your stories on your audience. Hand your manuscript over to readers long before your editor ever sees it and take their advice to heart. Make that story the very best it can be.

Resource Categories

Blogs on Craft

On the Building Blocks of Fiction

Tips on how to craft vivid scene that allows the reader to experience events right along with the characters.

On Finding Your Big Idea

Insights into the writing process and what a writer's day really looks like, as well as perspectives on research and writing from real life.

On Getting to Know Your Characters

Advice on the many ways you can make your characters come alive on the page for both you and your reader.

On Deciding on Point of View

What is the best perspective from which to tell your story? Writers discuss how they made choices on point of view and voice.

On Choosing Your Situation and Setting

Writers talk about how they use situation and setting to build story and convey emotion.

On Developing Conflict and Structure

From how to work in different genres to finding the real story, writers offer good advice on building conflict and structure.

On Revising

Tips on how to gain distance from your work and to how to re-imagine your next draft.

On Publishing

Writers offer practical advice on the business of writing and promotion, and on the importance of finding a writing community.

On Making a Living as a Writer

Writers offer words of wisdom on living on less.

On The Writer's Life

Writers talk about their life as a writer.

About Gail

Gail's novels have been national and international bestsellers and two have been short-listed for the Giller Prize, among other awards. She works with writers from around the world on her online teaching forums.