Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Building A Story: Plots, Characters, and Settings—Oh, My!
Wednesday, January 19—TROUBLE!

I tried for days to write this post. After many failed attempts, I realized I wasn’t writing what I wanted to write. Have you ever done that? My students do it all the time. Since they’ve gone to the trouble of planning a piece, they feel obligated to write it, even if they hate the story or have little to say. Earlier I made an outline of what I wanted to cover in each day’s blog this week. But after trying and over and over, I decided I had the wrong topic. Today’s revised topic is an important one:        T-R-O-U-B-L-E!

I’ve had a few manuscripts that have been called quiet. That usually means boring! LOL! But it can also mean lacking tension, suspense, growth, development, or . . . TROUBLE!

Here’s what Mem Fox says about trouble:

“At the start of a story we need to be as direct as possible. It’s a common sin to beat about the bush, and waffle on for two long. We should attempt to say who, when, and where in the first two sentences, and then begin to state the problem. We have to solve a problem during a story or otherwise we have no trouble. Without trouble we have no plot. Only trouble is interesting.”

You’ll notice “trouble” in the story arc and three-act structure we looked at earlier this week. The story arc is built on a problem and that problem grows worse and worse after each attempt to solve it, culminating in the “black moment” that leads to a final solution and on to the climax and resolution. In the three-act structure, all of ACT TWO is centered on the CONFRONTATION/DEVELOPMENT which is the intensifying of the trouble.

In his great article about story structure, Steve Barancik writes: “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!”

I have been guilty of thinking of the trouble in a story (or the problem) as being something huge and I end up over thinking what I’m doing. Now I’m trying to remember to think like a child and consider what a child would consider a problem. Not fitting in, picture day at school, a new baby, trying out for baseball, learning to ride a bike—those potentially could be big problems in the eyes of children. Our stories don’t have to have a huge problem, just a child-centered problem.

As I look at the books on the shelf next to my desk I see trouble all around.
·   In Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser, Fancy Nancy’s problem is an un-fancy family.
·   In Whooper Cake by Karma Wilson and Will Hillenbrand, Grandpa decides to make a humongous cake for Grandma and the making of that cake is trouble!
·   Marge and Lola, the two chickens in Chicken Dance by Tammi Sauer and Dan Santat, encounter the problem of finding a talent so they can compete in the talent show and win tickets to an upcoming concert.
·   In Too Many Pumpkins by Linda Arms White and Megan Lloyd, Rebecca Estelle’s problem is pumpkins—way too many pumpkins.
·   The leaf in The Little Yellow Leaf by Carin Berger has a problem—the leaf is not ready to fall from the tree.

I’ve mentioned the boot camp I attended with Linda Arms White and Laura Backes. In that boot camp I discovered a way to state the problem or trouble of a book and at the same time get a handle on the entire story (as well as a leg-up on a book pitch). Simply fill in the blanks in this sentence:

This is the story of _____________ who more than anything wants to ____________, but can’t because of ___________ until _____________.

For instance in my picture book, Cowboy Christmas (Golden Books/Random House, 2012), I filled in the blanks this way:

This is the story of three cowboys who more than anything want to celebrate Christmas¸ but can’t because they are stuck on the range until Santy Claus (who looks a lot like their cook, Cookie) makes a surprise visit to camp.

This little fill-in-the-blank activity has helped me discover when a story doesn’t have a solid problem, when I don’t have a solution, when a story concept needs to be thought through again, and to amp up the trouble in a story. Basically, if I can’t summarize my story by filling in these blanks, then the story's probably too complex or too underdeveloped. Either would spell t-r-o-u-b-l-e and NOT the kind we need in our picture books!

By the way, Cowboy Christmas was originally one of those “quiet” stories. But with some ruthless revisions I was able to make the cowboys’ trouble big and bad enough that the story found life. If I can do it, you can, too!

1. Use the fill-in-the-blank activity to get a handle on one of your stories.
2. Go searching for trouble. Look through a stack of picture books. Analyze the problem in the book and how the trouble is developed throughout the story.

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