My writing career as a published author* began at the ripe old age of ten, with a fifth-grade English project. Each of us was to write and illustrate a short story. When we were done, our words and pictures would be printed and bound. We’d be published, with an actual physical book that was our very own!
Though my first book, alas, has been lost in several overseas moves, I still remember the story I wrote for it. It started out with a girl who decided to use her dad’s time machine in order to study for an upcoming history test. She went back in time, got into a difficult scrape, and came back — just in time to learn that she’d missed the history test anyway, and therefore would be receiving a big, fat zero for all her efforts.
Where did Dad get a time machine? Not important. Somewhat depressing ending? It was ten-year-old me, so of course. Pretty cool story for a fifth grader? I like to think so. Horrible, horrible, ear-grating prose? I would be lying if I tried to claim being James Joyce at ten years old.
But it was a story: a real, complete story. I was very proud.
They say that artists and writers are just children who never grew up to abandon their creative streak. After all, there isn’t a single child below the age of ten who doesn’t enjoy making up stories and either writing them down or scribbling them into pictures.
That said, even though we as a species have a natural affinity for story, it’s safe to say we do get better at them given time, picking up a few tricks and techniques as we grow older and wiser. But like any other craft, the rules of storytelling are made to be broken. Recently, Wimbledon Bookfest asked me to be the bookseller judge for their annual young writers’ competition. In the course of judging the contest, I read three hundred (and forty two) stories written by children between the ages of six and eleven.
This is what I learned.
Rule #1: Break the Rules
One thing I did marvel at in every single story by our young writers was the sheer creativity of their work — their descriptions, what they chose to write about, their dialogue and metaphors. Though much of their prose was rough and unpolished, there were some brilliant gems, such as: “the volcano lost its temper”, or “I can taste the bad weather,” or the one story that turned out to be from the point of view of a meatball.
So often, we as adults, especially adult writers who have studied The Craft, get caught up in trying to follow (or subvert) story formulae and rules of good style. But if anything, our young writers’ stories consistently remind us to reconnect with that boundless, rule-defying creativity that we had as children, and to colour, every once in a while, outside the lines.
Engaging Characters are Cool, but not Too Cool
“Jack is a naughty, cheeky, and disobedient dolphin, so if you ever come across him, don’t give him any dangerous ideas.” The most engaging of our young writers’ stories almost always started with an interesting character — one who promised to get into an entertaining dilemma that we’d enjoy watching unfold over the course of a page or two.
Of course, we also had our fair share of writers who fell into the trap of describing their characters as “the nicest,” “the sweetest”, “the cleverest”, or “the coolest,” and in reading these stories, it became clear why the perfect character (often called a Mary Sue or Marty Stu) is a trope best avoided. Often, what followed was a story that fell flat. From the get go, we knew that those characters (unlike cheeky dolphin Jack) wouldn’t really do much that would impress us — after all, they’re already the coolest kids in school, so what could they possibly do that would make them any cooler?
Conflict is Key!
It’s easy to write about your day. As children, very often the first long form writing we do is that of a daily diary. But there is a distinct difference between a diary entry and a story — and while the first may be easy to write, there’s a reason that very few people outside of our parents and our older selves find them particularly gripping. More than just the fact that a daily diary mostly captures ordinary, boring, every-day life, it often lacks that ever-so-vital element of compelling reading:
This was probably the element whose absence was most readily felt in the largest swath of stories by our young writers. This year’s theme of “The Island” invited a thrilling mixture of adventures and pirates and dreams and quests, but just as often, it inspired a young writer to daydream about an idyllic vacation in the sun and sand where they went sunbathing on the beach and swam and played, but… well… nothing much actually… happened.
I much prefer a pirate attack myself, if I’m being honest.
A Series of Events, however Unfortunate, does not a Plot Make
Speaking of things happening, was it Chekhov who said: “The King died, and then the Queen died” is not a plot, but “The King died, and then the Queen died of grief” is? It sounds like something Chekhov would say, anyway**. And in any case, both that quote and Chekhov’s particular fondness for firearms point to another vital element of a good story that some of our young writers grasped and some didn’t, namely continuity.
Among our young writers’ submissions, there were a fair few where lots of things were happening — here, there, and everywhere! — and yet, somehow, even if the story didn’t end with their narrator waking up to find that it was all just a dream, the events never quite added up. This is because once you have a conflict, the happenings of the plot need to occur as a result of what came before. And when a writer finds a way to pull that thread of continuity and connection through the whole of a piece, it really does pay off, as we saw with our competition winners.
Play with your Readers’ Expectations!
Perhaps it says something about me more than our writers, but I was thoroughly impressed by these primary schoolers’ ability to consistently put together a story, complete with a beginning, middle, and end. But one thing that made the honourable mentions and the winners stand out from the rest was that they managed not only to spin their tale, but to throw something completely new and unexpected into the mix as they did so.
There was the story that began “Once upon a very long time ago — about last Wednesday–”, the dark ending to the winning story of the Year 5 and 6 entries, and the one tale that managed to pull off the “it was just a dream” trope by playing a double subversion. These writers did more than just give us engaging characters to follow through an entertaining plot, they managed to do the unexpected, and that always earned points of respect from us Judges.
Endings are Difficult. Important too, but mostly difficult.
I mean, everyone knows that beginnings are hard. Writing them the first time around is hard, and making them work to hook your reader is even harder. And then, of course, middles are really tricky, with all that plot development and character development and pacing that you have to get right. But you know what’s actually really hard? And I mean really, devilishly, mind-bendingly difficult?
A good ending. Probably eight out of every ten of the stories I read for the contest ended with “and then she (or he) woke up, and it was all just a dream.” There’s a reason this trope is older than feudalism, and a reason that it is rarely used nowadays, except to poke fun at the idea of storytelling itself.
But if the popularity of the “and then they woke up” ending among six-year-olds says anything about story, it’s that satisfying endings are intrinsically difficult. For many of these young writers, they’d taken their characters (and us, as readers) on a journey, only to realize, as most of us seasoned writers have by now — endings are hard. But they are also the most vital part of a story, because without a good ending…
Well, I’m not sure what my point was, but it was all just a dream anyway, so there.
Just kidding. My point is that so much of what we do as storytellers comes from instinct and intuition, but being aware of things that generally don’t work helps us become more intentional and effective in our craft over time. Still, while we’re learning ways of being better writers, we should always be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking there are rules that must be strictly followed. In truth, there’s only what works for your story, and what doesn’t. And on that note, I’m actually going to leave you with this thought from the one and only Trainer of Dragons, Cressida Cowell, who was the speaker for the competition’s Awards Ceremony:
“It’s always going to be the children who pull off the impossible, simply because they don’t know the rules yet.”
Wimbledon Bookfest is happening October 2019, from Thursday the 3rd to Sunday the 13th. Hope to see you there.
**Actually, it was E. M. Forster