One of the joys of coming to a SCBWI Conference is the sheer amount of talent, knowledge and expertise on display. Session A “Let’s Talk Vision! Are your story elements all working together?” was no exception, providing a smorgasbord of delicious insights (and food analogies) for authors of any kind of story.
Chaired by picture book author Katrina McKelvey, the panel comprised of Linsay Knight, Head of Australian and New Zealand Publishing for Walker Books, Heather Curdie, Commissioning Editor for Penguin Random House Young Reader, Mary Verney, also from Penguin Random House Young Readers and Eve Tonelli, Senior Children’s Editor at HarperCollins.
Story elements apply from picture books all the way through to YA, but what exactly are they? Let’s see what the panel had to say.
Eve said it was anything you think you need to make your story cohesive. She said they were, “the ingredients for your story cake.” [I told you there were food analogies! KC]
Mary said each story you come to is different and you might have an emphasis on different aspects.
Heather said sometimes in your life, it’s all about people but a little bit about the setting. Other times it’s more about the setting. It’s the same with story.
Linsay said story elements are like the perfect risotto. [More food! KC] There’s the creator who knows what the recipe is and little by little is adding the ingredients. Little by little you put in different flavours and tiny bit of water. You’re seeing what’s happening and if it’s working. It takes time.
So, what exactly are the story elements? Katrina and the panel provided the following two lists:
BASIC STORY ELEMENTS
ADVANCED STORY ELEMENTS
Point of View
With the terms defined, the question and answer format that followed provided the audience with a range of perspectives and a fabulous foundation for ensuring authors create a cohesive story. And because I don’t want you to miss a thing that was said, what follows reads more like a transcript that an article. But please note, all words attributed to panellists are not necessarily direct quotes but are this Roving Reporter’s interpretation of what was said.
QUESTION 1: In picture books do you like animal/creature main character or human?
LINSAY: It depends on the animal. I am currently working on 3 PBs that all star bears. Animals can give you that little bit of distance between the child and the not-child. There’s a lot you can explore using animals.
EVE: If you use an animal you’re much more universal. There’s a strong argument for using animals in picture books because of this. They’re cute! If you choose to use an Australian animal it often travels well and is well received overseas. The decision on what animals to use may be made by the author or publisher or illustrator.
LINSAY – In three books that I’m working on, the author made the decision on the type of animal. The creature does often have its own personality. Keep in mind that the US has Australian animals as part of syllabus. [Good to know! KC]
QUESTION 2: How does author make sure their voice suits the age of their character and that it’s consistent?
HEATHER: If you’re going to know your audience you have to mix with them. I you’re writing for 10 year olds then listen to 10 year olds. Listen to their dialogue, what expressions they use and watch the games that they play. Immerse yourself in their world to some extent. Seek out the many famous books for those particular age groups that are best sellers. They’re the ones to read. Look really carefully at their plot. Look really carefully at their dialogue. Be careful using colloquialisms and slang because they go in and out of fashion so fast that they can become yesterday very quickly. If you want it to be universal and perennial, make it about things kids want to do.
MARY: Put your writing away for a while and come back to it and things might jump out at you. Having a fresh eye afterwards might throw up something that doesn’t fit for that world.
QUESTION 3: Have any of you ever asked an author to change the gender of the main character?
EVE: One famous author intentionally wrote a picture book where gender wasn’t specified however due to unconscious bias, people will assume characters are male unless you say otherwise. After a discussion, the author chose to write many characters overtly female to overcome those biases. Otherwise, these are not normally the conversation that we have. We assume the author knows the character well and who they want them to be.
MARY: I can’t think of that situation like that involving the main character, however I am aware of what’s happening around central character and ensuring there’s diversity in supporting cast.
EVE: We need to think about the larger diversity conversation around the cast of characters. It is important to include diversity because this is our world as a culture and community.
QUESTION 4: Name a character you adore and why.
LINSAY: My two favourite childhood characters were Ratty from Wind in the Willows, and Eeyore. Who doesn’t love a character who spends a long time putting a balloon in and out of a box? I also love Max Remy (Deb Abela), Alice Miranda (Jacqueline Harvey), Nanny Piggins (R.A. Spratt) and Elizabella (Zoe Norton Lodge). They are all strong women, they all do things, they all change the world. They all make me feel I want to go back to my childhood and be those women all over again.
HEATHER: It is an impossible question. I am a little bit of a passionate fantasy reader. My childhood was full of imaginative play and fantasy. The character I chose was Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman). She’s strong, she’s independent, she’s brave. She’s naïve and she makes mistakes that have huge consequences, then works hard and puts her life on the line to fix those. She plays havoc with the adult world. Children love it when this happens, when the main character is a child, the villain is an adult, and the child prevails. What’s not to like about someone who can fool a giant polar bear king?
MARY: Right at this moment my favourite character is Canteen Carol from Mr Bambuckle’s Remarkables (Tim Harris) because in just 2.5 pages, you manage to get every piece of information that you need about this character.
EVE: Book Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee). It was the first book I read as a child where I stood back and thought about how well it was written. The art, the craft in that character, in that book, has always stayed with me.
QUESTION 5: When it comes to plot, how can an author make sure a second half of a manuscript is as strong as the first?
LINSAY: This is essential, the story has got to keep on moving. A lot of this is about pacing. You have a crescendo and you have another one in the second half. It’s like a piece of music. It needs pacing and the action needs to keep on going. We need surprises in the second half. It works well when a big reveal comes and we get lulled and think it’s all over, then we are surprised again. We need character twists where in the first half we think a character is nice and sweet and then in the second half we find out they have a dark soul. It’s good when plot points are resolved but the way they are resolved is so essential. Sometimes a weak resolution can let down the whole book.
MARY: Give yourself time to revise that second half. Often it feels like the first half has been worked and worked and worked and the end is a bit rushed. Enjoy the process and allow yourself the room to enjoy revising the second half as well as the first half.
QUESTION 6: How is the development of the character effectively woven into the plot?
EVE: There is no magic bullet. I hate to the be the bearer of bad news but it comes down to craft. It might not require 10,000 hours of deliberate practise…but it probably will. Do it, do it again, read in your genre, fail. You absolutely need to read in your genre. You just have to have the craft.
HEATHER: Through the character’s experiences and conflicts they often challenge their beliefs and feelings. This can be done with dialogue, inner thoughts and the reputation of the character as voiced by others. Peripheral characters can add to your character by giving you an idea of what they’re like. This can then give you a good idea of what other people feel about them. Think about their appearance, facial expression, the way they dress. So many things can add to a character that come from the setting. In Chapter 1 of Our Australian Girl: Meet Pearlie (by Gabrielle Wang) we learn so many things about her in just a few paragraphs. Show don’t tell. It’s a combination of development of character and plot at the same time.
QUESTION 7: How does an author make sure the climax of their story is satisfying and not rushed?
MARY: It’s about taking your time and knowing where you’re going with the story and the character. It’s important to tie up all your loose ends, not rush the ending and make sure the central characters’ central journey has been tied up nicely.
QUESTION 8: Can you leave a question unanswered in book 1 to set up book 2?
MARY: Yes, but you have to satisfy the reader of Book 1 in every other way except that one thing.
HEATHER: Every single book in a good series has its own story arc. If you took the surprise/loose end out it would still be a complete story on its own. Readers need to be satisfied by the story in that book alone. In MG and YA the secret is to make sure there’s always those little climaxes building up and up to the major climax so you have people on tenterhooks right up until the big battle.
QUESTION 9: Do you always need conflict in a picture book, especially for the preschool age group?
LINSAY: There doesn’t have to be conflict but there has to be something resolved. In the story arc there has to be a reason to drive the story forward. Something has to be important enough to be resolved, for example when something is lost. Picture books need to be beautifully conceived and the pacing has to be great, but there doesn’t always have to be conflict.
QUESTION 10: How do you put a theme in a picture book without being preachy?
EVE: You know preachy when you see it. If you start with the story, the story should come first and then you can see there’s an idea of belonging etc. But if you start with a blank page about a topic like belonging it doesn’t work. By doing that you’re setting out to teach which is not really writing fiction. Know what you’re writing and what your intention is. Kids needs to identify with the character so characterisation and the things that happen need to be integral to the story. Pick something really amazing. Cherry pick the best you can find. Learn how other people have done it and read great books multiple times.
QUESTION 11: Can you give three tips on making all these elements work together?
EVE: I’m only going to give one. Voice. Get the voice right because sometimes that is more important than plot. If you nail the voice, the plot will come. Work out what is actually interesting to your audience and start from a place of authenticity.
Love what you’re writing about it and feel passionate about it.
Trust yourself, listen to your gut
Take your time
Make every word/plot turn count. Don’t use words that aren’t needed. Every word counts
We need characters who – like it says in His Dark Material – “are as funny and vulnerable and as emotionally muddled as the boy and girl next door”.
LINSAY: It’s all about poetry, all about poetry of the story. It’s about beautiful word choice, rhythm and waiting to breathe.
Wow. How’s that for a feast of gems for you fossick through? But wait, there’s more! Katrina went on to list a range of podcasts, groups and websites that might be helpful for authors.
Tania McCartney – The Happy Book podcast
Just Write For Kids website
Creative Kids Tales website
Jen Storer’s The Duck Pond Facebook Group
One More Page podcast
Ladybirds who Write Facebook Group
Middle Grade Mavens podcast
Now that you’ve got the low-down on story elements from industry experts and tips on how to incorporate them into you writing, off you go and get to it! Happy writing.
by Karen Collum