Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

And The Moral Of The Story Is...

By Justin Stanchfield

2002, Justin Stanchfield


Once in the not so long ago, children's books were seen as little more than mini-morality plays, a vehicle to present a lesson or teach a moral, a learning experience wrapped up in the guise of a story. All too often this approach led to preachy, unsatisfying books, and bored, unsatisfied readers. Today, a story that blatantly exhibits a moral is most likely to be passed over in favor of one which tells a real story in an entertaining way.

But that isn't to say a moral shouldn't be hidden between the lines. The trick is knowing how to hide it.

All fiction, from simple picture books to thousand-page literary masterpieces, carries a message -- a glimpse into the author's mind, and more to the point, a bit of self-discovery on the part of the reader. All effective fiction speaks to the readers, often in a very personal way, letting them see themselves from the vantage point of the characters living temporarily in their minds. No matter what genre or age group the story is aimed at, a good story will take the readers away and immerse them in the world the author created. A great story will leave readers feeling as transformed as the protagonist. And the key to this identification is emotional conflict.

Have you ever read a story and found yourself wanting to reach out and slap the protagonist, tell him to quit acting like a jerk and do the right thing? If you have, you're not alone. Deep emotional conflicts are at the heart of most fiction. A decision, or series of poor choices which leads inevitably toward a confrontation, should evolve naturally as the plot unfolds, carrying both characters and readers toward the inescapable final showdown. Even simple adventure or horror stories need to have emotional, as well as physical, turmoil if the reader is ever going to become involved. As writers it's our job -- and quite possibly the most difficult part of writing -- to set up this conflict without seeming obvious. Make it too easy of a choice for your character and it will read like a bad Hollywood script. It's not enough to simply have your poor, misunderstood protagonist pursuing the absolute wrong girl for him while the love of his life stands patiently in the shadows. You, as the author, need to reach out and grab your reader, take her by their emotional throat and don't let go until she is gasping for breath at the choices your character faces. And that takes both skill and honesty on your part.

Which brings us back to the moral of the story.

The key to writing for children and young adults is remembering what it was like to be young. Not the physical aspects, though that certainly helps, but the emotions you felt. The tearing, crushing, awful struggles we all faced in one form or another. The sweet rush of discovery, the pride and hurt and embarrassment and indecision. The wonder and terror and thrill of what it meant to be a child or a teenager. We make the mistake of thinking children's lives are simple because the choices they face seem somehow silly from our adult perspective. It's hard to take a six year old's playground squabbles seriously when you are facing a job cut and an overdue mortgage. It's easy to dismiss a teenager's failed romance when you are facing a date in divorce court. But remember, children and adolescents possess the same capacity for emotion that we as adults do, and in many cases, more capacity. Childhood is a time of passion, and every single conflict seems mountainous, an almost insurmountable barrier between where they are and where they want, or need, to be. A smart writer uses this passion, this sense of urgency, in her writing.

No matter the tone of your novel or short story, the conflict needs to feel real, especially if you are writing fantasy or science fiction. When the world your character inhabits is vastly different from the one your readers share, you need to ground the emotional dilemma in more familiar territory: Friendship, fear, unrequited love, the need to prove oneself. Any situation that leads your character to a difficult moral choice, a choice with real and long-lasting repercussions, will help involve the reader. The more difficult the choice, the stronger the involvement. And keep in mind that, although you are writing for a young audience, life-and-death struggles are a huge part of kid's fiction. Better to be too hard on your characters than too soft.

One of the great advantages of writing for children and young adults is that we have all been there. We faced our own adolescence and survived to write about it. And the choices we made then still influence us today. Hopefully, we learned from our own mistakes. If we're very lucky, maybe something we write will help somebody else learn from his too.