Vision: A Resource for Writers
The Moral Of The Story Is...
By Justin Stanchfield
Ó2002, 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.
isn't to say a moral shouldn't be hidden between the lines. The trick is knowing
how to hide it.
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.
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.
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.
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.