|Photo: Nong V
GIVE AGENTS WHAT THEY WANT
Let's take a look at these two pieces. In one of them, the story is about fencing, an activity the writer had loved as a child and still enjoys as an adult. The writer describes the uniform, the épée (sword), the stance, the attack and the three main moves. This goes on for about 500 words. And that's it. Descriptions. There isn't a main character who confronts a problem.
In the other story, we have two characters, best friends, who go on an adventure. Picture books can have more than one character, but one of them should be the central character and this central character should have a problem. But in this piece, the conflict was unclear. I couldn't tell what the main character wanted, what got in her way, and how she would resolve the problem. To me, the story was an imaginative playful journey with no major conflict.
Most books, whether they are picture books, middle grade, young adult, memoirs, or novels, have character and conflict. They go hand in hand. Conflict is born out of a character wanting something—and having trouble getting it.
I had the fortune to listen to five agents on a SCBWI webinar panel weigh in on the subject. They agreed a story should have a good sense of the main character (MC), plot, what the MC wants, and what stands in the way (conflict).
An agent from the Andrea Brown Literary Agency states writers must find a way to connect with young readers not by story, but with the MC. She explains writers must create a relatable character that elicits emotion and develop a story arc which shows character growth or change.
Children's author Margot Finke writes that conflict is on the checklist for picture books. She states that "the main character needs to be in conflict with something or someone for the story to grip small readers. Have some problem that bothers, or gnaws, or leads to trouble. The hero/heroine gets to solve the problem over the course of the story. The solving is the meat in your story."
So, returning to the two manuscripts, what can the writer do to improve the books? For the fencing story, the writer can keep the fencing descriptions, but she must develop a character who cares deeply about the sport. She must describe how the character feels about fencing. It's all about emotion. Once that is established, then the writer can devise a problem the fencer faces and has to solve.
In the adventure story, the writer can take the main character that has already been developed and invent a specific problem that gets in the way of what this character wants. That conflict should be obvious and challenging to solve.
These solutions may seem obvious to more seasoned writers. But some newbies may struggle with character and conflict. When that happens, I have a few exercises that might help.
For character: Set the plot aside and focus on the protagonist. Let the imagination run wild and think of the first character that pops in your head. Then cast that character as the star in the story. This initial character will probably not be the best choice, but it gets the creative juices flowing and it will lead to finding the perfect character as the piece is revised.
For conflict: Think about putting yourself into the story and running into a problem you'd never want to face. Or even better, have a conversation with the MC and have her tell you about the problem she's encountered and how she plans to solve it.
As a writer, you are free to write whatever you're craving to write. Even if it's a description of an activity you love doing. Or a wacky or wondrous adventure. But like many agents, I believe that manuscripts must have the basic elements of a story. So, if you want to publish a picture book, take an honest look at your work. Does it have character and conflict?
✌ and ♥