September 13, 2023Storytelling 101

Much of life is about just simply getting out of our own way.

Just like the antidote about catching a butterfly, when you finally stop chasing, it comes and lights on your shoulder. That's the way creativity works, too, and absolutely that's the way to be a great storyteller. If you're writing stories for children, I'd dare say it's the only way.

To write a story is to create a world with characters and events, and then invite a reader to come listen, watch and participate. A well-written story causes the reader to get involved emotionally to the point that they are cheering on the hero, feeling the gamut of emotions caused by set-backs and victories, and hoping for justice and for wrongs to get set right in the end.

That sounds like a recipe for an epic novel, and certainly children's stories aren't that complicated. It might hold true a bit for older children who are beginning to read chapter books, but that's certainly a bit of overkill for, say, an ABC book! But maybe those ABC books are a good place to start for beginning children's writers while they learn how to get out of their own way ...

Most creatives do their thing with the goal of voicing whatever is burning in their heart and soul.

Like any creative work, the main goal of writing is to make a statement or send a message. Unlike other creative work, writing can be uniquely specific in expressing that message. An artist can choose the right colors and brush strokes to express joy. A musician can choose the right notes and rhythm. A writer can simply say, I'm HAPPY!

That sounds ridiculous, because a beautiful painting or a peppy beat makes us feel the joy, too. But our only response to the writer might be, Well, that's nice, I'm glad for you!

Unfortunately, that's about the way many would-be children's authors write.

There are appropriate places and platforms for that kind of writing: journals, essays, blogs, sermons, speeches, instruction manuals, testimonials, etc. But for story writing, writers need to convey their messages through the story, and do it in such a way that will be interesting and fun for the reader. Draw them into the story so that they are emotionally experiencing what the characters are going through. If it's done well, there will be no need at the end to tell the reader, And the moral of this story is ... . Your readers will already know the moral of the story, because they have been emotionally engaged, and they are already thinking and reflecting on their own thoughts and feelings about what they've experienced.

Children who are becoming readers are learning to think. For young children who are being read to by a parent, part of that role is to discuss their thoughts and feelings about the story. Older kids who are reading on their own are reflecting and thinking just like adult readers.

Writers insult and shut down readers when they overexplain, preach, lecture ... no reader, adult nor child, will tolerate that nonsense, so just don't do it. Readers should not be consciously aware of the author's "presence" at all, so any comments or insertions should be very limited and confined to footnotes, but it's better to not have those at all.

For example: A writer wants to teach children that it's important to share ...

Instead of telling readers that Johnny is a bad boy and upsets the other children when he hogs the sandbox, weave a story that shows ...

- how he figured out a way to keep everybody else out of the sandbox
- how the others reacted when they found out they couldn't play in there, too
- how he was so pleased with himself, he was in charge!
- the unintended consequences: the others don't like him so much anymore
- when lunchtime comes, no one will even sit with him
- how being "King" of the sandbox isn't so grand ... it's rather lonely
- what he has to give up and go through to win back his friends

This would be fun to write and illustrate. Maybe tell it from Johnny's point of view: "I showed them all who's the boss today!" And the illustrations could emphasize the feelings of the children through their facial expressions ... smug, snobby Johnny and mad, hurt children ... and the emptiness and loneliness of a solitary figure in his sandbox, totally alone and ignored by his peers.

Take your reader on a rollercoaster ride of emotions! Make the beginning fun and forceful ... Johnny knows how to make things go his way! That's a good skill for any kid to have!

Then play up the disdain of the other children, and Johnny's surprise that they are not so impressed with how in charge he is.

Then make his isolation and loneliness palpable ... and the reader learns that many things that look like a good idea, have unintended consequences. Sometimes a good idea comes at a high cost, that might be too much to pay ...

With a story like this, you won't have to explain to a reader why sharing is important. If they've been guilty of stinginess, they will see how that worked out for Johnny. If they've been hurt by another child's stinginess, they will relate to the feelings of the children that Johnny hurt ... and they will ponder it and discover how they think and feel about it all. Did the other children handle their hurt well by shunning Johnny? Was there a better way to respond to him?

If you want to sell books, this is the best marketing plan of all, because the next time a book appears with your name on the cover, it'll get snapped up!

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