Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Secrets to Writing for Kids: Hiking Up the Emotional Intensity

I won't try to dodge the reality that there are certain edgy subjects we simply cannot touch in children's books (depending on the level, of course), or that we, as children's book writers, should approach with great caution. They're the kind of subjects we often bring into literature for older audiences because they intensify character struggle and conflict, and force our reader to become more emotionally invested in the outcome.

Even though there are subjects we ought to avoid or tread carefully around, one thing we can do in children's literature is to hike up the emotional intensity—because while certain subjects may be taboo, emotions are always on the table, even at a very high level.

But I won't lie: it's more difficult to accomplish that without some of those higher-level subjects. Sometimes we resort to them (abuse, death, drugs, that sort of thing) as easy ways in, as cheats to heighten the reader's investment. Read on for some other solutions.

Secrets to Writing for Kids: Hiking Up the Emotional Intensity

The Parts and Pieces of Emotional Tension

1. Character.

Your audience is only going to care about what happens to a character if they have made some emotional investment in the character; if we've given them a reason to care. Character is the essential building block for all the other important parts and pieces of emotional tension.

Want an easy trick to writing a character your readers will care about? When developing your outline or synopsis, check back in with your main character as often as possible. Consider:

- Where is your character emotionally before and after an event? How has the event altered their emotional state?

- How has an event changed your character? How has he or she grown, even if only incrementally? (Readers like to see growth and change over time. A flat character—who doesn't grow or change—won't seem worthy of investment. Readers are more likely to invest in the outcome of a character that has promise and potential.)

- Why do we like this character? Even a character that does bad things, has bad habits, or is "unlikeable" needs some redeeming qualities in order to earn the reader's investment. It helps for the good qualities to grow and develop as the story goes on. (There can, and sometimes should, be setbacks. Growth is rarely linear.)

2. Struggle.

Struggle and conflict are a huge part of the essential emotional recipe. Now that we care about this guy and what becomes of him, it's time to put him under duress, and test the bonds we've built between reader and character.

Some tips for planning and writing conflicts that tug on the heart strings:

- Exploit your character's weaknesses. Take advantage of where she's weak, and put her in positions where her weakness holds her back—and then have her overcome it.

- Let the struggle continue beyond where you initially plotted it to stop. Make the lows of the story even lower. Can things get worse? Oh yes they can! The worse it gets, the more victorious and elated the reader will feel when the hero comes out on top in the end.

- Do the bad guys almost win? Let them win! And make your hero deal with it.

In a truly great struggle, the status quo is not re-established, but everything is changed afterwards. Not all endings have to be happy endings.

3. Sensory detail and emotional detail.

Now that you have the shape of a highly emotional conflict, it's time to deepen it with sensory details (consider all five senses), and emotional details.

- How does the event physically and emotionally affect the character? Can you heighten the tension and drama with sight, sound, or smell? Are any of these senses emotional triggers for your character? Take advantage of those.

- Can you intensify details you've already added? Make bad characters crueler, sadness deeper, and the emotional stakes of the conflict higher. (e.g., if the bad guys win, what are the psychological consequences on the hero? Now make them worse, so the struggle is even more important.)

- Add complexity. Instead of a straight line from status quo --> struggle --> outcome, consider adding fake victories, fake losses, or (painful) delays in reaching a resolution. All of these undulations in a story carry lots of emotional baggage.

Don't be afraid of digging deep into a character's emotional well. It sucks to hurt them when we've spent so much time getting to know them, but the more they struggle, the more the reader will invest—and relish the hero's victory.

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