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Novel-sized Problem

boy-984313_1920.jpegIf your story problem can be solved quickly and easily, it's probably a magazine story. But if your main character has multiple things going on (subplots) and is going to have a lot of "doing" or action before the end of the story, then you have a novel-sized problem. Some problems are novel-sized just by their seriousness--death, grave illness, other big losses, abuse, etc.

I can't conceive of a whole children's novel at once, whereas I can a children's short story. I can visualize the problem, the steps the main character will try, and the solution for a short story and be pretty accurate that it will happen that way. For a novel my conception is more fluid. Yes, I have ideas of a problem, but not all the problems my character(s) will experience. I have ideas for solutions, but that's not necessarily what the main character will end up doing. My idea of the final solution may change drastically as I write. I like what Greg Hollingshead says, "The primary difference between the short story and the novel is not length but the larger, more conceptual weight of meaning that the longer narrative must carry on its back from page to page, scene to scene." This takes us back to the problem. Novel problems matter more than short story problems. They affect the character's whole life in some way not just a small piece of it. Problems that are big enough for a novel won't be forgotten by your character next year. A short story problem once solved could be forgotten next week.

I recently read an outline for a children's short story where I told the writer it was more of a novel problem. My first hint was the depth of the problem. My second was the character was making a decision about something and I wasn't going to get to see the result of that decision. Hard to explain without getting into details for that specific story, so let me come up with an example. I've never watched The Bachelor, but what if there was a scene where he said, "I know whom I'm going to marry." He even says the name. But we don't get to see him ask her and see if she says yes. We'd feel cheated. If what NEEDS to be shown won't fit in your short story, think novel. Or maybe you're starting in the wrong place--too soon in the story.

There's satisfaction in writing both. Short stories offer a more immediate sense of accomplishment. Novels can offer a longer lasting sense of accomplishment. T.C. Boyle says, "The joy of the story is that you can respond to the moment and events of the moment. The drawback is that once you've completed a story, you must write another even though you find yourself bereft of talent or ideas. The joy of the novel is that you know what you're going to do tomorrow. The horror of the novel, however, is that you know what you're going to do tomorrow."

So part of determining whether you have a short story or a novel problem is how strongly you feel about the main issue in the story. Is it something you are willing to spend some time on? A few hours, a few days, maybe a week? Or is it something you're willing to devote months, often years? A novel will take the latter.

Let me conclude with this lovely statement from Elizabeth Sims: " a short story you should be trying to get at one or two poignant aspects of being human. In a novel, you can create characters, let them loose, follow them and see what they do. If you feel your story will be more a journey than a statement, you may be leaning toward a novel." (Go here to read her complete article.)

Emotions and Feelings




Look at these images. Do I need to put a label on them so you know what the character is feeling? No. Why not? Because these are well-drawn and the emotion is clear. It's shown.

The same goes with writing. We don't need to label characters as annoyed, happy, in love, scared, shocked, etc. We need to show it. (Picture books are often the exception to this rule.)

Let's take Ms. Bunny above. She looks shocked to me. So what happens when a person is shocked (I don't mean the electrical kind)? Eyes go big or widen. A hand might come up to cover an open mouth. Someone might take a step back or sit down suddenly. A face might pale. The person might gasp. If you describe your character experiencing being shocked, you won't have to use the "shocked" label.

I love the image of the annoyed penguin. We know what is annoying him and what he plans to do about it. What do you when something is flying around you and it is annoying? First, perhaps wave the insect off. This is almost a subconscious reaction. But after a few times it impinges on our consciousness and we get annoyed. Now we might be slapping at the bug. Making noises of irritation. Then finally get up to get something to kill it.

Mr. Frog is obviously scared. He's jumped up. His heart is probably pounding (although this is so easy to overuse). He might be sweating. Eyes dilate. Breathing rate could increase. A hand/paw/webbed foot might go to the throat. A body can shake; a hand tremble. If one is like the fainting goats, one might pass out.

So next time you are tempted to write something like "Sam was happy." Instead think about what that looks and feels like. Observe yourself and others and write was happiness does to a person. Show the reader that instead of telling a "label."

Sensory Details

blind-men-1421406_1920.jpegYou may have heard "use all five senses in your writing," but I disagree. Use all six senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and temperature in your fiction.

Sight is the sense that seems to come easiest. We might talk about the blue dress, or the rain, or the black and white cat. We might describe the style of the dress--its length, fit, and neckline. The rain might be sheeting down or lightly sprinkling. The cat could be short or long-haired, skinny or fat, etc.

But we may forget to think about what we hear. In the three examples above what could you possibly hear? With a dress it depends on the fabric, but the skirt might swish or crinkle. Rain can pound on the patio cover or spatter on the window. That cat may have tiny feet which can be silent pawing across the floor, but at other times can thump louder than seems possible. Or is she a loud purrer? The stray cat we've been feeding is half the size of our own cat, but her meow is three times as loud. And rather harsh and gravelly as if she's been a long-time smoker.

Taste is more than eating, although it definitely includes that. Have you accidentally breathed in hair spray? It doesn't taste good. Neither does your mouth if you don't brush your teeth for several days. But then there are wonderful flavors--melted butter and honey on fresh homemade bread, the tang of a slice of orange, chicken tikka masala, the burst of bubbles in your carbonated drink. What is a normal taste in your character's home may be different from something your readers have experienced? I remember reading books and wanting to try something the characters ate because it sounded so good. And some of those were fictional food items. (But they didn't feel fictional.)

From the good to the bad, and the downright ugly, smells affect our lives and should affect character lives, too. I like subtle smells of flowers, fir trees, and clean sheets. I love the smell of spaghetti sauce simmering, or a beef roast in the oven. Sometimes my dog has bad gas that I'd willingly skip, but she doesn't give me the choice. The smell of exhaust can make me choke. My husband tells the story of the time his mom decided to cook up some horse radish--everyone but mom left the premises because the smell was eye-watering intense!

Touch. Right now I have a jagged fingernail that keeps catching on things, including my own skin. I've got a soft fuzzy crocheted afghan in my lap, which my cat usually has to knead before sitting down. Sometimes my healed broken ankle aches, and when spring hits, my eyes may itch from pollen. But let's go back to my first three examples with sight and how to think about the tactile aspects. Does that blue dress have a satiny texture, or is it that bumpy seersucker fabric? Or maybe it's coarse homespun. And the rain coming down--how does it feel when I go out in it? Pelting rain that stings my skin? Or a soft mist that is like a creamy moisturizer? Do I want to pet the black and white cat or is her fur mangy and dirty? Definitely no for the latter.

Temperature, a sixth sense. Are you cold and goose-bumpy, overheated and sweating, or somewhere in between? I often don't mind being caught out in a warm rain, but will hasten in out of the weather when it is cold. Stepping barefooted on sun-heated asphalt can make one leap for the coolness of lush grass. Is that breeze warm, hot, cool, or cold? Or how about the temperature of the pool, river, or lake? And is summer the dry heat of an arid area, or the hot-steamy bathroom feel of a humid climate? Again, your characters should be affected by temperature, just as you are.

For some stories, temperature might have to move to seventh place as the traditional "sixth sense" of intuition, or some psychic or magical sense is important to the story.

Does every scene have every sense? Not usually. But scenes should have three different sensory details. And the sensory details can be about a variety of things in your character's world. Be as specific as you can. And if those specifics are sometimes unusual that will add interest. The sensory details you include will establish setting and help bring your characters to life.

Taglines and Beats

camcorder-1294289_1280.pngA tagline indicates who is speaking. It's the part outside of the quotes around the dialogue. The attribution of who spoke. e.g. he said. A tagline is in the same sentence as what is spoken. e.g. "Will you help me?" she asked. or "Stop the car," Josh said. For the most part writers use "said" and "asked" because they are unobtrusive. An occasional whisper, yell, shout, call, etc. is fine. Overuse of more unusual words are a mark of an amateur. Adverbs aren't commonly used because the dialogue should be written well enough to not need it.

Beats are physical action lines that accompany dialogue. They also identify who is speaking, but are in a separate sentence. However, beats do so much more for the story than that. Beats help readers experience the action and the emotions of the characters. They can help with setting and mood. These kinds of beats often include some kind of sensory detail. They can help with passing of time and pacing.

Let's show these different aspects of beats starting with some plain dialogue. I'm not positive I can do them separately, but I'll try. ;-) (Please ignore that I can't indent paragraphs on this blog.)

"I'm not going," Matt said.
"Why not?" his sister asked.
"Because it's stupid."
"And you don't do stupid."
"That's right. What's burning?"

We know we have male and female siblings. We don't know where they are, what they are doing, or what they are arguing about.

Beats for action

Matt shut the door. "I'm not going."
"Why not?" His sister raised her eyebrows.
Matt leaned against the doorjamb. "Because it's stupid."
"And you don't do stupid."
"That's right." He sniffed the air. "What's burning?"

Action alone is all right, but adding emotion will be better.

Beats for emotion

Matt slammed the door shut. "I'm not going."
"Why not?" His sister frowned.
Matt smacked his fist into the doorjamb. "Because it's stupid."
"And you don't do stupid." She rolled her eyes.
"That's right." But he rubbed his sore hand. "What's burning?"

I think it's more interesting with indication of emotions.

Beats for setting

Matt shut the kitchen door behind himself. "I'm not going."
"Why not?" His sister hopped down from the counter where she'd been perched.
"Because it's stupid."
"And you don't do stupid."
"That's right." Matt sniffed the air. "What's burning?"

Now we know where we are--a kitchen. And because of our setting, what's burning is probably some kind of food. (And yes, I put an action back in.)

Beats for mood

"I'm not going." A swirl of fog followed Matt inside.
"Why not?" His sister shivered.
"Because it's stupid." He looked over his shoulder as if he expected someone to be behind him.
Her bare arms goosebumped, but not from cold. "And you don't do stupid."
"That's right." Matt lowered his voice to a whisper. "What's burning?"

Quite a different feel, eh? And I don't think it's food that's burning, do you?

Beats for passage of time

"I'm not going," Matt said.
His sister finished the sentence she was writing before asking, "Why not?"
"Because it's stupid."
"And you don't do stupid."
"That's right." He pulled out a chair and sat across from her. She turned a page in her English book and started on the next essay question. Matt sniffed the air. "What's burning?"

It's hard to separate passage of time and pacing. We know some time passes twice here. The pacing slowed because of the three things that happened between Matt's last two pieces of dialogue.

Beats for pacing

"I'm not going," Matt said.
His sister finished the sentence she was writing before asking, "Why not?"
"Because it's stupid."
"And you don't do stupid."
"That's right." He pulled out a chair and sat across from her. She turned a page in her English book and started on the next essay question. Matt checked the clock on the wall. 5:23. The second hand jumped forward one minute. 5:24. Matt sniffed the air. "What's burning?"

See how there's even more going on between his last two pieces of dialogue? It's slowed the pace. Adding in actual times slowed the pacing even more. It gives that portion a relaxed feel. You wouldn't want to do that when a character is in danger.

Looking at these examples as a whole, I added changes in facial features, body language, stronger action verbs, sense of place including items in that place, mood, and sensory details (fog, goosebumps, smell of something burning.) This means the characters aren't just standing in front of a white board. Way better than simply she said/he said. Of course, in a longer piece you'll use a mixture of taglines and beats to put the reader on scene with your characters.

Rhyming Picture Books


You hear it all the time, "don't write your picture book in rhyme." That's because many writers don't do it well. The story suffers to fit the rhyme; rhyme is forced; rhythm is off; there is no story.

I thought it would be fun to look at the openings of some recent rhymers.

HENSEL AND GRETEL: NINJA CHICKS by Corey Rosen Schwartz and Rebecca J. Gomez

Once upon a menacing time
two chicks knew a fox was at large.
Their Ma had been taken
and Pa was quite shaken
so Hensel and Gretel took charge.

First line does not rhyme, 2nd and 5th rhyme and 3rd and 4th rhyme. It sets up a pattern that the reader will expect. The same pattern is on the next spread. There's a fun twist in the old "once up a time" by adding the word "menacing." Again, we see a problem, and it feels humorous, so we expect humor to follow.


Snappsy the alligator wasn't feeling
like himself.
His feet felt draggy.
His skin felt baggy.
His tail wouldn't swish this way and that.
And, worst of all, his big jaw wouldn't SNAP.

Only two lines actually rhymed. Although the last two were "near rhyme" which some editors will not allow. But look how we see the Snappsy has a problem. Kids relate to not feeling that great. SNAP in all caps sets us up to expect fun language, and of course, there's obvious humor.

A DARK, DARK CAVE by Eric Hoffman

The pale moon glows
as a cold wind blows
through a dark, dark cave.

Those words are split across multiple pages. The pattern of rhyming two lines and ending with a dark, dark cave continues. This sets a mood. The reader is set up for something a bit spooky or mysterious in only 14 words.

In all three of these examples the writers are leaving out what the illustrators can put in.

They also used language that is kidlike. And there is rhythm. But most importantly there is story. Intriguing story. Picture book author Josh Funk says, "Story is most important. Rhyme, frankly, is least. More important, but sometimes less emphasized (pun intended), is Rhythm." For further reading go to Lesson #9 "Rhyming is all about Rhythm" in Josh Funk's Guide to Writing Picture Books.

Novel-sized Problem

Emotions and Feelings

Sensory Details

Taglines and Beats

Rhyming Picture Books

What Should I Describe?

Magazine Story or Picture Book?

Nonfiction Writing

Swift Fiction - The Short Story in Focus

What Stops Me Reading!

Distancing Your Reader


Reducing Word Count

How to Stand Out


The Right Number of Characters

What Do You Do When You're Stuck?

Naming Your Character

Say What?

Writing Process Blog Tour

Truth in Fiction

Plodding or Plotting

Raise the stakes, honey!


175 Proof

He Thought to Himself and Other Excesses

The Hero's Journey for Magazine Writers

Altitude and Attitude - Adult or Child?

Slow Down, You Move too Fast

Kidz Only! Adults Keep Out!

Do you struggle with grammar?

Illustrator Resources

Nancy I. Sanders on Writing Nonfiction

Perfecting Dialogue Punctuation

Do as I Say

Professional Problem Maker

4 Ways to Make Your Characters "Talk Different"

Picture Book Month

Picture Perfect Picture Books

Picture Book Resources

My Favorite Online Resources

Do as I Say

Attribution or Action?

Turning Ideas Into Stories - Workshop

Theme and Premise

Self-Editing Tips

The Story Ladder or Novel Timeline

Showing Versus Telling

Read, Read, Read

The Power of a Good First Line

Hooking your Reader

Listen to the Voices


Viewpoint in Children's Fiction

Making Friends: Character Development