Wednesday, August 7, 2013

X Marks the Spot (Part 1)

Here I am in preachy/teachy mode again. 

Today's topic?


Studying scriptwriting is an invaluable tool for any writer, but particularly for children’s novelists. 

Children's novels are similar to scripts.
  1. They are relatively short.
  2. They need to reveal the story as early as possible.
  3. They need to be tight and active.
  4. They must be well-paced.
In scripts, structure is critical and clearly defined (setup, development, climax, resolution). 

We talked about setup HERE, HERE and HERE.
But now let’s narrow our focus even more. 

One of the most critical parts of the setup of a story is the catalyst

The catalyst has two important roles:
1. It starts the action of the story.
2. It defines what the story is about. 

The strongest catalyst - and the most common in children’s books - is a specific action (sometimes referred to as the inciting incident. No, that will not be on the test. Relax). 

Something happens to set the story in motion.

The catalyst should come as early in the story as possible. 

Repeat after me:

The catalyst should come as early in the story as possible.


Because young readers want to get into the action as soon as possible. 

In most cases, the reader (and you, the writer) should be able to point at a specific spot on the page and say, “There! That’s where the story starts.” 

X marks the spot!

Some of the best children’s books literally start with the catalyst. They jump right into the action.

Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo: 

My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white

rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog. 

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt: 

Nothing ever happens in Antler, Texas. Nothing much at all. Until this afternoon, when an old blue Thunderbird pulls a trailer decorated with Christmas lights into the Dairy Maid parking lot. The red words painted on the trailer cause quite a buzz around town, and before an hour is up, half of Antler is standing in line with two dollars clutched in hand to see the fattest boy in the world. 

The Goats by Brock Cole (one of my faves, btw): 

When he came back to the beach with wood for a
fire Bryce grabbed him from behind. The firewood scattered, bouncing off his knees and shins.

“Okay, Bryce,” he said. “Cut it out.” He tried to sound unafraid, even a little bored.

Bryce pulled his elbows back until they were almost touching. The boy tried to look up at the other kids. They turned their faces away, squinting out over the lake or frowning up into the trees above the beach. 

“Hey,” Bryce said. “Do I have to do everything?”
For a moment no one moved, and then Murphy shrugged and knelt down heavily in font of the boy. He was frowning, as if he had to do something disagreeable.

“Don’t,” said the boy.

Murphy pulled down his shorts. The boy’s knees folded, and as he fell Bryce tugged his sweat shirt over his head. It was a new shirt. It had the camp emblem of the Tall Pine on the front. Someone sat on his knees so they could pull off his shoes and socks. Then they let him go. He scuttled sideways on his hands and knees into a thicket of reeds and fell on his side. He could hardly breathe.

“Come on, Howie,” Murphy said. “You’re a goat. Don’t you get it?” 

The boy curled up tightly, squeezing his eyes shut, waiting for the world to explode. 

“I don’t think he gets it,” Murphy said. 

The boy didn't move. He heard the canoes being shoved back into the water. There was a clatter of paddles and a loud splash. Someone laughed. 

There is no question what this story is about: a boy has been stripped naked and left on an island by his fellow campers. 

Notice that the above catalysts are specific actions - a girl brings home a stray dog; a trailer with a fat boy arrives in town; a boy is left naked on an island. 

The catalyst might also be informational.

But I see that some of you in the back of the room are dozing, so I'll save this part of the discussion for later.

Wake up.

Class dismissed.

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