L.A. Kennedy

Beyond the story

Linda Newbery and Nicola Davies

“Where do you get your ideas from?” Every author who gives talks to children or adults has been asked this question hundreds of times, and of course there’s no simple answer. Ideas are everywhere – the trick is to recognise a promising one when you get it, and not let go. Your starting point may be something that’s happened to you, or to someone you know; a news item; a fear, or a dream; something from the past; a fascinating character; a painting or poem; and of course our heads are crammed full of ideas and images from books we’ve read, stories we’ve heard and films we’ve seen. Several of my own books have begun with a particular place or atmosphere: an intriguing old house (Nevermore), a wartime airfield (Flightsend), an out-of-season seaside resort (The Sandfather).

When a promising idea grabs hold of you, hang on to it and see if you can turn it into a story, or at least the beginning of a story. You can build on it by asking yourself questions and thinking of the answers. Who? When? Why? will get you started; then more and more questions will follow: But why doesn’t he tell anyone? Who could possibly help her? Where have his parents gone? What’s he hiding from? At this stage, it’s a game: you haven’t committed yourself to anything, and can enjoy playing around with ideas and possibilities. When you’re ready, you can start making notes on the characters and their situations.

Every story, whatever the genre, must involve conflict, and it’s useful (though not necessarily at this early stage) to be able to convey the essence of your story in a single phrase. As the agent Carole Blake, author of From Pitch to Publication, puts it, any story can be boiled down to: What does the main character want, and what’s stopping them from getting it? If there’s no conflict, there’s no story.

· Macbeth: What does Macbeth want? To be King of Scotland. What’s stopping him? There’s already a king, with two sons as his heirs.

· Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy: What does Gabriel Oak want? To marry Bathsheba Everdene. What’s stopping him? She becomes a woman of property, and falls in love with the wrong man.

· Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce: What does Tom want? To explore outside, instead of spending the summer holidays cooped up in his aunt and uncle’s flat. What’s stopping him? He’s in quarantine for measles, and expected to stay indoors.

A story is driven by the facing and resolution of the central conflict. Too early a resolution means that all tension is lost. Too easy or convenient a solution means that the story won’t convince. Let’s look in detail at a 32-page picture book, Dogger by Shirley Hughes. What does Dave want? To be reunited with his favourite toy, Dogger. What’s stopping him? …

In the opening pages, we’re shown how important the toy dog is to Dave. His sister Bella sleeps with several bears tucked up next to her; Dave has Dogger with him in bed. No other toy will do. The first crisis comes when Dogger is dropped in the street while Mum and the children buy and eat ice-cream cornets. At bedtime, when Dave can’t find Dogger, the whole family is involved in searching; but the toy can’t be found.

Next day, at the school fete, Dave is unhappy, missing Dogger. Meanwhile, Bella’s enjoying herself, coming first in a race, winning a raffle prize. Dave is jealous, because his sister’s having such a good day while he’s miserable. Then he sees Dogger, sitting on the back of the toy stall, with a price-tag. Dave hasn’t got enough money, so he runs to find Bella. Now the second crisis: as they hurry back to the stall, a little girl has bought Dogger and is walking away with him.

The resolution doesn’t come immediately; we have to see the possibility of Dave being parted with his toy forever. Bella offers to buy Dogger back, but the girl refuses – she’s paid, and now he’s hers. Dave is distraught, crying as the girl marches off with Dogger. The answer doesn’t arrive out of the blue, either – it’s already been built into the story and is there in the pictures. Bella is clutching a big teddy-bear, her raffle prize. Although we know that Bella likes bears, she offers to swap the teddy for her brother’s toy; the girl agrees, preferring the brand-new bear to battered old Dogger, and everyone’s happy. The final picture shows Bella in bed with her row of bears, and Dave tucked up with Dogger. The story is expertly paced and dramatised, and we’ve seen the swings of resentment and affection between brother and sister. Needless to say, Shirley Hughes’ illustrations give character, warmth and charm to a story crafted from the stuff of ordinary family life.

Try applying this simple what does he/she want formula to novels you’ve read recently, or to films, and then to the story you’re thinking of writing. The dilemma set up, and its resolution, give you the main thrust of the story. In a picture book like Dogger, one plot strand is enough; in a novel for juniors or older, more will be going on. If, for example, your central character is a keen footballer desperate to be picked for the local team, there can be scenes at home and at school, perhaps involving a division of loyalty or clash of responsibility, so that the football detail isn’t overwhelming.

Sometimes writers, especially inexperienced ones, come to a halt simply because they’ve lost sight of where the story is going. Authors vary tremendously in the amount of planning they do – some like to know exactly how the story will unfold, and have a chapter-by-chapter plan; others prefer to gather their ingredients, then let the story develop, leaving room for surprises. There’s no right or wrong way, of course, but when you embark on a story for the first time you’re more likely to feel confident if you can always see where to go next. This route can be plotted via stepping stones (see panel above) – you don’t need to plan every detail, but at least you know what the next major episode will be.

Julia Jarman, author of Hangman and Peace Weavers, says that writing a novel is like making a film, “but you’re taking charge of every aspect of it. The casting, costumes, locations, dialogue, special effects, pacing – everything, and you do it all with words.” If you think of your unfolding novel as a film being privately screened inside your head, it will help you to establish the setting with enough but not too much description, like the mise-en-scène of film, and to vary the pace of the narrative. For instance, a scene that consists mainly of people talking can be followed by one that develops the plot through action or a shift in location, or moves more quickly through time. Some writers plan through storyboards, another way of thinking in filmic or dramatic terms.

Nicola Davies on how to write non-fiction for children

Writing non-fiction won’t get you onto any literary high tables, but it is still a noble calling: your words could instill lifelong curiosity in your readers. Start with thorough research; don’t skimp because it’s “only for kids” – it’ll make your writing superficial.

Once you have assembled everything, be prepared to cut. Don’t worry that you aren’t telling your readers everything. It’s better to tell them one thing they’ll remember than ten things they’ll forget. The most basic information can be interesting for young children; how a foot makes a print in sand is more exciting to a two year old than the geology of the beach. And don’t be scared to say what is not known – it’s important that children see knowledge as an ongoing project that they could contribute to.

Lists don’t make readable books, so find a narrative thread to string your information on. One way to do this is to describe what your book is about in one word. I found my book about blue whales was about “bigness”, but my turtle one was actually about “memory”.

Make sure you use the right language for your audience. Translating complex information into words that children can understand takes time and lots of thinking. Use examples from the child’s world to help. Always remember that the only way writing non-fiction differs from fiction is that you don’t have to make up anything up. Keep your writing rich and interesting.

· Nicola Davies’ latest non-fiction book is What’s Eating You?

Exercise: stepping stones

Using numbered points, make a simple outline of a story you know well – Cinderella, for example – showing the main plot events.

Now do the same for a story or your own, using stepping stones to show the unfolding of conflict and how it will be resolved.

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