Monday 4 December 2017

Digging Deep to Find Your Character's Emotional Journey by Natascha Biebow

Writing is hard. Not only because you have to put your bum on seat and dedicate the hours, not only because you have to dream up super-original ideas with a new take on what’s already been published in a very crowded marketplace, not only because you invest in a story and then someone may not share your vision, but because you have to dig deep inside yourself to be able to seamlessly convey how it really feels to be your character.

So how do you do this? I’ve previously blogged on the importance of asking your characters difficult questions to discover their true motivation, so you can write from a place of knowing. This is an important first step. But, now how can you use this to take readers on a compelling and satisfying emotional journey?

The trick is to BE the character. If you ARE the character, you don’t need to tell the reader all the external stuff that is going on, because they will be in the character’s shoes as well. So you can show not tell.

Get into your character's Olympic running shoes! (From Sky Private Eye and
the Case of the Runaway Biscuit
by Jane Clarke & Loretta Schauer)

Stories are about change. So, if there is no conflict, there is no gripping story. In picture books, authors have to set up the problem and resolve it quickly within just 32 pages. There isn’t time or space to ‘tell’ . . . The relatively easy bit is often figuring out the plot arc, the external journey of change. For example, the story is about a runaway gingerbread biscuit, the farmer who has some cows that type, the time Arthur met The Truth, or what happened at Lily and Blue Kangaroo’s birthday party. 

The action in these plots could be interesting . . . but so what?

IF the author writes from a place of knowing and adds an internal emotional journey of change, the story will be one that has heart. 

Readers will experience the character’s thoughts, beliefs and behaviours in the face of adversity. They will become so engulfed by being in the main character’s shoes that they become the character. So, when the character is sad or uncertain, the reader cries and worries for them. When the character laughs, the reader laughs, too.

It can be helpful to break these two story arcs down in two strands, using the three-act structure. For example, in HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU, BLUE KANGAROO! by Emma Chichester Clark:

Plot arc
Best buddies, Lily and Blue Kangaroo are having a birthday party. The theme is pink. Lily dresses top to toe in pink.
Everything is pink themed! Lily is so caught up in her party, she forgets Blue Kangaroo.
Lily’s friends arrive in pink party clothes, give her pink presents, and a magician even conjures up a pink rabbit. Lily loves it!
Mum brings in the birthday cake. It is a pink kangaroo!
Blue Kangaroo tries to make himself pink. When he can’t, he hides in the bedroom. Lily finally misses her special friend. When she finds him, alone wrapped in a blue sock she understands immediately.
Emotional arc
Blue Kangaroo shares everything with Lily – even birthdays.
Blue Kangaroo isn’t sure he likes the pink ribbon Lily ties round his neck.
Blue Kangaroo is the only one who is blue. He bets Lily wishes the magician could make him pink, too.
Blue Kangaroo is NOT pink . . . Lily’s forgotten about him – he falls off the chair in the excitement of the birthday cake moment.
Lily changes into a blue outfit and declares, “I love blue and I love you!” She recognizes that she needs to include Blue Kangaroo. Her friends all admire him, but there is only one Blue Kangaroo – and he is Lily’s.

When you write from the heart, you are right there in the moment with your main character. You don’t have to tell the reader what the character is doing or feeling. The narrative shows it. Like this:

When you successfully tell a story that has a compelling emotional journey, everyone – agents, editors, librarians, booksellers, parents, grandparents and children – will say 'aw' and want to READ IT AGAIN AND AGAIN!


Natascha Biebow
Author, Editor and Mentor

Blue Elephant Storyshaping is an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission.  
Check out my small-group coaching Cook Up a Picture Book coursesNatascha is also the author of The Crayon Man (coming in 2019!), Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. 


Frances Tosdevin said...

Fabulous advice, thank you Natascha! I have tried this out but plan to do it a lot more regularly now! Being an ex-reporter, I sometimes interview my characters when they are being especially coy and not telling me what they really want or need! But actually getting into their shoes feels much more compelling!

Natascha Biebow said...

Coy characters are a pain. You have to give them the grilling or maybe chocolate cake?!

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