Quick. What’s your first reaction when you hear that the “littlest” members of the family are coming to spend some time at your house? For some of us, it may not be excitement. It means no computer time and an indefinite number of little kids to watch for the duration of their stay. Synonymous with the end of the world? Maybe not, but it’s not going to be a walk in the park either.
I mean, really. Authors, the predictable species that we are, are already self-conscious enough about our writing. Hide the screen at all times—even if it’s just the innocent passerby. And one plus prying pairs of eyeballs? Yeah… there goes your last hope for finishing NaNoWriMo. Introverted? Too bad—the family is expecting you, being the responsible young adult that you are, to keep your cousins occupied.
Now what, aside from what sounds like Sarah feeling the need to tell you about her most grievous position over the holidays, does this have to do with writing? They’re little kids, after all. They can’t even read yet. Ah, but it’s not them that will be learning something. It’s you.
When my two little cousins, Charlie and Nora, arrived yesterday, the first thing we did was jump right into the action– we went to our big swing at the end of the field. Well, right after introductions.
Think about it. What kind of beginning do you want to have in a novel? Certainly not one that starts off with a bunch of boring information dumps about how life has been for the author, or all the not-so-important conversations about daily life and normal things, God forbid that we have remotely normal lives. No, you want to jump right into the action.
In the same way, when you play with younger children, you have to grab their attention right off. No delays or you’ve already lost them.
So you swung on a swing. Big deal. How do you keep their attention after that gets old? Well, make them feel involved. It works the same way with readers.
Allow the reader to feel like they’re becoming part of the story themselves, like they have a role to play.
To do this, Merry and I built a massive leaf pile. But not all by ourselves–we let both our peeps help rake in the leaves and then jump in. When you allow the reader to become part of the story in such a way that they feel as though they equally earned the benefits of your main characters, they will not only feel connected to the story more, but also feel compelled to continue.
Now, a lot of the time we know that little kids can’t remember names really well. You have to say yours and anyone who is overlooking them with you more times than you might imagine before they remember it. So that Merry and I were more than two tall figures bossing guests around, we made sure that both Charlie and Nora knew our names well. A reader also has a lot to take in when your story is just starting–names can be overlooked. Repeat them often enough that they become second nature to the reader. Learning the names of the characters in a book makes them important. Instead of killing Joe, you killed Wendren. Instead of killing Janet, you killed Liz. Instead of having two stereotypical love-birds there are Tisarith and Lengar.
As an author, you must believe it in order for your reader to believe it.
You write without conviction then your reader isn’t reading with conviction. When you watch The Polar Express with a five and seven year old, you had better be pretending that Santa is as real as the sun and that you’re waiting for the Polar Express to come to your house too. Otherwise, you lose the magic of belief– something that, once lost, makes your story a Twilight instead of The Chronicles of Narnia. No one ever went into the forest looking for sparkling vampires, but you bet we went looking in all the wardrobes for Narnia. As Nora said after I confirmed that Santa was real, “Santa is real. God is real. Jesus is real. Everyone is real.” Make your story as real to your reader as Santa is to my five-year-old cousin.
Now onto the big picture—the big story. What hooks a reader? Good storytelling skills. Something that they will relate to. Something that is real. So when my cousins weren’t behaving later on, I realized it was time to tell a story. A good story. One that they would connect to. Know your audience—think about what they would latch on to and go for it.
So I told them about the Jedi. My sister and I each took a little one and said, very simply, that to become a Jedi Knight, they must pass three tests, each of which would demonstrate one of the three Jedi characteristics: calmness, collection, and reliability. You can’t just throw this at your reader—you have to create suspense, create interest, create an eager reader. Proceed in an orderly, chronological fashion. First, calm. Next, collected. Finally, reliable.
Tell the story in a way that captivates your reader, not bores them with textbook like relaying of ideas.
In your story, it is also important to incorporate life lessons. No, this isn’t Sunday school. But, if you want your story to last, you have to make it impactful. So, for each of the characteristics I inserted a “life lesson.”
Now, instead of the training just being a boring ol’ We-Don’t-Know-What-Else-To-Do activity, it became a chance to learn together and have fun. Books work just like that. Anything can be made into a story. I mean, I still envision my numbers as disappointed beings when I have to subtract them and make them smaller and being invigorated when they get bigger. It’s just what I do…
But a five and seven year old have no way of knowing what collected and reliable mean. How do we go about this exercise? Teach them! When you build a world, your reader has no way of understanding everything about your world. Well, what if we give them a definition… Does a definition help you in math class? No. An explanation does. Seeing the problem worked out. Do the same for your readers. If you come across a world-building element, explain it in a way that is more situational—a scenario and not an info dump. Savvy?
Finally, apply the lessons learned. Now that your minions are Jedi, they must uphold the most high standards of Jedi Knights. Give them the ceremony, knight them and then remind them of the things they’ve learned later on when they start to step out of line again. You’ll be surprised how well it works.