Upping the Ante: Conflict in Children’s Novels

by henandinkblots

Hen&ink’s C.M. Fleming discusses what spins story, “the wheels of a novel.” To make something happen, you need conflict.  

Why put conflict in children’s stories?  Kids have problems, perhaps different problems from adults, but problems nonetheless.  It helps to know that others face scary problems and overcome them.  Plus, everyone wants to see the “underdog” win, outsmart the bully, get the prize.  As writers, we just have to make sure it’s not too easy – thus creating conflict.

Robert Newton Peck, a successful writer of adolescent fiction, answers the question of conflict in his book, Secrets of Successful Fiction.

What, then, is plot? Peck simply answers, “A plot is two dogs and one bone” (p. 20).

He adds, “A plot is merely a dramatic situation where a character (1) Wants something, (2) Tries to get it, and (3) Is opposed” (p. 20). Thus, in plot development there is usually a conflict or problem; the action builds to a climax, after which there is a resolution.

Bottom line:  No problem, no story.  No problem in your story – big problem.

How do you create conflict in your story?

Give the readers a problem they can identify with. What do kids fear?

For very small children one of the worst fears is separation from parents. They also fear monsters in the dark, storms, and strangers.

In school, children fear bullies, ridicule, or not fitting in.  Bullying has become an epic problem in schools. So, what do bullies fear? Everyone fears something.

Stated in one sentence, what is your main character’s “heart-line?” What is the desire of his heart? What must he do to accomplish his heart’s desire, and what is standing in his way?

When it looks like things couldn’t get worse, up the ante. Make the problem bigger than life – your MC’s worst fear. In other words, put your MC on a high-wire and then cut the safety net. Remove obvious help from parents, friends, or people in power, like law enforcement.

(In my middle-grade historical fiction novel Finder’s Magic law enforcement was part of the problem.)

Let the reader know something the MC doesn’t know. That is easier said than done, especially if you are writing in first person.

In the midst of conflict it’s a good idea to insert a little comic relief. (This could be a whole other blog.) Consider Dorie’s short-term memory loss in Finding Nemo. While this is funny it adds even more conflict. How in the world can she help Nemo’s father when she can’t even remember why he is following her? I’m also reminded of the cemetery scene in Steel Magnolias. “Here, slap Weezer!”

The one place you DON’T want conflict is between your sentences. There must be an ebb and flow within each chapter. Every scene in a chapter should fit together to move the story forward. Every action by the main character should reflect his heart line.

Bringing the story to the climax: there should be several mini-climaxes building to the main climax. A great example of this is “The Black  Stallion.” #1 Abuse of the beautiful stallion onboard a ship. This also establishes how dangerous the animal is. #2 The ship catches on fire. #3 The boy makes it alive to a deserted island, but finds he is not totally alone. The stallion is there, too, but he’s tangled in his rope. #4 The boy feels sorry for the horse and wants to help him, but is afraid. #5 The boy is rescued, but only after having tamed the savage horse. #6 The horse is left behind and tries to swim after the boy.

Skipping ahead, the final climax is the horse race. Notice how each conflict has higher emotional peril.

Resolution of the conflict: Does your story end happily ever after, or is the MC forever changed? Either way, your MC should be changed. There must be growth because of the conflict. Be careful not to “preach” to your reader.

Check-out these titles for a few examples of children’s and young adult novels with high-stake conflict.

  1. Cleopatra’s Moon  by Vicky Alvear Shecter
  2. Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys
  3. If I Should Die Before I Wake by Han Nolan
  4. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
  5. Jimmy’s Stars by Mary Ann Rodman
  6. The Deep Cut by Susan Rosson Spain

What children’s and YA titles can you suggest as being great examples of conflict?

Conflicted? Let’s plot it out!

C. M. Fleming is a children’s author, illustrator, and writing coach. Her first novel Finder’s Magic, garnered a nomination for Georgia Author of the Year, 2009. She is represented by Hen&ink Literary Studio and conducts writing workshops at SCBWI conferences. The notes in this blog come from a workshop for adult writers of children’s stories entitled “Conflict: The Wheels of a Novel.” She also teaches a six-week course for middle-grade students called, “Writing for Smarties.”   View her website at http://www.cmfleming.com