There is no specific formula for children's fiction. There are, however, some important elements. Whether you are
writing a humorous picture book or a coming-of-age novel for young adults, a good place to start is with a main
character, a setting, a problem or goal and a satisfying ending.
Develop protagonists that your readers will care about. Create characters that are the same age or a little older
than your target audience. Make them real and believable. Allow your characters to make mistakes and have
embarrassing moments. Children aren't perfect. They can't identify with a protagonist who is. Give Molly Squinch an
obsession with worms or the inability to complete anything. Make Henry Steed stumble and turn red when a certain
teacher comes near. Develop a character who is real enough to be living next door.
Your setting has to be clear, but incidental. This is where show, don't tell comes into play. Weave an awareness of
the setting through action and dialogue. Don't allow description to put the brakes on your pace. Children's eyes
tend to glaze over when faced with blocks of description. You may have written an award-winning paragraph about
a mountain backdrop – save it. Most ten-year-olds will not be interested. Use it for your next adult novel.
Problem or goal
This is your plot. Give your character a problem, or a wish. Push him gently toward the solution to his problem or
the fulfillment of his goal. Then toss in an obstacle. He must overcome it using his own ingenuity and/or skill. When
he's succeeded, throw him another one and then maybe a third. You can make things really interesting by making
each hurdle a little higher than the last. The most important thing here is to allow the protagonist to conquer his
own problems or achieve his own goals. Try not to depend on coincidences and avoid allowing an adult or older
brother to swoop in and save the day.
One aspect of a satisfying ending calls for a change in your main character. He must learn something, accept
something or experience emotional growth.
Your ending doesn't always have to be 'happily ever after' but it must be tight. The loose ends must be tied up and
all characters accounted for and placed in reasonable situations. It is best to avoid lingering questions at the end of
a children's book.
You don't want to hear:
"So what happened to the guy with the yellow belt?" or "But that kid was in Africa, so how did he get there?"
You do want to hear:
"Aaaaaaah. I get it."
Pick up any children's storybook or middle-grade novel in your library or bookstore. You will find that most of them
contain these four basic ingredients. From a picture book about a child's fear of the basement to a fifteen-year-
old's struggle with drinking, the essentials will usually be included.
Exercise your imagination. Create a character you care about and give him a problem. Use a fascinating setting as
a backdrop and allow your character to use his own ingenuity and skills to achieve his goal or get out of his
predicament. With these elements in mind, your children's story can become a success.
Children's Stories - Four Ingredients