Tuesday, May 3, 2016

SCBWI Pocono Highlights #1: The Logic of Story

Dear Kim,

That was a pretty sweet way to end #AuthorApril. The month culminating with our SCBWI Eastern PA crew at the Highlights Foundation, and a certain faculty member whose name fit our #AtoZChallenge perfectly. (Almost like we planned it!)

It helped that Zachariah was such a good sport!


This year's retreat was all about character. We kicked off the weekend with a costume party, celebrating favorite children's book characters.

Hey, there you are with Effie Trinket!!

Then we got down to business with our amazing faculty: Ame Dyckman, Zachariah OHora, Sean McCarthy, Leila Sales, Lauren Rille, and Meg Medina. Each faculty member shared techniques to help our writers develop strong, memorable characters. We also had Ky Betts, professional caricature artist, take our writers from flesh to sketch; highlighting the character found in all of us.

Can you tell which faculty member had this caricature made?
To learn more about Ky, click here.
I had the opportunity to write a bit about the closing keynote, graciously given by Meg Medina, over at the Highlights Foundation blog. Every writer in the room was changed by Meg Medina's words. Her speech was the chocolate chip cookie on top of the S'mores sundae that was the Pocono Retreat.

Another highlight for me was Leila's presentation, "The Logic of Storytelling".  Leila gave us many new things to consider when developing our characters. She took us through 6 stages of character discovery, dropping detail and examples throughout each of the 6 stages. The most helpful part was that Leila made time for us to outline the main character arc from our own works in progress.

Viking editor, Leila Sales on THE LOGIC OF STORYTELLING

Six Stages of Character Arc
by Leila Sales

1. We need to care about your character.
Your character must feel real, even in the deepest of fantasy novels. Your character's situation must have an interesting backstory, even if pieces of that story never make it to the page. Even an unreliable narrator can hook us with his/her view of the world. 

2. We need that character to want something that he/she doesn't already have.
Creating a goal that your reader will care about is critical, according to Leila. She shared the goal of Ame Dyckman's main character in Tea Party Rules. Cub wants cookies. Leila suggests that readers will buy into this goal because, hey, who doesn't want cookies.

On the other hand, Leila cautioned, "If your character's life seems cool, or even great, your reader may wonder why she would want to escape it in the first place. They may not buy into the goal because the character set up is weak." A few ways that Leila suggested we develop a reader worthy goal: 

  • Use a universal theme, like love, equality, civilization, survival, sense of belonging
  • Figure out what is really broken in your character and establish that early in the story. Explain (show) why the thing (goal) is the only way to repair this broken part of her.
  • Make sure that the reader feels bothered enough by the character's needs. 
3. Why need to understand why the character wants this thing.
This is when backstory becomes so important to the character arc. Those reasons that have led your character into conflict. Leila's This Song Will Save Your Life is the perfect example of using backstory to help us understand why a character is in need. 


In the book, Leila builds her main character Elise's arc with dark humor and loneliness; we are hooked. As readers, we understood her search for identity and drive for success.

4. We need to understand why the character can't have that thing right now.
Even a picture book won't work if all you have is a need and a goal. "I want a cookie." **page turn** "I got my cookie." There better be illustrations that show us the conflict, otherwise you haven't made a story.

Kim, I should tell you that at this point in Leila's talk something clicked for me in relation to HEADLESS and I wrote three pages worth of reasons why Elizabeth can't achieve her goal. I'm sure I missed many of Leila's gems in describing stage #4. I'm sad for that, but grateful that she gave us the freedom to connect to our own works in progress throughout her talk. Those pages will come with me into the revision cave this morning.

5. We need the character to ACT to get what he wants.
Leila said that we must consider how your character's actions will help her achieve her goal. It is okay for her to take action that the reader might not agree with. It is okay for her to take action that brings her to a new goal. As long as the action moves the story forward and feels believable. 

6. We need uncertainty about how the character will get what he wants and whether he will succeed.
Place obstacles at every step of the way. Which reminds me of Patti Gauch's talk on plot, when she told us to "twist the knife" and to "see the edge then go beyond it". 

Leila suggested that we read a lot in the genre for which we are writing. She said that in reading other stories we will find out what works, what doesn't, and how to find fresh ways to solve the problems of our own books and characters.

Leila and her novels.

Leila's presentation was fresh. It gave us new questions to consider when writing. Kim, I hope the highlights from her talk gave you a few new ideas as well.

Much love,
Alison