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What I Wonder: How essential is high-octane conflict to children's fiction?

August 20th 2022. Worth mentioning: I was writing a stand alone Middle Grade book over the summer, but have since switched to a MG fantasy series.

I’m sitting here wondering how essential is high-octane conflict to children’s fiction?

This week I submitted a chapter of new writing to my writing group and received advice from friends who really know their craft, and whom I respect.

One told me: You need a baddie. And a timing pressure. Your characters need to be in peril in each chapter – this is essential.

The others told me – the story is fine without a baddie. It does have a time pressure, just not a very severe one until nearer the end. It has circumstantial tension, and an emotional element which acts in the novel as tension-building antagonism.

And the problem is- I agree with both of them. So now I’m stuck.

This is where my mind goes: my agent said in a passing comment that my previous novel may not have been ‘swashbuckling enough.’ This phrase flies a continual agitating arc around my mind as I wonder – is that a genuine flaw in my writing? Or a flaw in publishing?

I also take note of the fact that – since a young girl – the most interesting antagonists to me have been internal ones. I cannot think of a more frightening antagonist than the quiet undermining voice of condemnation that speaks regularly to me in my mind.

I’m always more interested in the deep inner fear than the physical external fear. I’d rather face a lion’s den than a quiet, lonely room for a long stretch of time. I am more inclined to write characters with inner battles than outward ones.

The irony is that nearly all outward battles, written well, are physical manifestations of inner battles. The monster in the cupboard is fear. The ring of power is lust for power. The wolf in the woods, the dementor, the dragon with a ring of gold on its arm. They are in all of us. This acting out of what is inside is the very best that books can do!

So then I wonder:

In my desire to talk inwardly, can I dismiss the outwardly, and in doing so, cut off the best vocabulary for the conversation I want to have?

So now I’m sitting looking at my MS, troubled as to whether to a) leave it be b) completely restructure to introduce an antagonist and make it more high-stakes C) add more jeopardy, but not so much as to overwhelm the other softer elements of the book.

I’ve observed over the last few weeks that my opening was easy to write because it’s clear where the momentum is coming from. Then it gets a bit sticky, and I can feel that in my writing. Having clearer peril and earlier stakes would fix that.

So why am I resistant?

While I was marinading on the ideas for this book, the stories that were influential to me were Five Children and It, and James and the Giant Peach.

In Five Children and It – the pace is gentle, and the antagonism is circumstantial. Five children meet a sand fairy who can grant wishes. But each time they wish something, it comes out larger or smaller or just plain stranger than they were expecting, and they have to cope with the effects of this until the wish wears off.

That’s all.

And it’s a classic.

In James and the Giant Peach, the antagonism changes throughout. It starts as James’ aunts, transfers to sharks, and then to a tribe of cloud people who may be one of the strangest things in children’s literature ever.

It’s also immensely readable and a classic.

I’d like my book to be gentle and fun. I’m not setting out to write a drastic page turner. I know that young people (and older people) are shredding their attention spans and that books compete with tiktok and youtube.

I just can’t quite bring myself to write something swashbuckling just because.

If children’s literature becomes a meal mostly made up of ‘swashbuckling’, we’ll end up with intellectual digestion intolerant to other nutrients.

And then I think: but you won’t sell any books.

And then I think: have more respect for humans, than to reduce their minds to machines that can only digest high-octane stories.

Then I think: you’re overcomplicating the problem. Increase the stakes. It’s not a moral dilemma. It’s a matter of craft.

Then I think: Dahl introduced different antagonists throughout to keep the momentum working. You’re allowed to do that. Now I reflect, that’s also how Five Children and It works, with each successive wish gone wrong acting as the next ‘beat,’ in antagonism.

Thanks kids. I’m an external processor. Till next time I’m wondering something.


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