Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Three Common Problems with Manuscripts: Endings

And the most common problem with the endings of children’s book manuscripts is . . . didacticism. At my SCBWI workshop last Saturday, people guessed the answer to be predictability, which is an excellent answer, but not the correct answer. When I rejected it, they guessed the opposite failing – lack of closure, too many story threads dangling – which is another excellent answer. But the besetting sin of children’s book endings, which has haunted us since the dawn of our profession as producers of earnest Sunday School tracts, is preachiness. Too often I see – and write? – books too obviously focused on teaching a lesson, pointing a moral.

And yet . . . as someone who has a day job as a philosophy professor, I confess to writing, and reading, not so much to find out what happens next, but to find out what it was all about: what does it mean? Why is this particular chunk of experience worth writing about? I yearn to get to the moment when the main character has her epiphany, when she finally GETS it, when some small truth about the human condition is laid bare, enabling her to take that one small step toward maturity.

So how can we deliver meaning without preaching a moral? Stories are less didactic if the child characters discover the crucial truth for themselves, rather than having it pontificated for them by an adult authority figure. Stories are less didactic if the crucial truth is not something utterly banal and obvious (here is where predictability again becomes an issue). Stories are less didactic if the crucial truth is hard won, growing naturally out of the wrenching events of the story, rather than superimposed on it conveniently at the end.

And that is the moral of this blog today!

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