Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Heart of the Matter

No, this is not a commentary on Greene's novel. But I will use the title, as the topic has interested me over the holidays.

As a writer, the art of telling a story is always on my mind. During the past month I re-read several children's novels: Robinson's The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and many of Roald Dahl's books, both short and long, among them, James and the Giant Peach and Matilda. What was the common factor in all of these "classics" for children? I think it is that the "oppositional characters," those who provoke the action, are really, really mean, gross and wicked. They are OVERDRAWN. Singly or together the "villains" present obstacles that the child protagonist must overcome, either by his wits or by magic or both.

Today's writers face an even greater challenge than did Dahl; his stories are mostly "telling," and he paints with a large, vibrant brush. In contemporary children's literature, that's no longer permissible. Today's writers are in heavy competition with the digital world that has surrounded their readers since their toddler years.  "Show, don't tell" is now the writer's mantra.

But larger than life antagonists are absolutely necessary. The trick is to create them through dialogue and action, using very little description. That is the "Heart of the Matter."


  1. Oh, Dahl. What a storyteller! I'm rereading The BFG right now. You can nver go wrong w/a classic!

  2. Yes, whole heartedly, yes. When a CP commented on a character being over-the-top awful, I knew I'd done it right.

  3. 'Larger than life antagonists' can work well for children because that's how children see their world. It also makes things very clear -- good versus bad is easier to understand than sometimes good, sometimes bad. Though Anne of Green Gables is a classic that successfully incorporates a subtler approach.

  4. I agree with Julie - children are more likely to see the world in black or white.They love to wallow in hating he "bad guy." Those are the characters they remember, even though they are one-sided.

  5. I am thinking that most of Dahl's books were for elementary, at an age where b&w works. My kids just find them hysterically funny--they don't care that they aren't realistic. I think if the character is dead funny, a lot of kids will still enjoy it. Anyway, it's an escape.