Eight to twelve year old’s are more mature than we were at the same age. More aware of world matters, and more astute about the environment, relationships and human rights. Research shows they have an eight second attention span, are image driven, and seek immediate gratification.
How can a mere book accommodate all this?
There will be exceptions, of course, but these basic rules might just help you nail that middle grade fiction you’ve always wanted to write…
- Develop a small number of strong characters. Say four plus a few secondary ones thrown in. Avoiding a large cast of characters whose names and roles can be confusing, will prevent our young readers losing patience. A quick way to reduce the cast is to merge any similar characters to make one. Resist naming the whole friendship group. Even if they’re in the story, do they all need names and roles? Ditto for that large family. Including (or naming) only one good friend, or one endearing sister/aunt/brother can work extremely well.
- Gone are the days of the shallow, dare we call them, ‘Enid Blyton’ style characters. Although having lots of jolly good fun, they can be hard to relate to. Genuine characters have flaws. For readers to identify and bond with the characters in your story, they need to see them struggling with some inner conflict. Is your protagonist shy, afraid of the dark, small for their age, big for their age, embarrassed about their accent, hair, big toes, or little sister? Surprisingly, even the slightest flaw can make a character more endearing, and seeing them overcome that flaw by the end of the narrative can make the story oh so rewarding.
- For this age group, the main character’s voice tends to be light-hearted and intimate, and is often the only voice we hear. That is, the story is frequently only told from one character’s point of view.
- Books of today, like those of yesteryear, involve little adult intervention. It’s the kids who solve the problems. Antagonists don’t even need to be too evil, but, like all good characters, they must have flaws.
- Readers of this age rely heavily on visual action. They like plots driven by conflict, which should be introduced early. Avoiding too much back story, info dumping and reducing long flowery descriptive passages will definitely help you achieve this.
- Avoid too many sub plots. Decide on one main problem and hook your readers from the start.
- Transitions are really important. Quickly anchoring and orientating the reader at the start of each scene will help keep them involved in the story.
- Humour: can you weave some in subtly (or overtly) through the story?
- Sentence structure: most kids can manage a few new, complicated words, but they can’t abide boring writing. Strong verbs, minimal use of adjectives and adverbs, and varied sentence length will help keep your writing interesting.
- Speech often lets us down when writing for this age group. Ten year old boys don’t talk like middle aged women, and since dialogue is so crucial for engaging young readers, keeping it real, and not using dialogue as a tool for dumping large chunks of information is important.
- Spoken language, not just accents or slang and trendy words, can tell us a lot about a person, and is a useful tool in the ‘show not tell’ Remember, less is more when it comes to dialogue (and for adverbs and adjectives for that matter).
- Avoid having your characters sitting around, making polite conversation. Boring! As well as developing characters, dialogue needs to move the plot forward, (but not in a corny, Agatha Christie kind of way).
- Beware long speeches. Use tags and beats to break up long dialogue, and weave in movement and small snippets of backstory as needed.
- ‘Said’ is okay most of the time.
- Internal dialogue is just as important as external dialogue
Lastly… my favourite part of being a writer…read, read and read. Find everything you can get your hands on, published here in Australia in the past five years, to help cement the points above and drastically improve your prose. Happy writing everyone!
For these ideas on improving your writing and more, join Samantha Wheeler on the 13th of April 2019 at her hands-on workshop, Writing for The Middle.