Begin. Pause. Play. – How To Structure Your Children’s Story


This is the fourth post in this series on writing for children. I have spoken about getting started, themes in children’s fiction, and creating characters for children.

Begin. Pause. Play. Fast Forward. End.

This post will show you how to structure a five-chapter novel. This formula can be adapted for chapter books of all ages. Books for older children and young adults are longer, with more chapters and many more scenes, but the structure of the novel remains the same.

Chapter 1 – Begin

  1. Introduce the main character.
  2. Situate the story.
  3. Present the problem.
  4. Begin with a bang.
  5. Make the reader want more.

We introduce the characters here. We introduce the setting. We present the protagonist with a problem. This is where an event (also called an inciting moment) occurs that changes the status quo. As a result of this your character has to react and this creates a story goal.

Fairy Tales Tips

The classic fairy tales offer good examples of how to start a book. Begin where the character experiences the crisis that will determine his  or her actions.

Nine Examples Of Inciting Moments:

  1. a character is born with an unusual physical quality
  2. a character has no money
  3. a couple want a child but can’t have one
  4. a character’s hopes, for example, not receiving an inheritance, are disappointed
  5. a character is forced to leave home
  6. a character returns home from a journey or an adventure or a war
  7. a character encounters a mysterious or magical stranger
  8. a character hears of an opportunity to improve his or her life
  9. a character receives a special or magical gift

Chapter 2 – Pause

  1. The protagonist will feel the effects of whatever happened in Chapter 1. He or she will need time for reflection, but do not overdo this as you will bore the reader.
  2. This is the time to make plans and decide what to do next.
  3. The pace picks up as the chapter ends.

If there was a change in Chapter 1, the character will process it and realise the seriousness of the situation. This is a classic sequel (or reaction scene) chapter.

Chapter 3 – Play

  1. Introduce additional characters.
  2. Include lots of action.
  3. End your scenes with hangers, including the dilemmas your characters face.

This is the longest part of your book. Use complications and new events to move the plot forward. The story becomes more complicated and other characters and circumstances become important.

Write these events as scenes, which are linked by scene breaks. Scene breaks will be presented as spaces, with or without symbols like these *** in the final book.

The events must increase conflict and they must make things worse. One event should lead to another. This helps your characters to move forward. He or she will be pushed towards achieving the story goal. Offer your character chances to retreat, give up, or continue.

Chapter 4 – Fast Forward

  1. Start this chapter with a major event, gain, or loss.
  2. Allow the character a short period of time to reflect, plan, and consolidate.
  3. He or she must then move forward to try to achieve the story goal.

This chapter includes the climax of the story. It is the point of no return. It is usually the most action-packed part of the book. Even the moment of consolidation and reflection is intense and life-changing in this part of the book.

The climax of your book is the most exciting part. It is the part where the drama builds, where discoveries are made, goals achieved, mysteries solved, and secrets revealed. In children’s fiction, this is a good place to ensure that any achievements based on lies or deceits come apart. Physical bravery could save the day here and loyalty may or may not be rewarded.

This is where your character:

  1. Achieves or doesn’t achieve goals.
  2. Meets or fails to meet challenges.
  3. Overcomes problems through his or her own efforts.
  4. Rejects bad influences.
  5. Finds out if his or her (sometimes unpopular) idea is correct or not.
  6. Repairs or rejects existing relationships, or starts a new relationship.
  7. Discovers that weakness can be strengths and vice versa.

We don’t always get what we want. Not all goals that children and teenagers have are realistic or achievable. It follows that your characters will not always achieve all their goals.  Remember that compromise is necessary, and that deciding not to fight can be a way for your character to win.

Chapter 5 – End

  1. Tie up loose ends.
  2. Good must prevail and evil must be punished, especially for younger children.
  3. Show that there is life after the climax of the story.

The kind of ending you choose will depend on the genre, age group, and the tone of the book. The younger the reader, the happier the ending should be.

The ending of your book can be happy, sad, or satisfactory. It might be what is known as a ‘literary’ or ‘qualified’ happy ending. The ending might seem inevitable, or it might be a twist and a surprise. In other words, the story goal is achieved, but…

You can use this structure for any theme and any plot.

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

by Amanda Patterson

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