Story Structure
for Children's Books
(and other stuff)
Page 2

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The Arc of a Character and Character Development

Exactly who a character is (what traits he/she possesses) and how a character evolves (how those traits change) are important aspects of story structure.

Character Arc

Think of a story as the most important event in a character's life. After all, the things that we do every day aren't worth writing a book about. A fictional story is, on the other hand, by definition a story worth telling!

As consumers of fiction, we tend to expect that our characters change as a result of a story. After all, who wouldn't change as a result of such dramatic events!

These changes in character are a character's arc.

Special TV exception to the character arc rule

I should note that while many TV shows are fictional, oftentimes their characters lack an arc. Why?

The whole notion of a show featuring the same characters every episode is based largely on the characters NOT changing. TV viewers are looking to invite the same characters into their home every week. If the characters were always changing, it wouldn't feel like the same show!

Remember that these characters are exceptional in another way too: They have once in a lifetime adventures every week. No wonder they don't change. They're used to it!

The TV exception can apply to other serial storytelling as well, like a book series.

Character Arc, continued

A protagonist tends to be a somewhat different person at the end of a story as compared to the beginning. Usually, he or she grows in some way, i.e. becomes a better person.

That growth may even have given him/her the ability to overcome the antagonist in a way that wouldn't have been possible at the beginning of the story. He/she might not have had

  • the patience
  • the tools
  • the foresight
  • the skills

In The Cat in the Hat, our narrator goes from ignoring the poor fish - who keeps telling him that the cat will cause trouble! - to listening and realizing he has to take charge. In other words, the protagonist matures, and he learns that strangers are not to be let in the house.

Character Development

Character development refers to the writer's ability to make his/her characters seem distinct and real. Is a character optimistic or pessimistic? Kind or cruel? How do those characteristics come into play during the story? Presumably, an optimistic character will behave differently than a pessimistic character, will make different choices.

The more important a character is to the story, the more that character should be developed.

And character development is NOT something that occurs

  • only at the beginning of the story, or
  • only by virtue of the author describing the character

The best way to "describe" a character is by virtue of his or her choices! A character who stoops to pick up a penny is different from a character who doesn't. A character who keeps a wallet (and its contents) is different from a character who strives to return the wallet to its owner.

This is what writers mean when they say, Show, don't tell. It's also part of what they mean when they talk about the difference between good exposition and bad exposition.

Want to learn about exposition in a fun way? Go rent the Austin Powers movies and pay close attention to the character, Basil Exposition. He's bad exposition personified!

Story structure and viewpoint

I referred earlier to the notion of a viewpoint character. Most well-structured stories are told from a single viewpoint. This is especially true with shorter works, like children's books.

In other words, in good writing we are usually privy only to the thoughts and experiences of a single character.

We witness only what that single character witnesses. If he/she didn't go to the baseball game, the only way the reader will hear about the game is if the viewpoint character hears about it.

Make sense?

Stories can be told in the 1st person (I went to the game), 3rd person (He went to the game), or even the 2nd person (You went to the game). A story does not have to be told in the 1st person for the character to be a viewpoint character!!!

When a 3rd person narrator only has access to the thoughts and experiences of a single character, that character is the viewpoint character.


A fully omniscient narrator can have access to the thoughts and experiences of any or all of the characters. Unless handled by a professional, though, omniscient narration is likely to seem simply like bad or lazy writing, especially in a shorter story.

A longer story might feature multiple viewpoints. This is a common feature of novels for grown-ups. However...

Even then, the author tends to stick to one viewpoint at a time. For instance, chapter one will be through the eyes of one character, then chapter two through the eyes of another.

The reason? We are more likely to identify with a character if he or she is the only one through whose eyes we are seeing the story (or a portion of the story).

Most often, the viewpoint character is the protagonist. This, however, does not have to be the case.

Note also that a story can be told in the past, present and even future tenses.

For a beginning writer, though, I recommend using the past tense, as it's the least likely to be awkward.

A writer who mixes his/her tenses marks him/herself as a sloppy amateur.

More essential elements of story structure

A story has action, and this action consists largely of the playing out of conflict as the protagonist tries to solve the problem he she faces.

A story without action or conflict (or a problem) is not worth telling. It's boring!

We experience the action and conflict vicariously through the protagonist. We feel for him/her. We place ourselves in his/her shoes and get to experience the story as if it were happening to us...without actually putting our existence at risk!

That's the magic of good story structure.

I could go on and on...

...but let's keep it simple. The basics of story structure aren't written in stone, but they're written somewhere more important: in the human mind. A story that doesn't contain the essential elements of story structure is doomed NOT to satisfy its audience.

Understand and follow these rules and you will become a better writer. To take it to the next level, writing stories that make readers think, "How the heck did (s)he think of that?" visit my unique ideas page.

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