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Successful Story Elements

This is part of the online guide The Basics of Writing for Children, by Aaron Shepard, found on Aaron Shepard's Kidwriter Page. Excerpted and adapted from the booklet The Business of Writing for Children, Second Edition, by Aaron Shepard, Shepard Publications, 1997. Copyright (c) 1991-1999 by Aaron Shepard. May be freely copied and shared for any educational, noncommercial purpose.
Aaron Shepard

The following are general guidelines only. Good writers often break rules -- but they know they're doing it!


A theme is an insight or viewpoint or concept that a story conveys. If an editor says your story is "slight," this may mean you have no significant theme.

Don't blurt out your theme. Let it emerge from the story. If you must come out and say it, do it in dialog, not narration.

Avoid preaching. Children's stories should be explorations of life -- not Sunday school lessons.

Keep your theme positive. If writing about a social problem, offer constructive ways for your readers to deal with it.


Plot is normally built around a conflict involving the main character -- for instance, with another character, or with circumstances, or within him- or herself. A successful story may lack conflict -- especially for preschoolers -- but must then hold attention in other ways.

Conflict often takes the form of a problem the main character must resolve. The character should succeed or fail at least in part through his or her own efforts. Most often -- especially in realistic fiction -- the character learns or grows in the process. The lesson or growth conveys the theme.

The conflict should result in increasing dramatic tension, which peaks or "climaxes" towards the end of the story and then resolves.

Basic plot stages are: arrival of conflict, initial success, reversals, final victory, and aftermath. The success-reversal sequence may repeat.

A novel may have several conflicts, but a short story or picture book should have only one.

Move the plot forward with events and action, rather than with internal musings. Show, don't tell.

Story Structure

At the beginning, jump right into the action. At the end, bring the story to a prompt close.

Keep the structure as simple as possible. In a picture book, keep the action in chronological order without "flashbacks."

For a picture book story, make sure there are enough separate "scenes" (locations) to provide variety in the illustrations. For a magazine story, make sure there aren't too many scenes.

Select the appropriate "person" for your narration -- "first person," in which the story is told by a character ("I did"); or "third person," in which it's told by an outside narrator ("he or she did"). First person is common in books for middle graders and young adults -- but it can confuse younger listeners, so should seldom be used in early picture books. Third person is fine for any age, and permits the writer more sophisticated language and observations.

Whether using first or third person, the story should generally be told through the eyes of a single character -- usually the main character. This is called "point of view." Avoid narrating anything outside the knowledge of your chosen character. If you must introduce another point of view, set up a separate section or chapter.


Before you start writing, know your characters thoroughly.

Your main character should be someone the reader can identify and/or sympathize with. He or she should be near the top age of your intended readers. (One exception is in folktales.)

Identify your characters with one or more telling details -- a physical trait, a mannerism, a favorite phrase. A complete description is not needed.


Set your story in a place and time that will be interesting or familiar.

Style and Tone

Write simply and directly, in short words, short sentences, short paragraphs.

Use dialog wherever possible. Use "direct" quotes instead of "indirect" ones ("Go away!" -- instead of -- "He told her to go away."). Aim to make dialog at least 1/3 of your story.

Avoid big chunks of narration -- especially description. Often you can split it into smaller pieces, or convey information in dialog ("I like your purple hair.").

Use language that creates an atmosphere or "tone" suited to your story.

For younger children, use poetic devices like rhythm, repetition, alliteration ("Peter Piper picked a peck"), and rhyme (but not necessarily in verse).

Avoid being cutesy or sweet or sentimental or condescending.

The strongest children's stories have well-developed themes, engaging plots, suitable structure, memorable characters, well-chosen settings, and attractive style. For best results, build strength in all areas.

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