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Posts tagged ‘UK writer of teen fiction’

Challenging Your Protagonist (Secrets Of Narrative Drive), by Sarah Mussi

I thought in this post I demonstrate how I harnessed all these secrets of narrative drive in Siege.

Here goes. Here’s the story concept (pitch style) that I sent to my editor (my comments in bold caps are for this post):




A story for our times…

Of disintegration and carnage…

This is the beginning of the end…


Teenagers long dissatisfied, out of control, seeing no future, respecting no one, feeling cheated, angry, mindless, feral…



Siege is a disturbing YA novel, capturing the Zeitgeist and drawing its inspiration from our inner city schools.

Siege imagines an autumn term, when a bunch of Year 9 teens, tired of rebelling against the authorities, feeling belittled in a system that has already discarded them – disillusioned, humiliated and vengeful, decide to take power into their own hands, power and guns. Over one long day, they hold up a school with nothing more on their minds than revenging themselves on their peers who have always done better than them in class.


Outside, anxious parents gather, news tycoons offer rewards, television cameras roll, sociologists try to rationalise, psychologists give opinions, the army stands by.


But can anyone really help Leah and Anton, hiding in the ceilings and air vents of YOU OP78 School, trying to feed themselves, trying to outwit their captors, trying to save some of the younger ones before the gang, the so called ‘Year 9 Eternal Knights’ finish their butchery?


… and Siege is only the beginning…

With unlimited access to the Internet, Damian the psycho leader of the Eternal Knights orders all the killings to be videoed on cell phone, or so it seems, and pasted in chat rooms and social websites. Soon the world is hooked as each killing is replayed a thousand times across the globe.

Like a real time Big Brother show, kids everywhere watch, horrified, mesmerised. Some try to hack into the system to close it down, others message in who they think should be killed next.

Soon there is a whole internet site dedicated to casting your vote on the next killing:  the Who, the How, the Why and the When.

Unable to intervene, a horrified nation watch as their future, their brightest and their best, are systematically butchered in front of their eyes by the rejects of our society: the hoodies, the dumbsters, the generation of wannabe gangsters and the bottom set kids.


In a nail-biting narrative of unmitigated tension, that will have you scarcely daring to draw breath, you follow Leah’s story as she struggles to survive; struggles to help Ruby, an injured Year 7 girl; struggles to check out rooms for survivors; tries to carry out surveillance for the SAS as well as attempting to keep the world informed. But most of all, as she tries to figure out who and why and what she could have done to prevent it all from happening.


There are no easy answers, for finally Leah must face her own role in the tragedy. She must struggle comes to terms with what might have happened to her brother, Connor: a brother she both hates and loves and is fiercely loyal to.  Is it partly her fault? Could she have changed anything?

Seige is tale of horror, bravery, sacrifice and savagery, and as it unfolds, it will change the way you see teenagers forever.

The above is part of the actual premise pitch I prepared to show my editor. Of course it changed somewhat between that and the book but the core elements of Narrative Drive remained the same.

So what next? Well to recap where I left off in post nine – the decisions of the protagonist are driving the action of the story and efforts to overcome obstacles to the story goal are initially unsuccessful. This failure to reach the story goal creates conflict and tension. So if conflict is the desire of the protagonist to pursue his motivation towards his goal despite obstacles, then the stakes are raised. The stakes are what happens to the protagonist if they succeed or fail.  They are the whips that drive him forward. In Siege the stakes are very serious. Life and death are at stake. Stakes show that things matter in the story.

Secrets of Narrative Drive

Secret Number 10

drum roll…  tada!

The strength of a story and therefore its appeal to readers lies in how much it challenges the protagonist. 

Why? Because challenges supply the powerful obstacles needed to arouse a reader’s interest.

So how you can use this secret? 

  • Make sure your antagonist is much stronger than your protagonist
  • Make sure each obstacle and challenge is significant and looks like the end of the line for your protagonist.



Sarah Mussi’s author website:

Sarah Mussi’s bio page


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The Door of No ReturnThe Last of the Warrior KingsAngel Dust     Where the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann ParkerThe Girl Who Was Supposed to DieRaven Speak

Writing Teen Novels

Using Character Handles In My Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

In my first teen novel, The Winter Prince, there are four secondary characters who turn up in a pack.  They’re brothers, they’re all teens, and they all have similar names (they are, in fact, the princes of Orkney from Arthurian legend, traditionally named Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth).  When a friend of mine read an early draft of The Winter Prince he couldn’t tell any of them apart.

Here’s what he advised me:  ‘A supporting character needs a handle.’

‘A handle?  You mean like a nickname?’

‘No.  I mean like a door handle.  Or a pot handle.  Something that the reader can grab.’

Ever since then, I’ve tried to do exactly that with minor characters.  I give them handles.  I give them some characteristic, twitch or quirk designed to jolt the reader into recognition: ‘Oh, yeah, this is the guy with the thick glasses/the wandering hands/the car that’s always breaking down/the missing fingers…’ and those are just the ones from Code Name Verity!  After my friend gave me this advice, I gave my character Agravaine my very first conscious handle.  He wears his hair in a long copper-coloured plait of which he is very vain.

Handles shouldn’t be gratuitous.  Agravaine’s plait, though I included it on purpose to make him a little different from the rest of his red-haired brothers, is important because it works symbolically to show how like his mother he is – she, too, has long red hair and is vain.  It also shows Agravaine’s bond to his mother.  Similarly, the handles for the minor characters in Code Name Verity all contribute to the plot in some way.

The magic thing about handles is that they help the writer as well as the reader.  Once you’ve given someone an interesting characteristic, the writing starts to generate itself around that characteristic.  The guy with the thick glasses suddenly has a prop that can be used in a number of different ways – sometimes he seems to be disguised, sometimes he seems to be hiding, sometimes he can take the glasses off and wipe his eyes and I, as the author, can use this prop to suggest his emotional state without having to speculate about what he’s thinking.

Handles aren’t just relevant to characters.  Giving your settings specific, detailed characteristics helps to make them come alive, too.  Not just the smell of flowers, but the smell of lilacs.  Not just a fire in a fireplace, but a coal fire in an iron grate.  Not just a small dog but a wire-haired terrier.  Specific details don’t just make your story more interesting to read: they make it realistic and evocative.  These small nuanced touches can be particularly important in historical fiction or fantasy, where it can be tempting to generalize when you don’t know or can’t visualize specifics.

What are your characters eating around their campfire?  Have they got a coffee pot?  Is the coffee burning?  What does it smell like?  When someone picks it up, is the handle hot?

It’s worth a few burnt fingers to grab that handle.

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

Elizabeth Wein’s author website:

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Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     The Dog in the WoodRaven SpeakDeadly Little Games

Writing Teen Novels

Characters And Story, by Andy Briggs

Your characters are one of the most vital components in a story. There has been a lot written about characterisation. Whether your main character is a pirate, an astronaut, a teenager or a dog they will be the focal point around which your story will unfold. The conduit between the page and your reader.

The problem here is that people then automatically write a story from a first person perspective. That is absolutely fine and a wonderful way in which to tell a story, but some writers have used this device to create an emotional bond between the reader and the character at the expense of the story. With a first person perspective you don’t necessarily need to worry about what the other characters are doing at any one given time because you are not going to cut away to them. Fine. However, there is a tendency for some of these stories to have the most wafer thin plots because the author thinks the character is more interesting.

I have had many discussions with professional storytellers who assert that characters are the most important things in a story. I have listened, in stunned disbelief, when they say, as long as you have interesting characters, interesting stories will unfold. I have even seen this written in books that allege to teach writing. It doesn’t matter how fleshed out your character is, without an interesting story they are nothing.

Imagine, Albert Einstein, Elvis and the Pope are sitting in a room. Three strong characters about whom entire volumes have been written. Now imagine none of them can think of anything interesting to say to one another, and imagine nothing happens to the room they’re in. Nobody else enters. You just have three amazingly interesting people doing zip.

The story is what drives your characters to walk, talk and be. People don’t watch the news because they think the teenager running down the street chased by a police helicopter is an interesting character. They tune in to find out what the story is; what led to this moment. During this process we find out about our character – is he a murderer? A thief? We now stick with the story because of the characters. But wait, something else has been discovered: he had left a bomb in his house. The story is re-engaging with us and may well bring in other intriguing characters to help it along.

Back to Einstein and co. The room they are in could be spinning through time and space but without a character to witness and interact with the momentous events outside, we still have no story.

What we have here is a delicate balance: Interesting characters in an interesting story. Like yin and yang they propel your story to the bitter end together.

This brings me on to another bugbear of mine. Character arcs. The notion that a character has to go on an educational or spiritual journey through the story. That they must end up as different people by the end of the story, and through this, we need to learn about their backstory: what happened in the past to shape them into the person they are today. That is not true for all stories.

There are numerous characters who have started with one opinion and finished the story as a whole new person – Ebenezer Scrooge being the first example that pops to mind. Likewise, there are fantastic characters who are perceived as heroes but have broken all the rules. Let me jump from literature to film – it’s still the art of storytelling. Indiana Jones is a modern iconic hero. Go away and watch the first movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’ll wait for you. What a hero, eh?

He starts the story losing the golden idol to his rival. Then he searches for the Ark of the Covenant, loses his leading lady, finds the Ark, loses the Ark, finds the girl, finds the Ark – then loses both the girl and the Ark. Then ends the movie tied to a pole as all the bad guys are killed. He gets the Ark back. Oh, and in the story’s coda, he loses the Ark again. I present to you Indiana Jones, the world’s greatest loser who starts and ends the story as exactly the same person.


Andy Briggs’s author website:

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Tarzan: The Greystoke LegacyTarzan: The Jungle Warrior: Bk. 2Rise of the Heroes (Hero.Com)Dark Hunter (Villain.Net)     Hold Me Closer, NecromancerRooftopThe Repossession

Writing Teen Novels


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