Within your story, what’s at stake for your protagonist? Are the stakes set high enough and are the risks real enough that your readers will care about what happens? No matter what genre of teen novel you’re writing, the stakes for your protagonist have to amount to life itself. In other words, at some point in your story (preferably about half of the way through) your protagonist has to face a life and death situation in order to overcome it and evolve into a true hero.
For those of you who aren’t writing murder mysteries, this doesn’t have to be a physical death (although teenaged literary heroes such as Harry Potter have embraced death – and, of course, survived it). But the stakes still have to be high enough that, should the protagonist lose, the consequences would be the equivalent of death. Such consequences might be the loss of one’s true love, great public humiliation or a personal failure. In any of these situations the hero might admit, “I’d rather be dead,” and the reader will suffer along. In a wonderful analysis of the craft of story writing called The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters author Christopher Vogler states, “Heroes must die so that they can be reborn. The dramatic movement that audiences enjoy more than any other is death and rebirth.”
I was recently reminded of this need to challenge the protagonist again and again when I watched the Pixar film Finding Nemo. I’m a big fan of Pixar’s unique characters and rich storytelling, and their writers’ ability to pull at your heartstrings. But I’d forgotten what an emotional roller coaster this particular film was and is. In only 100 minutes the little clownfish Nemo and his dad narrowly escape death more than a dozen times: by shark, jellyfish, deep sea angler fish, aquarium water pump, plastic baggie, crab, seagull, underwater mine explosion, strong currents, being flushed down a sink, dropped on a dock, caught in a net and crushed by a net. In addition, there are many crises that feel like imminent death: the ocean’s too big, the destination is too far, I’ve lost my map, my friend has forsaken me. Even with all of these near-fatal scenes, at no point in the story did it feel like the creators were creating artificial dangers; they simply put two heroic characters in one very difficult situation after another and allowed them to use their personal strengths and intense familial love to attempt to reunite – and Finding Nemo is ostensibly a children’s story! Imagine what you can do with a teen’s story.
Nearly every day of a teen’s life is fraught with emotion and crisis. Happiness blooms from the fleeting smile of a member of the opposite sex and tears from an apparent snub. Life is over after a failed test, a broken heart or parental restrictions. The reactions to these events may seem overly dramatic to an adult (and especially to a parent) but to a teen these crises feel like death itself. Understanding what your protagonist most values will allow you to place that thing at risk – even time and time again – and that will make your story intensely interesting to your teen readers.
Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com
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