Last week, my fifth-grade reading group and I finished a classic novel. I’m not going to say which one it was because I’m not going to say very nice things about it.
The story itself was fine. It followed a classic narrative structure and was occasionally gripping. The problem was…
Well, it was boring in more than a few places. But it wasn’t all the book’s fault.
The book is older than I am, and it’s set on a homestead in the 1800s. Setting details were very important to the author, so much so that a pond deserved three pages of description. The story would have been great for literature students studying symbolism.
Here’s the problem: I work in a school that serves an at-risk population (that means there’s a high poverty rate). Simply put, most of them don’t care what glorious colors and reflections occurred on a pond 150 years ago. Some don’t know where their next meal is coming from, so fancy prose is nowhere near their list of things worth thinking about.
That’s not to say they shouldn’t read anything outside of what they know or naturally care about. But it doesn’t hurt to choose books that will easily engage them.
So what’s the key to an engaging story?
In Story Physics, Larry Brooks suggests changing a popular question posed to authors and students: Ask not what the story is about, but rather what happens in the story.
Engaging stories are about events. Actions. Movement.
Readers want to know what happens next.
Put another way, characters need to do something, not spend three pages ruminating on a pond. If we were not privy to the internal monologue of the character, what would it look like to an outsider?
A girl staring at a pond.
And while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a gorgeous setting description, it means the character is just sitting there waiting for the author to finish before the story can continue. In the book I read with the fifth graders, if we could remove the descriptions and just leave the actions, I’m guessing about 75% of the book would be cut. That’s a lot of time where characters were waiting around.
Now, description does need to occur or the story will feel un-anchored. Characters need a place to function. But it’s best to weave it in among the action. In the story with the pond, just having two characters walking around it while having a meaningful conversation would have helped.
So if you want to write a story with beautiful prose that will be studied for decades by literature snobs, go for it. More power to you. But if you want to write a book your readers will not want to put down (especially if you write middle-grade), make your characters get off their butts and get to work.