- Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great (Hyperion, ages 5-8), a book almost entirely written in dialogue about a goat who mocks a unicorn before finally coming around to a friendship with the target of his disdain.
She’d also read Josh Schnieder’s The Meanest Birthday Girl (Clarion, ages 5-7), the story of a bullying girl who becomes meaner yet on her birthday until she gets her comeuppance. My student’s comment? “Children’s books aren’t nice anymore.” That’s the kind of perception that can only come from studying recently published books which indeed, aren’t the sweet old-fashioned ones many of us read as children. Today’s books have feelings that are undisguised, can be genuine and sometimes edgy.
There were also some fascinating discoveries in terms of writing.
- One student who is translating her story from Brazilian to English also finds she’s enriching it with what she’s learning in class. So she feels as if she’s making two very different kind of translation, both making her happy.
- Another student expressed having a week of tantrums. After all the years she’d thought about her book, she resisted thinking of it in new ways as she examined her character’s motivation. When she finally let herself change perspective, she found some really positive changes. I understand this well phenomenon well. I once heard it labeled as PBS (Pre-Breakthrough-Syndrome). It has that twitchy, let-me-out-of-my-body quality of PMS. I’ve learned to be patient with it because usually it heralds a good change. In my case, the bigger the fit, ultimately the better the change.
Conflict and Climax In Brief:
We plunged into the study of conflict and climax. Conflicts, or problems, are probably the single most important factor in propelling readers through pages. Climax occurs when readers feel the most story tension, when they most want to know what’s going to happen. You can visualize the relationship between them by imagining a story as climbing a mountain that gets steeper and steeper with each conflict until, at the very top of the mountain, you find the climax. Climax occurs when the character faces the worst dilemma of all, or can no longer deny the problem because of how it has grown. A 5th grade student once told me that when you reach the climax, “you stop, pause, and take a look around” before you start down the mountain, allowing readers to feel the full weight of the all conflicts before you reach a satisfying resolution.
When a story is boring, it’s often because there aren’t enough conflicts, or the conflicts aren’t strong enough. Conflicts are most crucial in the middle of stories when there is a tendency for a reader’s interest to lessen. Strong, connected conflicts keep readers caring and engaged in reading.
There are all kinds of conflicts. Sometimes conflicts cut across a character’s motivation. Sometimes they occur when two character’s motivations bang up against each other and make for problems. Conflicts can start out as external conflicts when the character encounters a hard situation and shift to inner conflicts if the character has a difficult choice to make.
When thinking about developing conflicts in writing, you have to be mean to your characters, adding conflicts shows that character and motivation are so strong, they can overcome any obstacle. We care about characters because of the way they deal with conflicts and that’s important too.
There are all kinds of conflict patterns in plots, but in the most successful ones they are connected in some way. Sometimes a character solves a problem only to have another arise. Fairy tales generally have three problems for a hero/heroine to solve. Other times conflicts build, growing stronger and stronger until they were “as bad as it gets” and then you’ve reached the climax.
Conflict: Reading Like A Writer
We read Karen William’s My Name is Sangoel (Eerdmans, 2009; ages 8-10) On the first page, Sangoel, his mother and sister leave his war-torn homeland of Sudan for America. He takes little with him but the name his father and his Dinka ancestors have carried. His name means everything to him, but in America no one can pronounce it. Sangoel becomes more and more withdrawn until he finds an inventive way to make his name and himself known.
We asked some of these questions:
How soon do you know the character’s conflict?
We had a pretty strong hint by the first page that Sangoel was leaving everything behind (including his father who has died) and this sets a foundation for the conflicts about his name to arise—happening the first time when he reaches America and the woman who greets the family mispronounces his name.
What kind of conflict does this story have?
We agreed he has both inner and outer conflicts. The repeated outer conflicts of his name’s mispronunciation makes him more and more miserable inside.
What is the conflict pattern of the story?
___the conflict builds
___the character solves a conflict and another arises
In this book the conflict builds and this is done very subtly. Sangoel greets mispronunciation with different reactions which grow. At the first mispronunciation, Sangoel says his name softly. The next time he mumbles it, then “whispered but no one heard.” Finally at the climax, he sleeps on the rug instead of his “American bed” and has horrible dreams.
How does the conflict relate to the character’s motivation?
Sangoel wants to find a new home in America and he wants to keep his past. His mother urging him to pick an American name precipitates the climax.
A few other questions:
What do the conflicts reveal about the character?/ What do the character’s reactions to the conflict show you about the character?
What makes the conflicts believable?
____Do they grow and change in a way that makes sense?
____Do they make sense for the character?
What is the story’s climax? Does it grow out of the story’s conflicts?
More Books with Compelling Conflicts & Climax
Monica Brown, Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match / Marisol McDonald No Combina
(Children’s Book Press, 2011, ages 4-7)
Marisol McDonald knows she “doesn’t match.” First, she notes her appearance of brown skin and “hair the color of carrots,” as well as her clashing shirt and pants. She eats peanut butter and jelly burritos and speaks Spanish, English, and both. Finally, the “bilingual, Peruvian-Scottish-American, soccer-playing artist” escapes her inner conflicts when she realizes the richness of her blended identity.
Michael Catchpool, The Cloud Spinner (Knopf, 2012; ages 6 and up)
This fable-like story has conflict that operates on different levels. The most obvious occurs when a man who spins clouds is ordered to make them into clothing by a greedy king. The impact of missing clouds has a devastating environmental impact and that creates possibilities for a whole new discussion about our threatened world.
Janet Graber, Muktar and the Camels (Eerdmans, 2009; ages 8-10)
Sometimes conflicts come from uncontrollable political situations as in the case of Muktar, a orphaned refugee whose parents have died in Somalia. His biggest problem seems adjusting to a life without wandering, without camels. The vivid writing, particularly the descriptions of Muktar’s longing, makes the conflicts strong.
Ann Sibley O’Brien, A Path of Stars (Charlesbridge, 2012, ages 8-10)
Dara, a young girl has a deep relationship with her Cambodian grandmother. She’s grown up hearing stories, many of them full of conflict, softened by remembrances of this beautiful country. When the grandmother learns of her brother’s death and enters a deep depression, the small uses her grandmother’s imagery to heal her.
Andrea Davis Pinkney, Sit-in: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down (Little Brown, 2010; grades 4 and up)
And what about characters and real life people who knowingly face conflict by standing up for what they really believe? Pinkney lyrically recounts the story of four courageous students who could no longer live with the societal injustice they saw around them. The four took a stand by ordering food at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960 and their action helped change the world.
Jacqui Robbins, Two of a Kind (Atheneum, 2009, grades 1-3)
There aren’t enough books about the conflicts that come from manipulative bullying. Julisa and Anna are “two of a kind” best friends until their two female classmates mock Julisa. Readers can see both external conflict as Julisa and Anna’s relationship suffers as well as the inner conflicts Anna faces when she doesn’t act the a true friend she really is.