I have a daughter who is almost seven, and thanks to an audio book collection we’ve started playing in the car, she has fallen in love with the adventures of Ramona Quimby, a timeless character written by Beverly Cleary.
My claim for the timelessness of these books comes from personal experience—when I was seven or eight, I, too, devoured the Ramona books, and I felt the same connection my daughter does now.
Listening to these books again now, from the perspective of an adult writer, I am continually amazed by Beverly Cleary’s brilliance—if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be an energetic little girl, go read them now, because she NAILS it—but one thing in particular stood out to me this week: the value and impact of “small” drama.
In Ramona’s world, feeling her teacher might not like her is as powerful as her father losing his job. Being allowed to draw ears and whiskers on the “Q” of her name is as crucial as getting her dad to stop smoking.
But here’s the key—those “small” things are just as important to the reader as to Ramona. Somehow, Beverly Cleary makes me, a nearly-thirty-year-old-woman, feel the depth and gravity and VITAL IMPORTANCE of these “small” things.
She’s not the only author to do this to me. I cried more over the desperately awful unfairness of an adult in THE PENDERWICKS by Jeanne Birdsall than I have over most world-endangering conflicts in adult or YA novels. Millions of people hated Professor Umbridge in the 5th Harry Potter book even more than Voldemort, who was a mass murderer.
And after I started noticing this quieter drama in children’s books, I started noticing it in my more grown-up entertainment as well. A kdrama heroine who is looked down on by others and knows it. A woman working in a male-dominated field, trying to do her job but knowing she’ll never really fit in. Romance novels that allow characters to sit in the awkwardness and uncertainty of new love without rushing everything straight through to the happy ending.
As I’ve looked at some of these things, I’ve realized that the conflicts that hit me the most on an emotional level are the ones I’ve experienced in some way—and many of them can be boiled down to emotions we experienced even as small children. For example, I, personally, have never met a murderer, nor had anyone I love murdered—so while that sort of conflict hits me on an intellectual and moral level, it doesn’t in and of itself trigger a big emotional reaction for me. But I have dealt with unfairness and small-minded meanness, which is probably why I had such an emotional reaction to Umbridge.
Here are some of the emotional hot-keys I’ve seen work equally well in both children’s and adult literature:
- Feeling left out/forgotten
- Fear of potential conflict/causing intense reactions in another character
- Feeling stuck
- Being impeded by people not doing something they should/not doing things the way the main character would in their shoes
- Feeling not “enough”–good/smart/funny/talented/you name it
- Wanting to fit in
- Wanting to stand out
- Fear of/act of losing someone/something important
- Relationship changes—romantic, familial, friendships, etc.
- Fear of disappointing someone
Each of these affect us differently based on our core motivators and life experiences, and there is some crossover—unfairness might make a character feel helpless, for example—but each of these is a core emotional trigger that can be illustrated on small levels while still carrying great impact.
So the next time you need to add tension to a scene or ramp up a reader’s emotional connection to a character, look at ways to add smaller layers of drama. Get under your character’s skin with the types of things that would have driven him/her crazy as a kid, and you’ll have a better chance at getting into your reader’s heart.
Shannon Cooley is a dancing queen who looks seventeen (a.k.a. a babyfaced ballroom dance instructor). Her favorite type of dance is anything with lifts and drops, which might explain the adrenaline-seeking tendencies of her three children. She and her husband are both writers, resulting in children who refer to stuffed animals as “characters.” Shannon writes Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction, and is represented by Victoria Marini of the Irene Goodman Agency