|Image by by Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay |
WHAT LAURIE DID RIGHT: MIDDLE GRADE MAGIC
(And a mini-lesson in The Hero’s Journey)
by Alayne Kay Christian
PART ONE OF TWO: Act One of The Hero’s Journey
Thank you, Becky, for having me back again as a guest blogger for this very
important event—the Chapter Book Challenge. I usually offer my thoughts in a
“what NOT to do” type message. As I was thinking about what I wanted to share
for this year’s Chapter Book Challenge, Blue Whale Press’s latest middle grade
book, Misadventures of a Magician’s Son, came to mind. I thought of it for two
1) Because we recently released it for pre-orders, so it’s on my mind. It will be
released April 1!
Once that book came to mind, my thought was, Why not focus on what to do right?
And with that a blog post was about to be born. But I have a “little” quirk, which is
that I can easily get carried away when I’m analyzing stories and discussing writing
processes. And that’s exactly what I did here. I got so carried away, that Becky and
I decided to break my post into two parts. This post covers the beginning of
Misadventures of a Magician’s Son and the next one will cover the middle and
If you study The Hero’s Journey diagram below, you will see that act one only takes
up about 25% of the story.
So, what did Laurie Smollett Kutscera do right? I have a bit of a challenge here
because she did so many things right. Let’s see if I can put some of her middle
grade magic writing tricks in a logical order.
I’ve decided that a good way to create some sort of order is to do a brief analysis
using “The Hero’s Journey” plot structure. I have no doubt this will show, in part,
what Laurie did right. But it’s not just the structure that makes Laurie’s creation
so appealing. As the book trailer says, this book has it all. It has surprises and
twists, setbacks and decisions/choices, and lots of growth on Alex’s part. It’s got
bad guys and good guys and funny guys. And an adorable dog. In addition to
magic, action, adventure, humor, great characters, and heart, Laurie has created
a unique world with unique characters. And that is what made her manuscript
standout from all the others that Blue Whale Press receives. Misadventures of a
Magician’s Son doesn’t fully follow The Hero’s Journey. But it comes close. The
purpose of plot structure formulas is to give writers guidelines, but you will find
that there are many books that don’t follow any of the formulas fully. The Hero’s
Journey is just one way to think about a story, so don’t let this structure limit you
and your creativity. I offer this structure to give you direction and a sense of
pacing and to make sure that your story has purpose and cohesiveness with a
strong beginning, middle, and end.
Before I move on, I want to say that chapter books can also follow most of
what I’m about to talk about. However, for the younger audience, the plot
and sentence structures are much simpler and backstory should be avoided, or
at the very least, limited.
A recent review of Misadventures of a Magician’s Son, written by Diane
Donavan, Sr. Reviewer, Midwest Book Review, points out some of what Laurie
did right. She says, in part, the following:
“. . . Laurie Smollett Kutscera weaves a strong story of personal struggle and achievement into a tale that takes some unusual twists and turns as Alex continues to learn about the magic of human emotion, recovery, and resiliency from his unusual mentors: "Isn’t it possible everyone would appreciate you for who you are?” What could have been a singular story of a boy's special talents thus evolves into an unusual exploration of the roots of magic, ability, and support systems that come into play when loss changes one's familiar life patterns. . . .Readers who choose the book anticipating a dose of magical encounters will not be disappointed, while those who like interpersonal relationships, intrigue, and growth as subplots in their stories will find Misadventures of a Magician's Son holds an action-packed touch of all three to keep readers guessing about Alex's future and incredible adventure, right up to the end.”
|Click on image to enlarge|
Act One, Set up (Exposition and Inciting Incident)
Act one of any plot structure usually starts with setup. The setup is
accomplished via exposition, which introduces background information about
events, settings, characters, or other elements of a story to readers. The
purpose of this exposition is to assure that the story (and the story world)
makes sense to the reader. It’s all about setting the stage. Through exposition,
readers should get an idea of who the protagonist is, what everyday life is like,
and what’s important to the protagonist. It also gives readers a sense of the
challenges the main character is facing or is about to face.
In The Hero’s Journey, the first step in act one is The Ordinary World. Here,
readers are introduced to the hero (protagonist) and his ordinary world. It
demonstrates what life was like before change began to happen.
In Misadventures of a Magician’s Son, the ordinary world is presented mostly
via Laurie’s skillful weaving of backstory into Alex’s current-day story.
Misadventures of a Magician’s Son, What Laurie did Right—STRONG
BEGINNING and hook.
This story starts right off with answering the question, “Who?” because the
very first words are “Alexander Finn.” Readers also get a sense that he is a
middle grader. We also get a sense of “Where?” because we know he has
moved from somewhere to Maine, and we start getting an idea of the setting
while we envision cobblestone streets, clapboard houses, and fog from the
harbor. We even get a sense of “What?” We know that Alex is moving into a
new home and that something is up with his father when a bittersweet
memory is revealed. All of this happens on the first page. All of this
information is offered in around eighty words! Laurie has informed readers
enough and created enough curiosity to make them want to turn the page
and enter the story.
On the next pages, Laurie sets the hook by filling in Alex’s story more and
by creating tension. We learn more about the “where”—600 miles from his
previous home. We learn that he has moved there with his mother. We get a
sense of Alex’s attitude toward this life change. We sense tension between
him and his mother. And, already on pages 2 and 3, we start building an
emotional connection to Alex.
I won’t share what happens (you’ll have to read the book for that ;-) but on
pages 4 and 5 and into the rest of the first chapter, Laurie keeps tension
going, continues to inform the reader, and creates some mystery that pulls
curious readers forward. They are eager to turn pages and learn more.
Misadventures of a Magician’s Son, What Laurie did Right—THE CALL
Next in act one, comes the Inciting Incident. In The Hero’s Journey, this is
called The Call to Adventure.
Although Alex’s move to Maine is one of the incidents that removed Alex
from his ordinary life, chapter two reveals the thing that really sets Alex’s
story journey into motion. The magic deck of cards that his father left him
comes to life! Alex and readers first meet Joker, and we immediately get a
sense of who Joker is. Why? Because Laurie created a perfect voice for
Joker and she did a wonderful job of molding this funny and quirky
character (he’s actually my favorite character). But I digress. Alex and
readers meet the major-player card characters (The Queen and King of
Hearts and their son Jack) and then he meets the entire clan of animated
cards. From there, Alex learns that these cards know things about his
father that he doesn’t know. The chapter continues to inform the reader,
create curiosity, and strengthen readers’ emotional connection to Alex.
Using a cliffhanger, Laurie masterfully ends chapter two with a line that is
guaranteed to pull the reader into the next chapter. We are about to learn
what happened to Alex’s father.
Misadventures of a Magician’s Son, What Laurie did Right—REFUSING
AND ACCEPTING THE CALL
In the next chapter of Misadventures of a Magician’s Son, Laurie continues
to inform, and the more we learn, the more we want to keep reading. As the
readers’ emotional connection with Alex develops, and their understanding
about Alex’s father and the cards grows, readers want to know more. In this
chapter, Laurie didn’t even need to end it with a cliffhanger because the
whole chapter is a cliffhanger!
At the risk of wearing out the phrase, I would say the next six chapters have
it all: bullies, action, tension, magic, and even some humor. They carry
readers the slightest bit up Story Mountain and closer to the crisis point.
Here we learn more about Alex and the cards. We also learn more about
where Alex lives, and we experience his struggles with bullies, new
teachers, and performing in a magic show.
Laurie gets extra points for doing it right because five out of seven chapters
end with cliffhanger last lines. And in the two chapters that don’t have
cliffhanger endings, Laurie has masterfully created so many unanswered
questions and so much curiosity in readers’ minds that they will undoubtedly
be compelled to continue reading.
I’m trying to avoid giving away too much because you would benefit so
much more from reading the book and studying it along with these notes.
But I thought I would take a minute to visit the steps in The Hero’s Journey,
and share a little bit how Laurie fit them into her story.
The next three steps in act one of The Hero’s Journey are:
1) Initial Refusal
2) Meeting with a Mentor
3) Crossing the Threshold
1. Initial Refusal means that the protagonist refuses to respond to the call to
adventure. This is usually due to things like fear, danger, and/or uncertainty.
So at this stage, the protagonist is a reluctant hero.
In addition to being fully resistant to embracing his new life, when one of
Alex’s teachers suggests that he participate in a talent show as a magician,
his first response is to refuse the challenge.
2. Meeting the Mentor means that the story presents a source of wisdom
and guidance, and sometimes tools for the journey (it isn’t always literal—it
can be symbolic). At this crucial turning point where the hero desperately
needs guidance in order to begin his journey, he meets a mentor figure who
provides something he needs. Or maybe he is given an object of great
importance, or insight into the challenge he faces. Whatever the mentor
offers helps to chase away doubts and fears and give the protagonist the
strength and courage to take his step over the threshold into act two.
I would say Alex’s strongest mentor is the King Anton, the King of Hearts.
But Joker, Jack, and the Queen of Hearts all help him along the way.
3. Crossing the Threshold/Accepting the Call means that the protagonist
is ready to step into action. He steps over the threshold between his ordinary
world and, more or less, into the unknown (or special world). No matter
how the new world on the other side of that threshold is presented, this first
step symbolizes the hero’s commitment to his journey and his willingness to
face whatever the journey may bring his way.
So, in spite of his doubts and fears, with the help of his friends (mentors),
Alex finds himself on the talent show stage. I will let you read the book to
find out what happens next.
Alayne Kay Christian is the acquisitions editor for Blue Whale Press and an award-winning children’s book author. She is the creator and teacher of a picture book writing course Art of Arc. In addition, she shares her knowledge with writers through free and affordable webinars at Writing for Children Webinars. She has been a picture book and chapter book critique professional since 2014, and she worked as a 12 X 12 critique ninja for three years. Alayne has spent the last thirteen years studying under some of the top names in children’s literature. Her latest picture book, An Old Man and His Penguin: How Dindim made João Pereira de Souza an Honorary Penguin, is scheduled for release in May. It will be open for pre-orders very soon! Her next picture book, The Weed that Woke Christmas: The Mostly True Story of the Toledo Christmas Weed, will be released later this summer. Alayne is also the author of the award-winning Sienna the Cowgirl Fairy chapter book series. The next Sienna, the Cowgirl Fairy title, Cowboy Trouble, will be coming soon.
Today's prize is a copy of the first in our series of Teapot Tales anthologies, Teapot Tales: A Collection of Unusual Fairy Tales. To enter, you must be a signed-up member of the challenge and comment on this blog post. The winner will be chosen by a random number generator and announced after noon on March 31st, 2020.