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Don’t Let Your Characters Eat the Marshmallow

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE TED talks. I learn so much about life and people from them, and as a writer, I am continually drawing information about how to shape characters and the ways people truly interact.

One of my favorite TED talks is by Joachim de Posada, explaining a study where four-year-olds were given marshmallows and told not to eat them for fifteen minutes. If they succeeded, they’d be given another.

His point was that the students who delayed gratification were more likely to be successful.

This morning, I was working on a scene that has stumped me for months. I suddenly realized the problem–I was letting the characters eat the marshmallow too soon. Delaying gratification for characters is as important as delaying it for ourselves. Readers will continue to sympathize with a character who does not get what they want.

Off to reread my story to find other places I can keep the character from eating the marshmallow.

Hope you have a blessed day!

Lessons from the Classroom for YA Writers

Engaged Student

I wish I had started out as a writer first, then a teacher. I think my first few years would have been much better. Writers tend to notice things about people that others don’t.

That said, I’m thankful for the time I’ve spent trying to sell curriculum to resistant young people every day, because I think it makes me a much better writer. Here are five things I’ve learned:

1. Teens respond better to active, engaging material than passive.

In the classroom, this translates to hands-on activities and interactive models, such as the potato gun above–one of my all-time favorite projects from some of my favorite students*. In writing, this means drawing them into the action and letting them experience it as the character. They don’t want to just stand by and let you tell them a story. They want to think, feel, taste, smell, touch, fear, rejoice, and be.

2. Teens thrive on relationships.

They want to have them, hear about them, talk about them, dissect them–it’s a challenge sometimes as a teacher to get them to stop thinking about relationships long enough to teach them something. You might think I’m only talking about romantic relationships, but it’s more than that. They thrive on building strong relationships with the adults in their lives, even the elderly. They are interested in watching how two teachers interact with each other, or how a mother interacts with her baby.

That’s why I feel like it’s important to consider the relationship dynamic between ALL characters, not just the main ones, and adding in a few details to show appropriate behaviors between people. Maybe someone holds the door open and someone else thanks them. Perhaps an older couple is walking by in front of them, holding hands. Sadly, a lot of kids do not have good role models to imitate. In Christian fiction, especially, we need to keep that in mind.

3. Teens are smarter about life than we think.

I’ve critiqued a lot of aspiring YA writers, and one of my pet peeves is how they sometimes try to explain every little thing. It’s like they think teen readers won’t know the meaning of words or understand the history behind an event. Believe it or not, teens are usually pretty up-to-date on current events and fairly knowlegeable about history. After all, they get three years to study it in high school. I’ve had some great intellectual discussions with students about surprising topics over the years.

They also have experienced more than we might believe–pain, loss, joy. In fact, many of them could teach us a few things about coping.

We have to be careful to not make characters too naive. In a recent discussion with a group of young readers, we talked about the Princess Diaries and how frustrated they were with Anne Hathaway’s character being inept at so many things. While most of them liked the movie, they didn’t find her character relatable. Their average/awkward is a lot different from the way Princess Mia was painted.

If we’re not careful, we could write characters that might come across as an insult to today’s savvy teen readers.

4. Teens have short attention spans. 

It’s been my experience that teens lose focus after about 10-15 minutes. In my classroom, I have to find creative ways to throw in hooks every so often to pull them back in. And honestly, I think that’s true for a lot of adults, too. I’ve seen a lot of students take books back to the library before finishing them. Instead of being a story they couldn’t put down, it was something easily dismissed. At the very least, a writer should put a hook at the end of every chapter.  You’re not going to keep them turning pages with a bunch of info dumps, either. They’ll just flip through and skip pages to look for the next action scene.

5. Teens are brutally honest. 

One thing I love about working with high school students is that you never have to worry about what they’re thinking. If they love an assignment, they’ll tell you. If they hate it, you’ll know. So, hard as it may be to handle their blunt feedback, if you’re going to write YA, you might consider having a couple of teens read your story before submitting, and REALLY listen to their advice.

*Photo used with permission.