Narrative Structure in Children’s Books — Parts of the Narrative

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By Marlo Garner

In a publishable story for children, one of the fundamental things editors and agents are looking for is strong narrative structure and satisfying character development. Your readers, too—although they might not be aware of it—are looking for an engaging story, with a beginning, middle, and a satisfying end.

Classic narrative structure looks like this:

  • Beginning: the protagonist, protagonist’s desire, why they want it, and the problem to attaining it are introduced. The protagonist has a call to action.
  • Middle: the problem escalates as the protagonist attempts to solve the problem and attain their desire.
  • Climax: the point at which the protagonist faces their greatest challenge, solves the problem and is changed in the process. The climax should come right before the end.
  • End: resolution for all. The protagonist has achieved their desire or no longer has a need for it (because they have changed).

At the beginning of a story, the writer makes a promise to the reader. Most importantly, the ending must deliver on the beginning’s promise. So whatever you set up in those first few double-page spreads in a picture book, or that first chapter in a chapter book or novel, must come full circle/to fruition/be resolved in the last chapter. Conversely, whatever resolution is achieved in the end needs to be thoughtfully and clearly set up in the beginning.

The protagonist should evolve/develop in some way by the end of the story.

Also, the protagonist must solve his/her own problem. Don’t allow an outside force (or a parental figure) to solve the problem or save the day.

Some books—and I’m mainly referring to picture books for small children that are designed to teach concepts—might not have a clear narrative,  but “concept books” may have more chance of success if they have a narrative component. E.g. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.

Let’s look at the requirements for each part of a strong narrative in more detail.

Beginning: 

  • Should quickly show us who the protagonist is, what the protagonist wants, and why they want it.
  • Should pose a question or problem (to attaining that desire) that is answered or solved by the end.
  • Should provide clues as to what kind of story it is.
  • Should hook the audience and make them want to read on.
  • Generally should not formally introduce the characters or setting, unless there is a clear reason to do so.
  • It should appear as though we are observing characters who already existed before the story began.
  • Problem or question should be posed immediately, but by pages 8/9 at latest in a 32-page picture book (based on the story starting after the front matter, on pages 4/5), or by the end of the first chapter in a chapter book or novel (although the seeds should be sewn on that very first page).

Middle

  • Audience should get a greater understanding of the protagonist through the course of the story.
  • The characters should take on a life of their own.
  • Difficulties will increase until the climax.
  • Many stories have a three-stage conflict resolution, repetition of the ideas and language, e.g. three little pigs, three billy goats gruff.
  • Dramatic tension will keep the reader turning the page.

Climax

  • The seeds for the climax should be sown on the first page.
  • The climax is crucial, it is a testing of the character, and a chance the for the character to grow,
  • They will be in some way changed by the experience.
  • The protagonist should solve the problem themselves.
  • Approx. pages 26-30 in a picture book, and the second last chapter in chapter books/novels.

Ending

  • Immediately follows the climax.
  • Should answer the question or solve the problem posed at the beginning.
  • Protagonist will have fulfilled their basic desire, or have changed in such a way that they no longer desire it.
  • Rounds up action and ties up loose ends.
  • Includes resolution for secondary characters.
  • Should appear as if the characters will exist after the story is finished.
  • Let the reader reach their own conclusions. Do not be didactic.
  • The resolution should not be too predictable, but should be satisfying.
  • Pages 30-32 in a picture book, and the final chapter in a chapter book/novel.

Closely following this narrative formula will help you avoid so many of the problems that result in a manuscript lacking full development, and increase your chance of your manuscript’s success.

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