The Stories We Tell
It’s often said that there are no new stories for writers to tell. This aphorism is heightened in children’s fiction when so many of us are trying to make strong points to empower the kids who read our books, but end up slipping into old models to do so. It’s reached a point where some of those models have turned into tropes.
So gather round, and let’s discuss ways to bring life and originality to old story forms.
Here are three examples of big story types that I see all the time in middle grade fiction, with varying levels of success. (I bet you can name a popular children’s novel to go with each.)
The Chosen One, wherein a child attains his (it’s nearly always his) ancestral powers/recognition on a tween birthday. (This is a trope if ever there was one.)
The Hero’s Journey (your classic quest), wherein a young person (again, usually male) goes off on a journey, learns about the world, and wins a championship/attains a title/is otherwise honored. (Girls generally play the princess role in this one.)
The Ticking Clock, wherein a group of kids (most often led by an ordinary boy or else a spunky girl) need to solve a problem within a certain amount of time or else their world explodes/they lose their families/they’re trapped forever/etc.
If you follow one of these story patterns without thinking too much about challenging it, your story may end up feeling old, plodding, and irrelevant to your readers.
We don’t want to bore our readers. We also don’t want to exclude them, or make them feel small, or that they can’t be the hero, because if you follow many of these story tropes to the letter, you’ll end up with just one kind of hero.
But this doesn’t mean that you should ignore the classic stories that we children’s writers tell. Just know when you’re using a story that’s become a trope, and why you’re using it. And then see if you can make it truly unique.
Here’s the good news: While story tropes will probably never fully go away, children’s writers are showing creative ways to subvert or upend them for a greater good.
(I love it when I see a writer doing that.)
One of my favorite examples is Dave Rudden and his Knights of the Borrowed Dark, a fast-paced contemporary adventure featuring an ancient order of magical knights battling an evil power coming in from another world. The premise—an orphan introduced to this ancient order who comes to the full power of his magic on his 13th birthday—is a clear Chosen One trope. Yet Rudden bends it to his will, and not in the most obvious ways. His protagonist doesn’t seem to have the skills and control to master his magic. And he’s resistant to his birthright; he’s just not sure that he wants it. There’s a significant downside to the magic, by the way: It slowly turns the person using it into iron.
As the story progresses, there’s a real question whether the protagonist will become one of the titular knights. The order desperately needs more members, yet he may not fit. Rudden’s protagonist is both snarky but tender, a surprisingly sensitive kid who cares deeply about his friends and is capable of heroic actions even when he most questions his ability to perform them. By the way, he succeeds at a crucial point thanks to the significant help of a powerful girl. (And the toughest and most intimidating of all the ancient knights is a woman.) This is a Chosen One trope with enough twists, layers, and questions to make it feel like a different kind of story quickly.
Karuna Riazi also uses layers, details, and the unexpected to upend the Ticking Clock trope in her middle grade fantasy adventure The Gauntlet. Her characters encounter the Clock in a game—a tangible one into which her protagonist (an engaging, thoughtful, and not-remotely-spunky girl), her little brother, and two friends are transported during the protagonist’s birthday party. The common trope element is there: They need to win the game, or else they’ll all be trapped forever within it. But Riazi gives it depth by introducing an even graver Clock: the little brother has run into the game ahead of the other characters, and the protagonist must find him while playing the game.
The characters of this beautiful novel use their minds, memories, collaboration, and friendship to solve the puzzles, but make mistakes and fritter away their precious time. This story brings up elements of a classic quest as well, with people and creatures who help and hinder, and a brilliant surprise at the end. One of the layers that spread throughout the whole story is the world to which Riazi treats readers: a sensory-rich one filled with Bangladeshi food, art, and stories. Readers will find either mirrors or open windows welcoming them into this vivid story.
You can tell that I think a lot about story tropes. And so it should come as no surprise that in The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, my own historical fantasy set in medieval Scotland, I took on the Hero’s Journey trope with a hard feminist slant. I started by changing the gender of the usual hero by introducing a girl protagonist skilled in swordplay and other battle skills. Then I made her an anti-hero; she’s actually a member of a family of warrior villains, and her quest is to rescue them all from being hanged. (By the way, they don’t necessarily consider themselves evil; they have their own moral code and justify their actions. It just happens that pretty much everyone else in their world fears and hates them, so she’s definitely a villain.)
A big part of my hero’s emotional quest is learning the true nature of her family’s actions, and determining where she belongs in their legend, or if there’s room for her to have her own legend outside of it. In lieu of princesses, I tweaked medieval misogyny: One of my protagonist’s family’s codes is to protect all matrons and maidens (classic “chivalry”), and she thinks they do that because every girl but her is weak. Yet every matron or maiden she meets on her journey redefines to her (and readers) what strength can be (hint: it doesn’t always involve a sword).
Are you inspired to start challenging story tropes in your own fiction? Let’s go through a few steps to do so. Pick one of the classic story types above that you know you’ve used and ask yourself:
What do I like the most about this model? What parts do I want to keep? Why do I want to keep those parts? (It’s just good to be intentional when you keep a part of a trope—and by the way, “I’ve always loved this kind of story” is a fair answer.)
Now ask: What parts can I adjust? What are some small tweaks I could make to the classic representations of that trope? Where do those changes lead?
Now go even deeper: Can I upend it even more? What’s something unexpected—or even opposite to tradition—that I could do with the trope? How could I depict it through the lens of my own experiences or interests? What would change in it if a young version of me were at the center?
Sometimes it won’t be obvious that you’ve written your story around a common form or trope; many models of storytelling are ingrained in our imaginations. And that’s not a bad thing. It means that we know how to tell the stories we’ve always heard. Just make sure that you have early readers—critique partners, and beta and sensitivity readers are invaluable here—to catch yourself. With self-awareness and help from those readers, any writer can master story tropes and turn them into innovation.
Which then makes them your own story.