Wednesday, January 02, 2008

On Writing for Children

By René Colato Laínez


In children’s stories every word counts. But some times there is a lot of information to tell, information that you feel is worth telling. How are you going to do it with out using so many words? How to tell the short economic version instead of the long version? How are you going to cover a lot of ground quickly and move the story along? Well, you can use the technique MAKING A LONG STORY SHORT. It consists in writing a long event into a single sentence.

In the children’s book THE RELATIVES CAME, the relatives are coming all the way from Virginia. Author, Cynthia Rylant, makes the traveling part of the trip pass very quickly in this single sentence.

"So they drank up all their pop and ate up all their crackers and traveled up all those miles until finally they pulled into our yard."

By connecting “and's”, the author makes this move quickly in the story, letting a lot happen in one sentence. Because Rylant's main point in the story is for the relatives to meet and have a great time, she gets the whole trip in one sentence and gets those relatives to their destination quickly. Now Rylant is ready to tell their relative’s adventures.

Cynthia Rylant uses this technique again in her young adult novel I HAD SEEN CASTLES. John Dante is a soldier during the Second World War. When the war ends, he is ready to come home. Rylant puts the entire outcome of the war in one sentence.

"After the war ended, America made Germany its friend, Russia its enemy, and it helped rebuild Japan."

This time instead of connecting “and's”, she uses commas. In only a single sentence, she has saved many words. She would have used a page to describe what happened to Germany, Russia and Japan after the war. Rylant is making a long story short by using a single sentence instead of three pages.


I use this technique a lot in my own writing. On my manuscript in progress about the Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, I tell the story on how Romero became a hero and martyr for the Salvadoran community. The first pages of the story are about Romero as a child and his return from Rome to El Salvador as a young priest. Romero went through many steps in order to become an archbishop but I did not have the time to go over every single step in detail. I put everything together in one single sentence:

"First, Oscar was a priest, then an auxiliary bishop, then a bishop, and finally on February 10, 1977, he became the new archbishop of El Salvador."

Now I was ready to continue with my story.

The same technique came to the rescue on my forthcoming picture book MY SHOES AND I, illustrations by Fabricio Vanden Broeck, (BOYDS MILLS PRESS/ FRONT STREET, 2009). MY SHOES AND I is about a boy crossing three borders in order to arrive to the United States. There is a great connection between the boy and his shoes, and this connection is the heart of the story. But how was I able to put a long trip into the pages of a picture book? You guessed it. I used MAKING A LONG STORY SHORT.

"A bus, a sandwich, the first border, another bus and another sandwich, we are in Guatemala City."

I used MAKING A LONG STORY SHORT two more times in the book and in no time at all,
My young protagonist was ready to cross the last border.

By using this technique, I can save many words. I can concentrate in what is the most important event in my story and summarize in a single sentence what it is not so relevant. The trick is to put everything in one sentence that compresses time and detail.

I hope you can you this technique on your own writing.


Anonymous said...

Rene, thanks for another great posting on how to write for children's books.


janna said...

Thank you for this useful advice! As one who tends toward wordiness when I shouldn't, and lacks words when I most need them, this exercise will be a big help in my writing.