Thursday, February 12, 2015

What's your story REALLY about? (Hint: forget the forest, just show us a tree.)


I’ve figured out how to get rich.  What’s the secret, you’re wondering?

I’m going to make folks hand over a nickel every time they say:

  • “I’ve written (or I’m writing) a story about bullying.“
  • “It’s a kids’ story all about grief.”
  • “This is my book about divorce and/or remarriage and/or gay families.”
  • “It’s an illustrated picture book about eating right.”
  • “I’m writing a story about consideration / politeness / good manners.”

You get the idea.  These are all great concepts, each and every one.  But they are also all lousy kids’ stories.

The truth is, they’re not stories at all. 

Because a story is not about the great big FOREST that is your concept.  A story is about the tiny, individual trees that live in the forest.

Finding the trees in the forest

Have you made this mistake?  I know I have. 

If somebody asks you, “what’s your story about?” it’s easy to go on about the Big Idea.  It’s a story about grief!  It’s a story about making your way in the world!  It’s a story about healing and recovery!

Nope, nope, and nope.  If you’re doing that, you’re still lost in the forest.

Your story, if it is to be read and loved by a child, is not any of those.  Your story is a lot smaller than that. 

Instead of telling me it’s a book about grief, tell me it’s about Tanja’s grief, or Silvester’s, or Peggy’s.  Who’s Tanja?  What’s special about Peggy?  Why would I care about Silvester?

Instead of telling me it’s a story about loss, tell me it’s about the day Bubbsy the Bear fell out of the shopping cart, or about the day Nana went to heaven, or the day Spooky Cat got run over by a car.  Each one of those is interesting in a way that loss, the abstract concept, simply can’t be.

Show us the tree

Do you see what all of these are?  These are the details… and your story is in the details, those tiny trees that populate your forest.  Tell us what it’s about.  Really, truly about.  Show us the tree.

I had a five-minute meeting with a children’s book editor the other day.  It was devastating, utterly nerve-wracking. 

I sat down across from her and started to tell her what my book was about.  And all she wanted to know was the details.  Not what it’s about (those grand, big concepts), but what’s it ABOUT – drilling down to those tiny details that make the story interesting and specific.

This will help you when you’re writing, too, by the way.  It’s hard as anything to write a great story about a big idea like DEATH or DIVORCE.  But a great story about Buster, or Leah, or Tilly the Tortoise?  Much, much simpler.

Forget the forest.  No story is every truly about an entire forest.  Find one specific, interesting tree and tell us all about it.  Believe me, I’ll be listening.

[photo credit:  M.O. Stevens via Wikimedia]


  1. Completely disagree. While the details are incredibly important to the story, without the bigger picture in mind the plot points are just a list of events and details with nothing to inform them. You don't want to be in a position where you can't see the wood for the trees.

    1. Hey, Anonymous! I actually like what you're saying a lot. I think you'd probably agree, anyway, that you can't have a wood without trees, right? :-)
      It seems to me that more authors make the mistake of focusing on the Big Idea than the little events... when those are what's going to suck kids in and hopefully make them think about your message, if you have one.
      Anyway, they are definitely both important, absolutely.
      Thanks for stopping by!


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