If your daughter or son has ever taken a story course or workshop from us, they’ve probably heard us say “Make Us Worry.”
It’s advice that many young writers from elementary school through high school have never heard before, mostly because it sounds dangerous. Even taboo.
But ask your young writer to craft a story that makes us worry, and typically you will see a smile that would put the Joker to shame.
Because here’s their chance to force their readers to sit on the edge of their seats.
Now, at the helm of their imagination, young writers can re-create the thrill of tension and conflict they've felt from all the stories they've read.
Watch them relish making you squirm!
1. Capture Our Attention With A Threat Of Danger
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
A story that “grabs us by the collar” and pulls us into its world is most likely either:
- making us curious,
- making us say, "Whoa!"
- making us care about the character, or
- making us worry with a sense of impending doom.
Many young writers will begin a story with a typical hero who has modest goals and a normal life. That’s fine. But, most writers intuitively know that soon the character's world will turn upside down.
We call this a "pivot" going from a Happy-Normal state to one that is filled with Stress,Tension, and Anxiety.
Look what happens when we encourage the “Make Us Worry” idea to 8-year-old (4th Grader) Aeshon.
Tex is a normal cowboy. He's happy and wants to win a rodeo. Great!
But, soon we're introduced to a dinosaur who has his evil plans set against Tex. This enemy's arrival makes us sit up and pay close attention.
Here's Aeshon's simple, but fun story, “Tex And The Mystery Of The Bull,” from our Bones of Mystery Anthology.
Tex And The Mystery Of The Bull
Once there was a cowboy named Tex. Tex was a tall man who wore a wide-brimmed hat, a vest, jeans, and a belt. He lived underground in his secret house. Tex’s dream was to win all the rodeos held in Texas. But he had an enemy.
His enemy was Dinomonster, a huge dinosaur whose dream was to get rid of Tex once and for all. He looked sort of like a Gigantosaurus or a T.Rex. He lived in a cavern off the coastline of Texas. Dinomonster wanted to get rid of Tex because Tex was always ruining his plans to take over Texas.
One day, while listening to the radio, Tex heard that Texas was having a rodeo. He thought that this might be his golden chance to win a rodeo trophy. So he immediately signed up as a contestant.
Dinomonster heard the news too and was overjoyed for a different reason, though. He thought this was a great opportunity to get rid of Tex. Finally, I can make my dream come true, he thought. So he went to his laboratory to work on his latest trap for Tex.
2. Present a Doozy of a Problem
Uh-oh. Looks like Tex is about to face Dinomonster in a disastrous way. In the middle of a public rodeo no less!
This calls upon our second tip about worry.
We as readers want to see the hero face a DOOZY OF A PROBLEM.
A hyper-intelligent dinosaur with robotic skills and who wants to take over Texas is NOT a small problem.
The bigger the challenge, the more our readers' ears are perked and our eyes widen.
What will happen to Tex?! To Texas?!
If possible, especially in the beginning of a story, add a sense of foreboding about the future. It will help to grab our readers and hook them into our story.
If done well, this worrying, doozy of a problem will create a target for our hero to achieve.
Along the way, every trial that she passes will be one step closer towards the final showdown with the big boss and the big problem he or she created.
Will the hero succeed against the big villain?
Hmm. I don't know! Against a dinosaur like the one in the picture above, I'd say I'm kind of worried for our hero!
3. Ask BIG QUESTIONS About Your Characters
Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels
Seriously, will the hero resolve their problem in the end?
That's up to our young writer to create!
When Aeshon introduces Dinomonster, we can’t help but conjure a series of boot-quaking questions.
- What kind of sneaky traps will Dinomonster create?
- Is he intellectually powerful as he is physically strong?
- Why does he want to “get rid” of Tex?
- How will Tex thwart Dinomonster from “getting rid” of him?
- What skills does Tex have to control such an impossible enemy?
- What is the worst thing that can happen to Tex? (Yeah, every young writer says "DEATH!") What's worse even beyond his death? Maybe that his family and friends are the target of Dinomoster's wrath? That would send Tex towards Dinomonster no matter the cost to his own life!
With these questions, we as readers can't help but think of some of our own answers and possibilities.
Already we’re anticipating a conflict that we can’t help but watch!
This leads us to a classic tip for story writers...
4. "Torture Your Heroes!"
Sounds bad doesn't? Aren't we as storytellers supposed to save our hero!
Actually, we should think of ourselves as experts in getting our heroes into trouble.
We're also great at throwing all kinds of obstacles at them, and making them suffer.
Our hero's might be shouting, running, outsmarting, and even crying as they move forward towards their goal. This shows us how human they are, and at the same time how they can have these emotions and still be determined to save the world.
Eventually, even the toughest of heroes like Superman need to meet their match.
If they don't, and never face their greatest fears, then we may never know what is truly important for them.
Is it family and friends? Is it to preserve peace?
We "torture" our heroes to show all the human emotions pent up in her or him. It's what makes us care for her or him. It also makes relate to them.
If a superman can feel despair, we may not feel so bad when it happens to us. We also can see how they rise out of it.
In the end, by throwing your heroes into impossible situations, and torturing them a little (or a lot) whether physically or emotionally, you can be sure your readers will be hooked to see what will happen to them and their story.
It's the ultimate emotional roller coaster ride.
5. Uh-oh. A Dark Cloud is Approaching. Impending Doom.
Photo by Anas Alhajj on Unsplash
Before a high stakes confrontation with an enemy, like Voldemort (Oops, I said his name!), typically there are Warnings and Plans to prepare for the worst.
This is what we call an impending doom. Every story has this to some degree. As the story moves forward, the looming cloud above our heroes adds more pressure, anxiety, stress, and even guilt.
As negative as this may sound, it has a purpose.
- It adds anticipation and gives us a chill to what the future holds.
- Without impending doom, the hero may not be pressured towards her or his journey.
- It can serve a cliffhanger.
For Aeshon’s impending doom, we expect that Tex will eventually end up with a final face-to-face confrontation with Dinomonster.
Under this big umbrella of worry are all the hero’s challenging trials, moments of victory, separation and betrayal, defeat, and determined come-back.
These are all emotions and personal transformations that our hero must undergo to become more resilient and wiser.
During the course of the story, our hero will not only learn to master their skills, but themselves. These are all lessons that we as humans can learn from studying story. But that's for another article!
Here’s what happens next in Aeshon’s story.
At last, the day came. Tex rode his trusty steed, Bullet, to the rodeo. According to the rules, he was supposed to tame the maddest bull of all time, Charger.
He rode to the arena, and gulped. “Just try your best, and you’ll be fine,” he told himself. He dismounted his horse, and walked up to his opponent, the bull, who really took after his name. The bull was actually a robot built by Dinomonster that was programmed to charge whenever it saw Tex.
Finally, the starter sounded the whistle. The bull went wild.
I love this cliffhanger! Impending doom! I can only imagine how this might feel like torture for Tex!
Now, let's see how a slightly older student handles Worry, Doozy of a Problem, Torture your Hero, and Impending Doom.
This from 11-year-old (6th grader) Tyler M.
THE STORY OF TRIN GURNAM
It all started when I was a kid. It was exactly my tenth birthday. All was going well until all hell broke loose. That time, my mother and father were at my side.
“Happy Birthday, my son. Hope this will be the best birthday you will ever have.” My father patted my back. “Well, mommy and I have to go to work, so have fun with your friends.”
That was the last sentence I ever heard from my parents. They never came back after that. You know how when it is your birthday, you kinda get to slack off, no homework, no parents, no everything. That was when the guiks attacked. It was all so quick that I don’t remember the details.
“Heyaaaaa!” The guiks jumped out of their hiding place and attacked our small town. Next thing I knew, everything was on fire. The acrid smell of the fire was almost unbearable, and I could barely breathe from the smoke.
I was about to run away when I realized something very important. My mother and father were missing. I scanned the area to see that the place where they worked was on fire...
“No!” I ran foward, but a guik got a hold of me and wacked his club against my head. I saw stars and everything went black. The last thing I heard before I passed out was this.
“This was the way it was meant to be...” It echoed in my head. Then I fainted.
Impending doom, with its warnings, plans, prophecies, observations, all makes our nerves subtly shake. When the action arrives, our blood begins to race, and our arteries tighten.
The thrill of fear and worry sharpens our minds to attention.
We become slightly more aware and hang on to every word that is presented to us.
What will happen to Tex?
What will happen to Trin?
We as readers can only know by reading the real story. Ahh!
Until then, write your own by placing “Make us Worry” at the forefront of your mind as you write. In another post, we’ll talk about an equally important technique we call “Make us Care.”
Mastering these simple ideas will help you or your young one write a story worth cherishing.
And, you might be surprised just how excited how you or their friends will want to read the next one too!
If you have a story excerpt to share, feel free to let me know.
I'd love to read it!