Writing for Magazines

Writing for Magazines

Many new writers find that writing for children’s magazines is a good way to break into the children’s market. However, some writers — especially writers who don’t care much for reading magazines — don’t care for the magazine market and prefer writing books. While writing for magazines is never a prerequisite for writing and publishing books, it is certainly one way to break into the market, and can provide experience in working for editors.


Did you like reading short stories when you were a child? Did you love getting magazines in the mail? Can you still remember some of the stories you read? If so, you might find your niche in writing short stories for magazines.

Magazine fiction, like all children’s fiction, needs to be lively, original, and well-grounded in the child’s world. In general younger the child you are writing for, the more real the story needs to seem. Very young children like stories about the things they’re most familiar with: mealtime, bath, bedtime, going to the library, playing with friends. A story about losing a favorite toy at the grocery store and finding it again under the vegetable bins can be an exciting adventure for a toddler. A story showing another child or animals in their bedtime routine can be a soothing read for a child who is getting ready for bed. These stories may or may not be written in rhyme, but they should have a cadence and rhythm to them. If you want to write for toddlers, read magazines geared for toddlers, such as Babybug. Think about your own experiences at that age. How did you view the world? What was important to you? What were your fears? Jot down these ideas and compare your ideas to what you see in the magazines. How could you turn these ideas into short stories?

Five-to-seven-year-olds are learning to read, and need stories that they can read with out help. They may still read concept stories that they enjoyed as toddlers, they’re branching out into folktales, fantasies, and other types of literature. Stories for this age group need real structure, a plot with a beginning, a middle, and and end — and always a happyend. Children expect their world to be orderly, and prefer stories where everything comes out all right in the end.

While the market for older readers is small, there are still a few places to publish stories for older readers. Boy’s Life, the official magazines of the Boy Scouts of America, is one long-standing and well-respected fiction market. If you study a few issues, you’ll soon have a sense of what boys this age like: exciting stories about other boys having adventures. Girls also like well-constructed stories with strong plots and plenty of action, but in addition girls like stories about people relating to other people.

Modern distractions such as television, video games, and hand-held games have reduced the time that children give to reading, and consequently writers have seen a reduction in the magazine market, as well as a move toward more graphics, less text, fewer pages, and fewer stories. The magazine fiction market has gotten tougher to break into, but a good story can often still find a place.


The meat-and-potatoes for many magazines is their non-fiction, from short columns to long articles. Most children’s magazines today emphasize non-fiction, but the kind of articles they publish varies from magazine to magazine. Even two magazines that publish the same topic may approach it from very different angles. You may see in the market guides that several dozen magazines all ask for crafts, but a craft for a teen magazine will be different from a craft for a toddler’s magazine. Even different teen magazines will want different kinds of crafts. One may prefer complex crafts, while another wants crafts that can be done with materials around the house. Another may want crafts suitable for church clubs.

The best way to become familiar with the non-fiction magazine market is to read the magazines you’re interested in writing for. Visit the children’s section of the library frequently, or buy sample copies from the magazine publishers. If there are a few magazines you’re very interested in, consider subscribing to them. It is imperative that prospective writers research the magazines they’re interested in. Otherwise, submissions are a waste of time.

Before submitting your work, find out if the magazine accepts all types of articles, or if it is are theme-based. Cobblestone publishing, for example, publishes theme-based magazines, and they publish their theme lists and deadlines on the websites for the magazines. Writing for a theme-based magazine helps solve the question of “what shall I write,” and gives the novice writer some practice in research, planning, and meeting deadlines. However, Cobblestones magazines are among the highest-quality magazines and the editors expect scholarly research behind the articles.

For magazines that are not theme-based, the writer may want to study at least a year’s worth of back issues, noting what ideas have already been published. This way, the writer doesn’t waste time and postage sending an article about Abraham Lincoln to a magazine that only recently published an article about Lincoln.

Crafts and other short material

Magazines need lots of short pieces, including crafts, puzzles, rebuses, short poems, party ideas, plays, material for columns and departments, and similar pieces. As always, the writer must study the magazine and the descriptions in a good writer’s market to understand what the magazines want in the way of short material. While these pieces seldom pay much, they are a neglected part of the children’s writing market, and often a good place for the beginner to make that important first sale.

Magazines and rights

There was a time when magazines routinely bought First North American Serial Rights for all articles and stories. This meant that they bought the rights to be the first to publish the work, and then the author was free to re-sell the work. Because stories and articles often ended up in anthologies, this could mean considerable extra income for authors who produced quality work.

Today, however, more and more magazines are buying all rights, and the First Serial Rights are becoming the exception. When a magazine buys all rights, it means that they own the work outright and can do what they want with it: publish it, anthologize it, even rewrite it with the author’s name still on it. Publishers justify the move by citing the expense of tracking down authors who have moved. Authors, however, are less than happy about giving up the rights to their work, especially fiction pieces that could end up in anthologies, or even be made into picture books.

Selling first rights or all rights is a personal decisions. Some new authors are willing to give up all rights just to make a first sale. Some established authors have given up on the magazine market altogether. Some authors don’t mind selling all rights if selling an article that was tailor-made for the magazine, but will try to negotiate to get back their rights after a set period of time.

Researching publishers


In the U.S. alone, there are thousands of book publishers, each turning out anywhere from one or two to dozens or even hundreds of books each year. Over 50,000 books are published in the U.S. annually.

Yet those 50,000 books represent somewhere between 1-3% of the total number of manuscripts submitted.

What, you say? Just a 1-3% chance of getting published? What is a writer to do in the face of such odds? Give up? Of course not! Cheat? Absolutely not! Send bribes? Not a chance. What the writer must do is to be smart and totally professional about submissions. Remember, writing may be an art and a craft, but it is also a business. Publishing, too, is a business, and the business of publishing is to sell books and magazines at a profit. In the eyes of the publisher, your precious manuscript is just another potential product, and the bottom line is, “Will this sell?”

So how do you find the right match between your manuscript and a publisher?

Understanding what goes on at the publisher

To avoid the most common and most embarassing mistakes when submitting, it helps to understand what happens to your manuscript after you put it in the mail. If it is addressed to a specific editor, it may go directly to that editor’s in box, especially if it is marked “requested material.” You ONLY mark it as such if it really has been requested; that is, you sent a query and the editor asked to see the manuscript.

Manuscripts that are not sent to a specific editor (and many that are, depending on the publisher), go to one common storage place known as the slush pile. Hired readers or junior editors have the grand pleasure of sorting the slush until their eyes cross, stuffing unwanted material back into their self-addressed return envelopes, discarding those that did not come with self-addressed return envelopes, and occasionally, very occasionally, finding something usable. Readers and editors have their orders. They know what kind of work their house accepts and what kind it does not. If your work is unsuitable for that house, it will be returned, no matter how good the writing might be.

At some publishers, all manuscripts are logged electronically. Even if they are not, it’s not uncommon for all manuscripts to end up in the common slush pile, so sending the same manuscript to different editors at the same publisher, or different imprints at the same publisher, only increases the slush pile — as well as the irritation of the readers.

Manuscripts that have some potential may be sent on to another editor, or may be brought before an editorial committee for further discussion. It is only after much discussion and debate that manuscripts to fill slots in the publishing schedule are finally selected.

For a much more in-depth look at the process of manuscript review and selection, read the darkly funny article on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America site, The Sobering Saga of Myrtle the Manuscript, by Tappan King. This is required reading for the beginner! Also check out editor Harold Underdown’s article on What Happens Inside a Children’s Publishing Company?

And if you haven’t read it already, go back and read our article on 10 Common Submissions Mistakes so you can avoid the worst.

Ready? Now let’s find a publisher.

What to do

In choosing the best publishers to approach with your work, here are some questions you should be asking yourself:

Who is my audience?

Determining the best publisher for your work begins with determining who your audience is. This may sound fairly obvious — “I’m writing for children, right?” — yet the question is not that simple. No two children are alike, so we can’t expect their tastes to be alike, either. If you read the guidelines in the Writer’s Market (see left column), you’ll see that publishers produce different works for different age groups. Within specific age groups, you may also have specific audiences, and there may be publishers which cater specifically to those audiences. For example, a picture book about a family celebrating Yom Kippur would appeal to a publisher that produces books on Judaism for young children, but would probably not go over well in a publishing house that produces primarily environmental non-fiction for older children.

Who publishes this kind of work?

Go to a library or bookstore and look for books that are similar to yours. See who publishes the books that reach your target audience. Of course if you have, for example, a book of garden crafts and you see another book of garden crafts on the shelf that has been recently published, you may not want to submit to that publisher. However, other publishers that produce garden books or craft books for kids may be interested, especially if you can tell them why your book is different from the ones that are already on the shelf.

Another excellent source of potential publishers is the trade journal Publisher’s Weekly. The subscription is expensive, but if you can find the Spring and Fall Children’s Book Editions at a bookstore or at your library (university libraries often subscribe to this journal), get them and study them. Publishers take out large, colorful advertisements and you can see and compare dozens of publishers in each issue. You can also read the book announcements to see what new books are being published or are in production.

If you have an article for a magazine, see if your library carries that magazine and read through several issues. Each magazine has its own “feel,” so writing a science article for, say, Boy’s Life will require a different approach that writing a science article for Dolphin LogorAmerican Girl.

What are the publisher’s terms?

Book publishers generally pay an advance and royalties. An advance is money paid to you ahead of time for publishing your work. It is called an “advance” because it is an “advance against royalties.” Once your book has earned back the advance, you get paid royalties. Publishers’ listings usually do not state the size of the advance, since that is negotiated individually. They will, however, give you the royalty rates. It’s best if these are calculated according to the cover price (gross) rather than the profits (net) on the book, since calculating actual profit is a tangled process, and a publisher may not claim a profit on a book for months or years.

Some publishers, especially magazines and school and library publishers, pay a flat fee for your work and buy all rights. This means that once you accept payment, the work is no longer yours. In situations of work-for-hire, where you are hired to write a specific book, this may be appropriate (see our article, “The Work-for-hire question,” for more information). However, if you have created the work yourself from the start, you would probably be reluctant to sign away all rights to it. While flat-fee terms are less common in book publishing, they are becoming more and more common in magazine publishing.

If you are submitting to magazines, the best terms are “First North American Serial Rights.” This means that the magazine pays you a fee for the right to be the first to publish your work in North America. You still retain all other rights to the work, including the right to resell it to other magazines that do reprints. You will also get paid if the magazine you sold it to puts together an anthology that includes your work. First North American Serial Rights are becoming increasingly rare in the magazine publishing world as more and more magazines are now buying all rights. Buying all rights is good for the magazine, because they don’t have to track down authors if someone asks to reprint an article, and they can take the reprint fee for themselves. Clearly, though, it’s bad for authors — though some magazines that buy all rights will contact authors if the article is reprinted and offer them part or all of the reprint fee.

What does the publisher want me to do?

Read the publisher’s guidelines carefully, either in the Writer’s Market or on the publisher’s website (not all publishers have online guidelines, but more and more have been adding them). Follow their instructions to the letter. If the publisher wants sample chapters and a synopsis, then send exactly that. Don’t send the whole manuscript. Likewise, if the publisher wants the whole manuscript, don’t send a few sample chapters. While you may get away with following your own rules once in a while with some publishers, other publishers are not amused. Remember the Myrtle the Manuscript scenario: all those editors sorting through all that slush. They’re looking for reasons to reject your manuscript. Don’t give them one up front by failing to follow their rules.

Once you have your list of potential publishers and have read their guidelines, and you have your manuscript, query, and synopsis ready if requested, you’re ready to start submitting your work.

How not to get burned

A Place to Write

Scam artists make their living by telling people what they want to hear. And what unpublished writers want to hear most is, “We want to publish you.” An intense desire to be published combined with lack of knowledge about the publishing industry leaves novice writers vulnerable to scam artists, from the “We’ll publish your book!” vanity publisher ads in the backs of magazines to full-scale rip-off artists posing as agents.

Educate yourself

The best way to protect yourself against scams is to educate yourself about the publishing industry. Read the articles on this site and other legitimate author sites. Read the books we recommend that appeal to you. Be sure you are getting advice from either real authors whose books you can find in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, or real editors with major publishers: that is to say, people who are truly experts in their field because they live it every day. Find out how the industry works, find out the rules of the road, and use the information to help you get published.

Along the way you’ll run into many people who will tell you that the advice we’re giving here is bunk, and that they know the “real” secret to getting published. Some of these are well-meaning but naive people who may have had a bit of luck to begin with, perhaps a nibble from an agent, or a book “published” by a vanity publisher that has sold a few dozen copies. Others are professional scammers. Both can get you into trouble and cause you to waste time and money on fruitless pursuits.

It’s also wise to educate yourself about the scam artists that are out there. We recommend these websites:

  • Preditors and Editors (yes, that is how they spell it, for alliterative purposes): an extensive site with information on many, many editors, agents, book doctors, publishers, and more.
  • Writer Beware: a service of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Association.

Never, ever pay for “publication” or representation

Real publishers pay YOU for the right to make your work public. Real agents get paid only when they sell your work. Any company calls itself a “publisher” but wants your money is a vanity press. Any agent who wants you to pay a “reading fee” is a fee-charging agent and is suspect.

The exception to this rule is if you want to self-publish. In that case, you MUST learn everything you can about self-publication before you begin. Research printing and publication services, find out how to get a copyright, learn where you can buy an ISBN number and bar code, find out about distribution, develop a business plan and a marketing plan, find a good copy editor, and be prepared to promote and market your own book.

Fee-charging “publishers”

Vanity presses have a long history in the publishing industry. They usually take out ads in writer’s magazines, with glowing text such as, “Get published now!” or “Authors wanted!” Strictly speaking, a vanity press is one that charges fees and has little or nothing in the way of editorial selection. You send them the book, you shell out several thousands of dollars, they may create the cover art, they do the layout, they ship you several boxes of books, and there you sit with your books and no place to sell them.

The line between vanity presses and legitimate self-publishing blurs a bit when it comes to print-on-demand (POD) services. Some of these services are straightforward print shops for people who want to self-publish. They may offer a range of services, from layout to cover design to printing. The best ones allow you to use the name of your own imprint (your own publishing company). Many PODs, however, put their own imprint on the book. A few PODs have gained the respect of major booksellers, but most are still nothing more than vanity presses. PODs with free or low-cost packages can be useful if you plan on producing small numbers of books, such as collection of family memoirs that your relatives all want copies of. Before using any POD service, do an online search on the phrase “POD reviews” and find the latest reviews on POD services. A few companies are very good, but most are mediocre to dismal, so do your research thoroughly before signing anything. If you want to self-publish, you’re better off avoiding vanity presses and PODs, creating your own publishing company, and finding a good printing and distribution service such as Books Just Books.

One of the worst cases of a fee-charging “publisher” was the case of “Press-TIGE” publications, owned and operated by scam artist Martha Ivery (who also operated as a fee-charging scam agent under the name of Kelly O’Donnell). In 2005, Ms. Ivery wasindicted in federal court for multiple charges of fraud. In short, over the course of more than a decade, Ivery promised the moon, charged thousands, and delivered nothing, bilking people out of their savings and creating only heartbreak.

Even POD services that do not charge fees may not be worth an author’s time. Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s “Writer Beware” pages warn about PublishAmerica, a POD posing as a “traditional” publisher but with next to no selection criteria. See their review of PublishAmerica. PublishAmerica has also been named in a lawsuit by several of its authors, who charge that the company engages in misleading practices.

Fee-charging agents

We once read a post from a fee-charging agent on a writer’s board saying that the publishing industry has become so competitive, and there are so many agents out there competing for fewer and fewer publishing slots, that the only way that agents can make it in today’s market is to charge fees. That agent is now long out of business, so perhaps this agent simply couldn’t make it at all, fees or no. However, consider what this agent was telling authors: “I’m not very good at selling manuscripts, so I’ll charge you money instead of making a living on the commissions I get from actually selling your work.”

Is this an agent you want working for you?

Some agents also say that they use fees to “screen” their manuscripts, stating that fees assure that only serious authors send their work. This is pure bunk. While a fee may indeed deter some authors, it is no guarantee that the manuscripts that are sent are of better quality. Poor writers can be serious about getting published as are talented, experienced writers. And talented, experienced writers have no use for fee-charging agents.

An agent who charges fees has already made money from your work. The agent has far less incentive to actually market your work than the agent who works strictly on commission. A true commission-based agent works hard to sell your manuscript. A fee-charging agent might work to sell your manuscript, but if he or she needs money, it’s a whole lot easier to take out an ad in a magazine and harvest more fees. Who would you rather have working for you: an agent who is hungry to sell your work, or an agent who is hungry to collect more clients and their fees?

One recent case of a scam agency was the Helping Hand, a.k.a. Janet Kay & Associates agency, run by George Harrison Titsworth and Janet Kay Titsworth in San Angelo, Texas. The “agency” collected up-front fees for their services, but did very little for their clients in return. If they did anything, it was to send out blanket, untargeted, inappropriate submissions. According an article on Writer Beware, at least one editor begged the agency to stop sending manuscripts, and no records exist of any actual sales. When the office was raided, law enforcement agents found hundreds, if not thousands, of manuscripts still sitting unopened in their envelopes, long after they’d been received. The Titsworths were indicted by a grand federal jury in December of 2004 on multiple cases of fraud.

Red flags

When submitting, you always want to ask yourself: Is this publisher or agent legitimate or not? Here are a few red flags to look for:

  • Fees: Anyone who charges fees for “publication,” or who charges anything more than incidental copy or postage costs for representation, should be avoided, except in the case of printing services for self-publishers.
  • Advertising: Legitimate publishing companies and agencies have many, many more manuscripts than they can possibly use. They don’t have to advertise in the back of magazines to attract authors. When publishers take out ads, it’s in the form of full-page ads in Publisher’s Weekly and other industry journals to advertise their new books, not to fish for authors. (Ads for very good printing services for self-publishing, on the other hand, can also be found in the back of writers’ magazines.)
  • Quality of published material: If you suspect you’re dealing with a vanity press posing as a legitimate publisher, see if you can find excerpts from books on their website. If you’re serious about using their services, try to get at least one copy of an actual book as well, so that you can judge the quality of the materials and binding, especially if you’re working with a POD. If they seem to publish just about anything, and the quality of the writing, materials, or both is poor, it’s a vanity press.
  • Disparages “traditional” publishing: If the agent or publisher has disparaging things to say about “traditional” publishing (that is, selective publishers who pay you for the rights to publish your work), and wants money from you, run away.
  • Agencies that do not list agents’ names: If you can only find the name of the agency on the website or agency literature, and cannot find the names of individual agents, you’re probably not dealing with a legitimate agency. At best, it’s an agency that simply makes copies of your work and sends it out indiscriminately. Real editors deal with agents, not agencies, and they know the best agents by name.
  • The agent refuses to disclose a list of recently represented, published books: In the name of “client confidentiality,” scam agents may refuse to give you the names of any books they have represented. Agents who have represented books that have done well in the market usually want to advertise the fact. If the agent won’t tell you which books she has represented, perhaps she hasn’t represented any at all.
  • A publisher who is not listed in the Writers Market: Some small presses and even some large ones choose not to be listed for various legitimate reasons: they’re already overrun with manuscripts, they are very specialized, or they have some issue with market guides. A publisher that appears to be a large publisher, but is not listed in several year’s worth of writers market guides (check a used bookstore for old guides), may be suspect. This by itself is not a sure test of the worth of a publisher, so check for other red flags as well.
  • An agent who is not listed with AAR: TheAssociation of Author’s Representatives is a national association for literary agents. Agents must adhere to a canon of ethics in order to belong to the organization. Not every legitimate agent joins, and an illegitimate agent or two might slip through for a time, but the list nevertheless serves as a valuable litmus test.
  • Books not found in a bookstore: For this, you must look beyond Amazon.com, because anyone with any book between two covers can get listed on Amazon. This is great for small publishers and self-publishers, but if you’re judging the legitimacy of a publisher, check your local bookstore. Ask if they have anything in stock by that publisher. If not, ask if they can order the publisher’s books from their distributor. Many small publishers may not list with your bookstore’s distributor, so this is not a sure test by itself, just a suspicion. Look for other red flags as well.
  • Negative reviews on Preditors and Editors or Writer Beware: Check out these sites when researching any publisher, and especially if you’re planning to use a POD to self-publish. Writer Beware, particularly, has substantiated alerts.

Crafting a Plot

Crafting a Plot
Image: collegetribune.ie

Getting an idea, once you’ve practiced idea generation, is the easiest part of writing. Turning the idea into a finished book — that’s the hard part!

Creating a plot requires a certain amount of organization. Some writers can simply start at the beginning and write all the way to the end, but most writers find that they need some kind of organizational tool or underlying plot theory to keep their stories coherent, whether they are writing a short picture book or a long, involved novel.

There are as many ways to craft a plot as there are writers, and each new project may require a different approach. While some writers of “how to write” books may insist that some particular method is the “right” method, most writers acknowledge that what works for them may not work for others.

Outline or no outline?

Horror writer Stephen King says that he never works from an outline. Other writers insist that good writing can’t be done without an outline. Even those writers who claim that they never use an outline may in fact have an outline in their heads, holding the structure of the plot in their imagination as they work. Not all of us have that kind of genius, and need some kind of written structure to keep our stories from wobbling out of control.

By “outline” we don’t necessarily mean the standard Harvard outline that we all learned in English class, with its Roman numeral headers, sub-topics, and all. While the Harvard outline can be extremely valuable in structuring nonfiction, fiction often requires something more flexible.

An “outline” can be any kind of visual device that you use to organize your plot. It may be a spider-web-like mind map. It may be a series of storyboards, such as movie directors use. It may be a series of ideas written on index cards or sticky notes and stuck to a wall, where they can be endlessly rearranged. It may be a table consisting of chapter titles and the main action in each chapter. Many word processors come equipped with outliners, and there are many types of software that will outline or create visual mind maps (Inspiration is one that many people like). An outline for a work of fiction is a dynamic document. It gives you direction, but it is more a predicted outcome than an actual road map.

In Creating Unforgettable Stories for Children, an excellent introduction into the art of plot crafting, Nancy Lamb shows how she uses chapter-by-chapter charts to plan the main action and the side plots, which helps integrate the side plots into the action. James Frey, author of How to Write a Damn Good Novel and The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth, uses the structure of the classic hero tale as a structure for exciting action novels, and uses a “stepsheet,” a summary of the main events chapter-by-chapter, to plan the action in the novel. Jack Bickham in Scene and Structure shows how to analyze a novel into scenes (action) and sequels (reflection, planning, deciding on new action), a technique useful not only for planning a novel, but for rescuing a novel that has spun out of control. Robert Ray in The Weekend Novelist begins with a sweeping overview of the story’s main action, using either a linear or a circular structure, and building from there.

Basic structure

A plot needs a beginning, a middle, and and end. That seems obvious enough, yet writers struggle with all three. Where should the story begin? Should it start in the middle of some action scene, or should it give some background first? What is the best way to put the scenes together to show a clear, consistent story without sidetracking? What is the best ending for the story? How do I make the ending strong, rather than just letting the action dribble away, or give an abrupt “the end”?


The beginning of your story is a crucial period because this is where you grab the reader and give the reader a reason to keep on going. The beginning is where the reader gets a sense of what the book is all about. The opening lines themselves usually give a clue about the action of the novel. Consider the classic opening of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth, universally, acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

This delightfully tongue-in-cheek opening accomplishes three tasks: first, it establishes that this story will be a humorous romance, thus giving the reader a first clue into the plot (which in fact is summarized in those two lines). Second, it sets up a problem. Whose daughter is this young man perceived to be the property of? What are the young man’s and the young woman’s views on that supposition? Third, it hints at conflict to come. What if someone disagrees with the common assumption?

Hints at the content of the book, the problem, and the conflict are three things to address in the beginning, preferably on the first page or two. It is also important to show the main character and to reveal what kind of person that character is, not by telling (which was common in early novels but is less used today), but by showing the character in actions that reveal his or her character. Finally, the opening needs to establish the setting, both in time and place, which should be done through description. A character wearing bobby socks and Mary Jane shoes who is reading a “Buy War Bonds” poster is established as belonging to the WWII era, just as a character listening to Caruso on a wind-up Victrola as a Model-T rolls by outside belongs to the 1920’s.


For many writers, the middle can quickly turn into a muddle. The middle is where tight structure is most strongly needed, so that the action moves forward and each scene contributes to the structure of the story. Some classic stories from the early 20th century, including the later Anne of Green Gables books, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and C.S. Forester’s Mr. Midshipman Hornblower(one of the Horatio Hornblower novels), are more a series of exciting vignettes than a complete story in and of themselves. While this structure was acceptable at the time, it is less so today. With a few exceptions, editors today want books that are one complete story, where each action leads logically to the next.

But how does one keep the action going? How do you get a character all the way from New Jersey to Los Angeles on a Greyhound bus without describing the whole dull trip? Do you add exciting things along the way, shoving in car wrecks or bus hijackings just for the excitement? Do you simply say, “Five days later, Jason stepped out of the bus in Los Angeles” and leave it at that? How do you decide what is necessary and what is unnecessary in your story?

In Creating Unforgettable Stories for Children, Nancy Lamb discusses “Throughline,” a term used by Hollywood screen writers. Throughline is the central plot point, the impelling and motivating theme that leads the main character all the way from the beginning to the end: Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind strives to keep Tara against all odds; Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars saga strives to be a Jedi knight and battle the evil Emperor against all temptations to join the Dark Side; Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Ozwants to go home to Kansas. All action revolves around the Throughline. There are obstacles to the main character’s goals (Yankees; Darth Vader; the Wicked Witch of the West), and there are helpers along the way (Rhett Butler; Yoda; the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion). There is no negotiating the Throughline; the main character is determined to achieve it, even if it’s clear to the reader that the goal is unattainable or that achieving it is going to cause more suffering to the characters than it’s worth.

Once the throughline is established, the story should be structured around how the character attempts to achieve the goal, and what obstacles the character must overcome to achieve it. This is where classic dramatic structure can be useful. The structure of classic drama calls for rising action with conflict and complications, then a climax with the major confrontation, and finally the falling action which consists of reversal and resolution, coming to the last moment of suspense and the final conclusion. This structure can be followed not only in the overall plot, but within each scene. Even plots that have a circular rather than a linear structure may have the classic dramatic structure embedded in the individual scenes.

Once the overall action is decided upon, an analysis of the scenes themselves can be useful, especially if they’re not holding together well. Jack Bickham in Scene and Structure discusses the uses of “scene” and “sequel” in structuring action.

Scenes are action events, while sequels are reflective events that follow the action and lead to the next action. A scene begins with a goal. The character wants something. Next comes conflict, where the character is prevented from achieving that goal. Finally, the scene ends either in disaster (the character can’t attain the goal) or triumph (the character succeeds, whether it’s the final success or an accomplishment along the way).

Sequels come between action scenes. A sequel is characterized by an emotion that the character feels following the end of the scene. The emotion leads to thought as the character ponders what happened or discusses it with others, and thought leads to a decision as the character chooses what to do next.

The relative lengths of scene and sequel vary from novel to novel. A literary novel has long sequels, as characters are more likely to think about and talk about their situation than they are to engage in action. A dramatic spy novel has longer scenes and shorter sequels, as the reader is carried from one exciting event to another, leaving little room for contemplation, except perhaps as the main character decides what weapon to use or what escape route to follow.

When a novel bogs down, it can be helpful to write a summary of the action, then use highlighters or colored fonts to color-code scene and sequel. Too much sequel and not enough scene can make a novel drag. Too much scene and not enough sequel can lead to choppy action that seems pointless. The scene is where the action happens, but the sequel gives the reason for the action.


After laboring through hundreds of pages of a manuscript, it can be tempting to end it at the end of the final climax, and say, “They lived happily ever after. The end.” However, an abrupt ending leaves the reader dissatisfied, and may leave too many loose ends untied. A prolonged ending, on the other hand, is tedious, and may give too much information.

Should the ending be happy or sad? This depends in part on the age you are writing for. Young children want stories with happy endings — happy at least for the main character, who achieves what he or she wants. Some middle-grade novels may have sad endings, though they may also be uplifting in some way. Young Adult novels, which are more likely to deal with painful subjects, are more open to the sad ending than are books for young children.

Whether happy or sad, the ending should fulfill all the promises you made as you wrote. A mystery should end with a solution. A humorous story should end with a punch line and a laugh. A love story should end with The Boy and The Girl happily engaged or married. Sad endings, too, should have some kind of satisfaction to them. Sinners should find a path to redemption. Characters in pain should find relief.

Never, never pull a “fast one” on the reader, such as the tired old “and Jane woke up to find it was all a dream” ending. Don’t suddenly bring in characters that the reader hasn’t seen yet, such as some long-lost cousin that the main character coincidentally runs into, who also coincidentally has the sure solution to the main character’s problem. And don’t employ a deus ex machina solution; that is, the heavens should never just open up and drop a solution into the main character’s lap. If the character is locked up in a jail cell, it’s unlikely that there will be a convenient hacksaw hidden under a conveniently loose floorboard just waiting for the character to find it, unlessthe reader knows ahead of time that someone else has put it there, knowing that the main character would be locked up. Refusing to pull a “fast one” on the reader is part of keeping the promises of the story.