Teachers Write 7/29 Mini-Lesson Monday with Shutta Crum

Good morning! How was everybody’s weekend? Great, I hope!

Today’s mini-lesson is from guest author Shutta Crum, who writes picture books, novels and poetry. She is also a storyteller, a public speaker and a librarian. Her articles about writing have appeared in many professional journals. Her book, THUNDER-BOMER! (Clarion) was an Amer. Library Assoc. and a Smithsonian Magazine “Notable Book.”  MINE! (Albert A. Knopf) was listed in the New York Times as one of the best board books of the year. Her newest book, DOZENS OF COUSINS (Clarion) came out in July, to glowing reviews.


Have you ever read one of those books where all along you’re wondering why didn’t the main character just  . . . call the police, tell a parent (take whatever action, any reasonable person would) and then he/she would not be in this predicament? I can tell you that one of John Grisham’s books annoyed me greatly that way. (I won’t tell you which title, in case it is one you like.) I simply could not suspend my disbelief . . . I kept wondering why doesn’t the kid just tell everybody and then the bad guys wouldn’t have been solely after him to shut him up.

When an author doesn’t take care of these kinds of loose ends he/she risks losing a reader. A character—especially a main character—must consider and act as any rational person would unless there is a compelling reason not to do the sensible thing.

If you really want to put pressure on your protagonist, and pump up the action, you need to corner your “prey”—your main character (MC). After all, part of creating plot is putting the hurt on your characters. The way to do this is that with every major cause and effect link in your plot, you need to be sure to securely close any escape routes. As you do this, you are narrowing the choices of your MC until your MC must make the hard decision you’ve wanted him/her to make all along. Then you’ll have your reader glued to the page.

Let me give you examples from two of my own works. In my teen novel, SPITTING IMAGE, (Clarion), a young girl wants to find out who her father is, and her mother won’t talk about him. As it turns out, her mother had been raped. Now, no mother who truly loves her child is going to willingly tell the truth about that. So I had to take away the mother’s options and corner her in such a way that she had no choice but to tell her daughter the truth. If she hadn’t, the one person in town who knew the truth would have spilled the beans in a most unkind way.  Doing this made for a much stronger, and well-reviewed book, that made a number of prestigious lists.

In my younger fantasy novel, THOMAS AND THE DRAGON QUEEN (Knopf), the whole plot is a simple one of elimination. Thomas starts out on his quest with three things to help him (the traditional armor, sword, and steed). Along the way he gives away, loses, or has stolen from him all the items—even most of his clothes. All of his options as he prepares to do battle with the dragon queen have been slowly stripped away. When he does meet her, he is barefoot and clad in a pair of ragged trousers. There is only one thing he can do—it’s a dangerous gamble, and it is precisely what I wanted him to do. He does it, because it is his only remaining choice.

In each novel I write, and in many of my picture books, I have to determine what the “easy outs” are along the way. Then I write scenes that eliminate each alternative “logical” action. Only then am I able to bring both my MC and my reader to the point where I want them. By using this thinking, I am able to more easily determine what my scenes should be. If a scene does not contribute to the eliminating of alternatives in the furtherance of the plot, then it has to be there for another very good reason (such as character development), or it gets cut.

What I recommend is to stop periodically and ask what are the possible options for my character(s) at this precise point in the story? (You should do this at least four to six times. More is better.)  List the options from the most to the least likely; including the step you want your MC, or other major character, to take. And then make sure you have written scenes that block any other reasonable choice from being made. After all, this process of constantly evaluating our situation and making decisions by eliminating choices is something we humans do naturally. You need to do it on behalf of your characters.  (See tomorrow’s Quick Write for an exercise to practice this technique of stopping and blocking.)

In the comments today, feel free to list options for your character – or simply reflect on today’s mini-lesson!






8 Replies on “Teachers Write 7/29 Mini-Lesson Monday with Shutta Crum

  1. Hi Shutta,
    Thank you for your post today! I’ve enjoyed clicking around your website and reading some of your articles. I’m starting a new picture book, and was interested in those links, etc. you posted. Very helpful.

    Today’s mini-lesson makes me think about my “character” in a different way…again! You are all so good at making me think this summer. And, these mini-lessons and writing prompts are letting me get to know my characters better. I love the title “Cornering your Character”, and the brainstorming of MC options is a challenge. I’ve only found a few:

    MC options are to:
    give up
    walk off
    keep running
    listen to his father and follow the journey
    listen to his coach and know he’s “not good enough”
    set his goal too high
    set his goal too low

    Maybe I’m not looking at this the right way. I’m thinking it’s too broad, too wide of a view of his options. How do I really delve into the possible choices? How do I make them more specific..to pinpoint the exact options. Or, are these on the right track?

    Thanks for your insight…and making me think!

  2. Connecting dots… In moments of composition, if I consider my main character’s choices, crossing out all but one option via moments of micro-tension that incrementally kick the crap out of said character, I can concoct something compelling! Thanks Teachers Write (specifically, Shutta, Lisa, and Joanne for the mini lessons; and Kate, as always, for pulling this all together).

  3. Thank you! My MG character has several points at which she could decide to rebel, she doesn’t. (She does choose self-expression when it is an option.) The mom learns and changes due to this. In this case the character would feel backed into a corner by the actions of her mom. Adding this internal dialogue will add needed tension and conflict, and dimension to the characters’ relationship.

    1) She could struggle with the desire to play the photography game her grandma wants to play with her.
    2) She could leave her mess in the hall to let her mother know she is home.
    3) She could decide to wear something different to a family gathering than her mom (a fashion photographer) has left for her.

    I can see/hear an internal dialogue, which is already established, explaining these things. And now I need to think of why she doesn’t-

  4. Thanks for the tip. In addition to helping my MC decide each of his hard decisions along the way, when he comes to the final BIG DECISION, my reader won’t say, “Wait, a minute — that’s not the way the MC would handle this crucial decision.”

  5. Shutta, thanks for this mini lesson! This is one of those things that really bugs me when I read a book! I hope I’ve been reasonably aware of tying up these loose ends in my own writing so far.

    My main character is faced with the problem of her father’s volunteer fire station getting closed down. This is important to her, because the fire company families are like her second family, and almost all of her friends are kids she knows through the firehouse. I’ve closed some doors by creating adults who are sad or disappointed by this news, but they are all too busy or too defeated to try and stop this shutdown from happening. So, the MC, Cora, and her friends start to piece together their own plan for saving the fire company. Since I know that letting these kids have success with this endeavor is not very realistic, either, they will fail, but I have a happy plot twist planned to save the day at the end.

  6. Shutta,
    Thanks so much for a very helpful mini lesson today. I am also bothered when authors do not close up loose ends. Once you leave something open that the MC could do but doesn’t, you take your reader’s mind off your story and onto your plotting. And once that happens, your reader is not able to fully enjoy your writing the way you want them to.

    I like your suggestion to “corner” your MC and write a scene to handle every possibility. When you do this as a writer, you are in charge. When you do it as a reader, you are just a disappointed reader. I’ll use this easy and very useful technique. Thanks so much for sharing!

  7. As always, your insights are very helpful. I’ve just finished Picture Book Academy with Mira Reisberg, and will be able to use this technique when redoing my picture book dummy that had too many loose ends. Thanks again and thanks Kate for your invaluable posts.