For Writers

Writing Bingeable Books

What makes a TV show “bingeable”? What makes you click ‘next episode’ on your streaming service or faithfully plop on the couch when your favorite shSecrets of Sulphur Springs Splash Pageow comes? It’s something that I think about when I watch TV, and I watch a lot of TV. One show that I recently binged was The Secrets of Sulphur Springs on Disney+. In it, a 12 year old boy and his family move into a run-down and supposedly haunted hotel. As strange events occur, they boy and his best friend try to solve the mystery behind the disappearance of the young girl who they believe is haunting them. It’s the kind of spooky, mysterious, and slightly science-fiction story that is guaranteed to pique my interest.

But after binging all 11 episodes of the first season, I started to realize what kept pulling me in hour after hour. Each episode is a puzzle onto itself, and its resolution would provide small clues to the overarching mystery of the series. These clues were tiny, just enough to get me to continue watching until the next episode.

It made me start looking at my own stories, and how I plot them. How can we, as writers, create bingeable books? I think that it’s by giving our characters a goal and making sure that the resolution of that goal contributes to the larger story just enough to make the reader want to turn the page and see what happens next.

Our namesake, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is a great example of this, and more mysteries can be found on the following booklists:

From the Mixed Up Files Cover

Mysteries in Bookstores and Libraries, at Book Fairs and Festivals, in Literary Landmarks, and Other Literary Places

Middle-Grade Mysteries, Spy, & Sci-fi stories featuring South Asian Characters: Interview and Giveaway with Sheela Chari

Diversity in MG lit #19 August 2020 Mysteries

But a book doesn’t need to be a mystery to be “bingeable”. What are some MG books that you couldn’t put down?

Motifs in Middle Grade

Motifs are the workhorses of the literary device world. Unlike a one-line simile or a bit of hyperbole that might briefly spark the reader’s imagination before they turn the page, a motif—by definition—is woven throughout a story. To recognize a motif, a reader must comprehend the book as a whole and be savvy enough to catch individual repeated details throughout chapters and scenes. When the reader connects those dots, motifs support the book’s deeper meaning. They complement and enrich plot and characterization. Motifs can also serve as story glue, giving the reader grab-loops to grasp (the way a preschooler takes hold of a rope line). They provide continuity and recognizability—especially if the text is on the longer side.

Well-constructed motifs are perfect for MG! While it’s true that motif as a device is traditionally explored via lit class classics (like the color red in The Scarlet Letter or instances of watchfulness in The Great Gatsby), motifs certainly play a role in many middle grade novels. Let’s take a look at motif by the (literary) dictionary definition; then, we’ll find examples in some modern-day MG stories.

Motif is easy to understand if you’ve ever decorated a room or planned a party around some thematic idea. Imagine you plan to redecorate a kitchen; inspired by some wall hooks in the shape of lighthouses, you also pick out lighthouse border, lighthouse wall prints, a lighthouse soap dispenser… Your lighthouse motif guides the overall project and ties the space together.

In storytelling, motifs are the same kind of repeated, same-yet-different idea. You can bring out a motif in imagery, events, actions, objects, and figurative language. Generally, motifs satisfy readers (whether consciously or unconsciously) who enjoy patterns, structure, sense, and logic in their stories.

Well-structured motifs carry significance and contribute to theme, as well. If a story has a lighthouse motif, what do all those lighthouses mean? Is a character trying to find his or her way, but struggling? Now the motif satisfies the reader who loves connections, deeper meanings, and rich symbolism.

In the very popular Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, the crime motif appears in both apparent and subtle ways. Once the kids learn about the crime that inspired Mr. Lemoncello’s construction of the library, they solve the final puzzles and escape. So the motif certainly supports the plot (the only way to escape follows the path of long-ago bank criminals). Along the way, scenes and subplots highlight writers of crime fiction, historical criminals, and the students’ own “crimes”: lying, theft, unkindness. Because those who commit the crimes lose the game, this crime motif supports the book’s overall messages about fair play, teamwork, and kindness.

In Inside Out and Back Again, Ha shares her experiences as a refugee to America over the course of a calendar year, so holidays are a natural motif. As she begins and ends the year with Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, and tries to learn about American holidays in between, the holiday motif supports a theme of growth, change, and accepting new traditions while maintaining those Ha knows and loves.

The more recent Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar includes a motif of cultural experiences that represent the different backgrounds of immigrants in the book. The food shared by Ramu, the altar in Chicho’s apartment, and Mami’s Cuban coffee all serve to provide  main character Ruthie with opportunities to consider how immigrants from many different places now live side by side in America, supporting a theme of acceptance.

If you are a writer, consider how these skillfully-executed motifs serve the overall story. Adding effective motifs can help to support or clarify a tricky theme. If you are a teacher or librarian, try having student readers work in small groups to brainstorm instances of a motif in their current novel. Provide the first motif, but encourage the discovery and exploration of other motifs along the way; many middle grade language arts students will love a search-and-find assignment looking for instances of a motif.

Magic Systems for Non-Magicians

I’ve been thinking about magic systems lately. To be more accurate, author Brandon Sanderson has spent a lot of time thinking about magic systems and lately, I’ve been thinking about how to apply his theories to other types of writing.

Sanderson’s Laws are popular guides to writing in the fantasy genre. Sanderson distinguishes between hard magic systems and soft magic systems, with most applications of fictional magic falling somewhere in between. On the harder side of the spectrum, magic has strict rules that can’t be broken. On the softer side, anything goes and new rules seem to be created on the fly.

Sanderson’s Laws aren’t about those laws of magic, but offer guidance to authors on how to incorporate systems of magic into their storytelling.

Among the examples Sanderson uses to apply his rules are the fantasy systems in Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and…superheroes. In fact, he writes an extensive analysis of the laws of a universe that would allow Superman to exist.

We don’t often think about superhero worlds as fantasy, as they are usually grounded in our own reality, but they offer settings in which potions, spells, and monsters are replaced by mutation, lab accidents, and aliens. These worlds offer impossible events that operate within a system that can be described in terms of magic.

Currently, I’m working on a story inspired by Greek mythology and set in a Bronze Age society where the gods of Olympus are active and real. In this world, the magic system is made of gods. It operates just like any other fantasy work except that the magic system is sentient and made up of interlocking parts with clashing personalities beyond human control.

In Greek mythology, the rules of magic are defined by the personalities of the gods. The more strictly delineated the gods are, and the less likely the gods are to deviate from their standard behaviors, the more the system moves toward the harder side of Sanderson’s soft-magic to hard-magic spectrum.

The body of Greek mythology as a whole is a fairly soft magic system. The gods are fickle, unpredictable, inconsistent over multiple works, and are often constrained by the Fates. In such a system, one god or another can show up at any time to resolve any conflict, becoming a literal deus ex machina. For example, Athena showing up at the end of Homer’s Odyssey to end the cycle of vendetta between Odysseus and the families of all the people he killed.

The challenge within a specific work of mythic fantasy is to harden the magic system by providing more specific motivations and realms for each god, and better defining the extent to which the gods are willing or able to intervene in mortal affairs. In Homer’s Iliad, Zeus doesn’t just refrain from saving the life of Sarpedon. He defines a rule for all of the other gods to follow regarding the deaths of their own favored mortals.

I’m using this in my story by giving gods predictable personalities and sets of rules in which they operate. This makes their interventions in the mortal world seem more natural to the story, reducing the problem of deus ex machina plotting.

If Sanderson’s Laws of magic can by applies to superheroes and mythology, where else might they be applied outside the traditional realms of fantasy?

The speculative technology in a work of science fiction could be viewed, not just as an extension of current technology, but as a system in itself with elements that operate by a set of predictable laws. That way, a new program, process, or device will have a more natural introduction and will more naturally fit into the setting.

The landscape in a speculative political thriller can be viewed as a system under which the outcomes can be explained.

Or in a spy thriller, where the hero is reliant upon a set of gadgets to survive. As much as I enjoy the James Bond franchise, it always annoyed me that Q would gear Bond up before every mission with exactly the gadgets he would need in specific situations that couldn’t possibly have been foreseen by the scope of the assignment. By thinking of spy gadgets generally as a kind of magic system, they could be employed more realistically.

Spy writers, mythologists, and the writers of political thrillers may not dip into the critical analysis of works in the fantasy genre, but they should. This is just one example of how authors who write in one genre can benefit by examining the rules that seem, on the surface, to apply only to a different genre. No matter the genre, we’re all just telling stories.