For Writers

Developing A Scene Within A Chapter

Scenes are the workhorses of a story. A writer can have one or several scenes in a chapter. Instead of a story goal – to resolve the big problem that defines the whole novel, the point-of-view character creates a scene goal, which will advance his or her cause toward reaching that story goal.

In her book, The Scene Book, Sandra Scofield defines scenes as “those passages in narrative when we slow down and focus on an event in the story so that we are ‘in the moment’ with characters in action. Or we can say that a scene is a segment of story told in detail, the opposite of summarizing.” She further explains that there are four basic elements to a scene:

  1. Every scene has event and emotion.
  2. Every scene has a function.
  3. Every scene has a structure.
  4. Every scene has a pulse.



JK Rowling describes the four elements of a scene in the first chapter of Harry Potter And the Sorcerer’s Stone.

In a scene, characters do things and feel things. Or in other words, they act and react. Therefore, ever scene has an event and emotion. Rowling has Hagrid appear on his motorcycle with baby Harry when Professor McGonagall and Professor Dumbledore are engaged in a conversation with each other, waiting for his arrival:

“Hagrid,” said Dumbledore, sounding relieved. “At last. And where did you get that motorcycle? (14)”

The scene advances forward as they bend forward over the bundle of blankets on the motorcycle and find baby Harry fast asleep, and they confirm that it is indeed Harry with his scar:

“Is that where —?” whispered Professor McGonagall.

“Yes,” said Dumbledore. “He’ll have that scar forever. (15)”

The dialogues in the scene advance the plot further, and we can state the event and emotion developed in it through the characters’ reactions.

There is a reason a scene needs to be described in detail with dialogue, characters, and setting.  It accomplishes something for the story. It has a function. It changes something. It makes now different from the past.  Rowling describes this by showing how Hagrid wants to say goodbye to the baby, but eventually breaks down and howls like a wounded dog because he finds it hard to let the baby go:

“S-s-sorry,” sobbed Hagrid, taking out a large, spotted handkerchief and buying

his face in it. “But I c-c-can’t stand it – Lilly an’ James dead – an’ poor little Harry off ter live with Muggles – (15)”

These elements of the scene reveal something about Harry that he may be special, perhaps making the reader feel more deeply attached to him even if he is just a baby. This also sets up a situation that will be important later in the story.

Ever scene has a structure: a beginning, middle, and end. An alternative way to think of the scene structure is that there is a situation at the beginning, a line of action, and then there is a new situation at the end. Thus a scene establishes the structure in three parts.

JK Rowling does this effectively by setting up Hagrid’s arrival with baby Harry, sharing some of the conversations among Hagrid, Professor McGonagall and Dumbledore, Dumbledore taking the baby from Hagrid,   and finally, leaving Harry at the doorstep of the Dursleys:

“A low rumbling sound had broken the silence around them (14).”

Dumbledore took Harry in his arms and turned toward the Dursley’s house (15).

“Yeah,” said Hagrid in a muffled voice, “I’d best get this bike away. G’night, Professor McGonagall – Professor Dumbledore, sir (16).”

“Good luck, Harry.” Dumbledore murmured. He turned on his heel and with a swish of his cloak, he was gone (16).

This scene brings us into the story, letting us know what is going on, involves us, and lets us move forward with the plot.

Scofield defines the pulse of a scene as “some vibrancy in the story that makes the scene live in the page and makes it matter to the reader.” Sometimes the pulse is subtle, and sometimes it is highly visible, but it is always present in a scene. It is emotional, an attitude, a state of desire or need.

Rowling describes this by showing that Harry would grow up to be a special child who needs to be protected. Dumbledore trusts Hagrid enough to bring him home safely, and as the scene progresses, and the three of them take extra care to not wake the sleeping baby. At the end of the scene, as Harry Potter rolls over inside his blankets without waking up, people meeting in secret all over the country wish for his safety:

He couldn’t know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in their hushed voices: “To Harry Potter – the boy who lived!(17)”

All the main characters describe their feelings for the child through dialogue. They care for Harry’s well-being. Harry’s safety is the pulse of the scene.

Therefore while creating a scene, writers should make sure that the character with a goal runs into opposition. The opposition creates conflict that builds greater suspense through repeated thwarted efforts, until finally the character succeeds and reaches the goal, or fails. The scene ends with change: a surprise, twist, setback, or disaster relate to the goal.


Hero, Mentor, Trickster: Thinking about Archetypal Character Roles in MG

Despite having been an English major in college, I don’t recall learning about archetypal story roles before my graduate writing program. When I finally read Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey for a grad class, it was like seeing through a suddenly-acquired magic spyglass that gave all stories a layer of extra interest and added meaning. Vogler establishes that his thoughts on character and plot archetypes stem from those put forth in the psychological and mythic studies of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. Vogler is able to take the archetypal theories of The Hero’s Journey (described in detail in Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and relate them to the craft of writing with popular story examples (from Star Wars to James Bond to Odysseus, and many others).

The general theory is that our story-brains are somewhat hardwired to recognize the ways in which characters fulfill certain roles, because the duties of these archetypal roles remain common over time, genre, length, style, and intended audience of stories. For example, a Mentor character in one story will have something in common with a Mentor character in another story, because their duty as a Mentor will be similar (to help some other character do something/go somewhere for some reason).

These character archetypes can be helpful to us as writers, as teachers, as librarians, and as parents of MG readers. For example:

  • An understanding of archetypal roles can promote discussion of character traits among students in the lit classroom.
  • Family read-aloud time (or movie night) gets a brain boost when we recognize an archetypal character role and make comparisons to characters in other films and stories we’ve shared together.
  • Archetypal role descriptions and examples can help writers to analyze their own characters in works in progress.

Below, I’ve listed some common character archetypes and given some examples from all sorts of MG fiction—recently published to modern classics, realistic to fantasy. Keep in mind that archetypal roles are not static, and that they are rarely “cast” by a writer in a simple, one-to-one list like parts in a play. Good writers and storytellers at all levels allow for an ebb and flow of character growth, change, and development; consequently, a character fulfilling the role of a Shadow in the beginning of the book might be recognized as a Mentor by the end.

This dynamic movement of archetypal roles might be especially notable and important in MG, where readers start grasping the complexities of human interaction perhaps for the first time.

Some common archetypal character roles in stories:

A Hero is usually our protagonist, though other characters can certainly step in and out of the Hero role. The Hero often experiences some kind of journey (physical, spiritual, emotional) and may or may not (but usually does) experience some kind of change as a result. Two key Hero elements are learning or practicing self-sacrifice in helping others, and learning or practicing the ability to take action. Hero and main character Chantel in Sage Blackwood’s Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded demonstrates this element of self-sacrifice as she puts herself in danger and works to secure safety for the younger girls at the school and all the people of Lightning Pass.

A Mentor is a character who serves to help, teach, train, or lead the Hero in some way as he or she makes the journey. A Mentor might “step in” and be the voice of the Hero’s true conscience when the Hero is conflicted and cannot “hear” his or her own heart. Mrs. Whatsit in A Wrinkle in Time serves many Mentor-duties for Hero Meg.

A Herald is a character who brings some kind of news to the Hero. Usually the news raises the stakes for the Hero—makes things more challenging, or changes the conflict in some unexpected way. Sometimes the Herald helps a character make a connection or see a clue, like when Lola texts Valencia in Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly. The message from Lola triggers Valencia’s deduction on the missing Virgil’s whereabouts, and launches a rescue mission.

A Threshold Guardian is a literal or figurative guard at a doorway or transition point, whom the Hero must get past in order to progress from one place in his or her journey to the next. Usually the Threshold Guardian serves as an obstacle, and might hold some truth or bit of info the hero needs. Stew Mitchum in Lemony Snicket’s Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights? is a Threshold Guardian as he impedes young investigator Snicket’s progress in solving the case and in moving about the train.

A Shapeshifter is a character who isn’t necessarily the person he or she seems to be, or a character whom the Hero (or the reader) may not be able to trust. A Shapeshifter can surprise the Hero with unexpected actions, reveals, or switches of loyalty. Characters (and readers) of the Harry Potter series may not realize that Moaning Myrtle holds clues Harry needs several times in the series. Her sudden changes of emotion and her switch of interest in Harry to interest in Draco are Shapeshifter behaviors as well.

A Shadow is the antagonist, the villain, the “bad guy.” This character or group stands in the way of the Hero, works to defeat him or her, and often utilizes the Hero’s own flaws. In Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, the Man in the Yellow Suit is a Shadow force as he pursues the Tucks and plans to use Winnie for his own immoral gains.

A Trickster is often a funny sidekick character or a comedic relief character; sometimes this character’s sarcasm or verbal irony reveals truth, like a witty jester or a class clown. Examples of mythological tricksters can be seen in many cultures and backgrounds, such as Loki (Norse), Coyote (Native American), and Maui (Polynesian).

There are many other archetypes, and many, many variations on those listed here (for example, according to Vogler, there are anti-heroes, loner heroes, trickster heroes, willing and unwilling heroes, the hero group…). Mentors may not be good teachers, may be on their own journey, or may learn from other characters even as they teach. Shadows often have redeeming qualities and brilliant moments. And a character can fulfill two or more roles in a story; for example, a Threshold Guardian is often also a Herald of information.

Consequently, archetypal roles are not meant to serve as simple labels for the characterizations we see in stories, but instead, provide us with some vocabulary and ideas for use in thinking about and discussing the stories we read.

Thanks for reading and considering these theories on characterization! I’m interested in your thoughts on archetypes, and characters from MG who might fulfill these roles—please share in the comments!


Interviewing Brent Taylor, Literary Agent, Triada US

Brent Taylor is a literary agent and subsidiary rights manager at Triada US, founded in 2004 by Dr. Uwe Stender. Brent joined Triada US in 2014; he was promoted to agent in April 2017. While we were interviewing, we found out we had a lot in common–one of Brent’s authors (K. D. Halbrook) was my first literary agent, and another (Rajani Narasimhan LaRocca) is in my Novel19s debut group. Plus we’re both wild about The Westing Game. Brent describes his reading tastes as “upmarket: I’m passionate about books for young readers that are extremely well-written, robust with emotion, and appeal to a wide, commercial audience.” 

Can you tell us a little about the road to becoming a literary agent? What sparked your interest in the business? And why children’s lit in particular?

As a kid, my reading level was always a grade or two lower than it should have been. I really struggled. Then, in middle school, all my friends started reading Twilight. Desperate to be able to participate in their conversations, I read it too and was hooked—I could not stop reading for fun. In high school, I became friends with someone who was a book blogger and would get advance copies of all the YA novels I was dying to read. She introduced me to the online book publishing community. During my sophomore year of high school, I started interning for a literary agent. I read middle grade and YA queries and manuscripts and wrote reader’s reports on them. I knew instantly that I wanted to work in book publishing, to have a hand in making books that would make young readers feel seen and heard. A few years later, I joined Triada US and started building my own list.

In your agent bio you list Charlotte’s Web, The Thing About Jellyfish, The Vast Fields of Ordinary, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, and The Westing Game as some of your favorite books (these are also many of mine!). What do these titles have in common, in your mind?

My taste is so eclectic that it’s hard to find a common thread between my favorite books, but all of them meant a lot to me when I read them for the first time and haven’t left my mind or heart since. Charlotte’s Web was the first time that I cried during a book, but also the first time that a book left me with joy. In Please Ignore Vera Dietz, the teen protagonist unravels before your eyes and in her messy truths, I found something profoundly identifiable. The Vast Fields of Ordinary lit my world up because it portrayed a gay teen in a small town pulling himself through all of life’s darkness. I guess what’s common about all of these books is that they changed and shaped me as a kid and teen, and continue to do so when I re-read them as an adult.

What’s changed about the middle grade books you see being published and/or recognized since you have been in the business, or watching the business? What do you expect will remain the same in middle grade, for all eternity?

When I was an intern, there were not many middle grade novels that accurately portrayed the many identities and backgrounds in our world: non-white, non-straight, etc. I feel so happy to be working in publishing at a time when all of my colleagues are just as passionate as I am about truthfully reflecting the richness of our vibrant world.

What’s on your wish list for middle grade now? 

I love novels in verse and would love to represent a middle grade one. Most of the middle grade novels in verse are historical, so I’d love one that’s contemporary. I also love books in fresh and exciting formats: an author-illustrated novel, a graphic novel, a story told entirely through texts, stories told in reverse-chronological order.

Any genre you simply can’t stand? Or if that’s putting it too harshly, is “not your thing?” Verse? Vikings? Vampires (well, obviously not vampires)…

“Obviously not vampires” is right! I’m so proud to represent FAKE BLOOD by Whitney Gardner, a middle grade graphic novel about vampires out September 2018 from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. There’s really no genre I don’t love, especially in middle grade. Historical middle grade doesn’t get me as excited as other genres, but I still find the occasional one that I love.

What’s missing in the middle-grade marketplace now? The big sinkhole in the room that we’re not seeing?

Drug addiction is such a real and serious problem at this moment in history that I wish I saw more middle grade novels handling that issue, and showing kids navigating it, in a delicate but authentic way. Adults don’t give children enough credit for being the complex and thoughtful people that they are, and to not portray this issue or discuss it with children for fear of it being too mature for them does a great disservice to the kids who deserve to see their struggles and hope and love reflected back at them.

We had a discussion recently in our debut group about character-driven books versus action books. A lot of the male writers I know personally (and some female writers!) like to write hilarious, fast-paced, zany books that don’t spend a lot of time examining feelings and motivations. Yet these authors tell me that their agents and editors are pushing them to put more “heart” into their books. What’s your take on that?

This is not surprising to me, and it is something I push my own authors (all genders) to do all the time as well. The perfect balance has to be struck between action and emotion in order to engage kid readers. I think it’s a myth that reluctant readers, or kids struggling with reading, just want action. It’s the emotional layers that will touch their hearts—and it’s touching their hearts that will turn reluctant readers into passionate ones.

What’s the one thing that really makes you roll your eyes when you open up a fresh query letter from an aspiring author?

“I’m retired now, so I finally decided to write a children’s book.” This really gets me. On the one hand, I think it is amazing to explore new hobbies and artistic expressions at any moment in your life. Lord knows I’ll try to become a fashion designer when I’m retired. However, when most people say this, you can tell that they mean it in the sense that children’s books are cursory to them and this is just something they decided to do on a whim, not because it’s a real dream or passion. From a query letter, I can very clearly tell whose lifelong dream this is and who just woke up one morning and thought they would try to publish a book.

What are your weird literary passions? Or non-literary ones?

Literary passions: My authors. Beautiful sentences that will make me cry and smile. Books that remind me why it matters that we become our truest selves.

Non-literary passions: Spending time with my family. Babysitting my ill-behaved cousins. Swimming. Beaches. Luxury skincare. Spending my Sephora VIB points.

Describe your favorite kind of workday. What are you spending most of your time doing?

In addition to representing and selling novels to U.S. publishers, I handle my agency’s foreign rights. I wake up in the morning to a lot of emails from Europe and Asia. I’ll drink coffee while I’m answering questions for foreign co-agents and publishers. After the important emails from outside the country are handled, I’ll get ready for the day. I usually try to respond to a lot of queries in the morning. Around lunchtime, I like to break up the day and go on a walk or run along the Ohio River and listen to an audiobook. I always end up getting a lot of phone calls, either from authors or my colleagues, which interrupts the audiobook. I usually return to my computer with an iced coffee and try to answer enough emails before doing some editing, reading a manuscript, pitching a book to editors, or reviewing a contract. After my big tasks for the day are completed, I spend 5:00 to 5:30 clearing out my email.

What keeps you up at night?

A lot of things! Politics, the scary crime TV shows I like to watch, my own ambitions that are oftentimes too big for my own good. The feeling that if there were more hours in the day, there are so many more things I could be accomplishing. But after a very busy and stressful year, I’ve re-centered myself and I’m sleeping a lot better at night. Because my only goal right now, in this moment, is to have as much fun as I can for as long as I can. Making books for young readers that will empower them to become their truest selves—that will make them laugh, and cry, and feel so much joy that they are nostalgic for the future? Being able to do that is the most fun thing I could possibly imagine. I am having the time of my life.

Anything you’d like to elaborate on that I haven’t asked you? How’s life treating you?

I want to tell you about all the middle grade novels I represent that are coming out soon. As I mentioned earlier, FAKE BLOOD by Whitney Gardner is a middle grade graphic novel about vampires. In a starred review, Kirkus said of it: “While many might say the vampire genre bled out years ago, Gardner has imbued it with new life, poking fun at well-known tropes—especially Twilight—in a manner sure to inspire hearty belly laughs. Her full-color illustrations are eye-catching, and her plotting is tightly wrought; think Raina Telgemeier with a Noelle Stevenson slant.”

I’m very excited for SMOKE AND MIRRORS, K. D. Halbrook’s first middle grade novel, out from Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster this September. It got a starred review from the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books: “Halbrook writes a heartbreaking account of a young girl’s spirit buckling under her longing to be accepted and her negotiating of a complicated legacy. The novel’s wistful prose and a relatable search for the Light will be rewarding for readers who can see in the Smoke any number of metaphors for the things that haunt us.”

A total book-of-my-heart, ALAN COLE IS NOT A COWARD by Eric Bell, came out last year. Its sequel, ALAN COLE DOESN’T DANCE, is out from Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins this October. Of the first book, Gary D. Schmidt said: “There are books in this world that show us why it matters that we become our truest selves. This is one of them.”

Look for Brent on Twitter @btaylorbooks and visit his Publishers Marketplace page.