The Art of Writing for Boys
Blog Post by SR Staley
Walking into the eighth grade advanced English class, I thought I had a great plan. As the author of two well-received teen novels, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the writing process and what it takes to put a good story together for this audience. I would break the ice with a discussion of the opening scene from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games—a popular and well-crafted contemporary novel. I would then use my own editorial experience with my first novel, The Pirate of Panther Bay, to show how an author’s first instincts weren’t always the best. I was about to get schooled by these eighth graders.
The opening scene from the original manuscript of The Pirate of Panther Bay had the lead character—a teenage pirate captain—landing on the deck of a ship in mid-battle:
Isabella hoisted herself impatiently up a rope as the sharp reports of pistols and muskets buffeted the air. She lifted herself over the railing and plopped on the aft deck. Bodies littered the wood around her as she ducked defensively. A sailor stood startled just a few feet from her wearing a yellow sash—the mark of Yellow Jacket. The pirate pulled a gun, but Isabella’s pistol dropped him instantly.
I enjoyed writing this scene, but the hard truth was that it wasn’t a very good opening paragraph to a novel. The first paragraphs and pages need to introduce the character, set up the plot and fundamental conflict, and provide some hint at the overall arc of the story. This paragraph, and the ones that followed, were pure action.
So, I buried my action scene in another, more appropriate (in my view) part of the story (now on page 146), and substituted a paragraph that conformed more toward standard literary thinking:
Isabella stormed into the cramped cabin, letting the door thump wildly. How could this have happened? Everything seemed to be lost. And she hadn’t even begun. Her first command of a pirate ship and she had let her first prize blow up out from under her! What would her crew do now?
This opening paragraph gives us a little clue into Isabella’s leadership as a pirate and captain, and set up the main plot and tension—whether Isabella would be able to retain command of her ship.
What a great set up to talk about the art of storytelling and novel writing, I thought. So, I asked the eighth graders which of these “beginnings” they thought would was better. And the results were split. Starkly split—the girls liked the actual beginning and the boys liked the original beginning. (Notably, the boys did not have an issue with a girl as a lead character or pirate captain.)
The result, admittedly non-scientific is illustrative, and an important reminder that boys and girls reader and process information differently. Writers are sometimes frustrated because they “can’t get boys to read,” but in truth boys, particularly in the middle grade and teen years, are simply at a different stage in their development. As most middle-school teachers and parents will tell you, trying to keep up with teenage boys is a handful—energy and physicality are hallmarks of this point in their life. Writing for boys needs to reflect this hard truth in order to engage them. That’s why they liked the battle scene.
But, writing a good novel doesn’t mean you have to discard good literary form. My second novel, A Warrior’s Soul, had the explicit goal of trying to engage middle-grade boys, and I worried about whether I had to trade off action for story. After many rewrites and rethinking about the audience and how the story would be introduced, the opening pages tried to infuse the emotional tension and conflict that engages girls with the physicality of a threats that are common to boys of this age. Thus, the story opens with the following lines:
Hands trembling, Luke crouched behind the plastic trash can and prayed he’d be okay. The crumbling brick wall should have been enough to hide him. The rattling chains from belts and scattering rocks from scurrying boots warned him it might not. Stay quiet and out of sight, he told himself. That’s all I have to do.
Writing for boys is an art, not a science. The key principles of good storytelling shouldn’t be ignored, but engaging boys requires a storyline and characters that reflect their world. Girls in many ways are an easier target audience. They tend to be more mature, nuanced and patient readers, and often it’s the emotional conflict that draws them into the story. For boys, the physicality of their world needs to be upfront and embedded in the storylines. By artfully combining the two, writers can stay loyal to the principles of a good character development and an intelligent story while not forsaking this very difficult to reach and often neglected segment of the teen market.
SR Staley (www.srstaley.com) is the author of two teen novels and comments on novel writing and publishing on his blog “Adaptation” http://blog.srstaley.com. Follow him on Facebook (“A Warrior’s Soul” book page) and Youtube (SamRStaley) as well.