Written by Liam and Aoife!
Featuring top kids author Dave Rudden!
Everything you need to know if you haven’t read the other episodes…
Hi. I’m Liam. Aoife is my annoying, hyper, little sister. This is episode nine of our twelve episode blog series about everything that happened to us last summer when the mysterious Story Thief whirled into our lives.
Who is the Story Thief? Well, it steals writer’s stories if they don’t write them down or tell them quick enough. It carries a pen the size of a spear and it writes the stolen stories into a giant ledger before hidden in its secret library.
Our writer Dad’s books weren’t getting published so he tried to win a great story idea from the Thief by doing its three story challenges. Dad got an answer wrong and the Thief won all his stories. But because memories are stories too, the Thief started taking them as well.
As Dad forgot loads of things and started to act like a child, we summoned the Thief. We agreed to do its Challenges and win back his stories and memories. We completed three story challenges with the help of advice from Irish kids fiction writers. We thought we’d won until the Story Thief revealed that, as there were two of us, we had to do three more challenges.
Thing got bad. Really bad. Mam arrived home from working overseas. We tried to hide Dad’s weird behaviour from her, but she found out. I knew Mam wouldn’t believe us so I said nothing when Dad was hospitalised. Aoife was furious with me. She refused to help me with the fifth challenge. For the first time I had to do a challenge on my own…
It was after 11pm when I knocked on Aoife’s door. She didn’t answer.
‘Aoife, the challenge, I finished it. It’s waiting on the trampoline for the Thief.’
‘It was hard doing it without you.’
‘I’m sorry, I let you down Aoife.’
As I walked back to my room, her bedroom door creaked open and I heard her wonderful, irritating voice. ‘I bet it’s terrible.’
‘Hmm.. Might be the best one so far.’
Aoife ran at me, knocked me right off my feet onto the ground.
Sitting on top of me, she asked, ‘Did you put monkeys in it?’
‘Nope. That’s why it’s so good.’
I flipped her off me before she could attack. Climbed to my feet and put my hand out. She let me pull her up.
‘Alright. Read me one of your boring books so.’
We sat on the couch in my room. I read outloud from one of my favorite books. We disappeared into its story and forgot our own worries.
Just after midnight I felt the briefest of cold breezes in the room. A flicker of dark shadow. The book in my hand quivered momentarily. The Thief had been here.
A piece of old parchment fell out of the book. I held it up.
‘This is it, Aoife. Sixth and final challenge. You ready for it?’
I could have hugged her then and there. I’d missed her enthusiasm and encouragement so much. Of course I didn’t. I just read the challenge outloud.
Aoife rolled her eyes. ‘Enough with the threats already.’
‘At least you and I know all about conflict.’
‘Right.’ Aoife elbowed me in the chest (really painfully actually). ‘And I always win.’
She thought for a second, ‘Do you think monkeys fight over bananas?’
‘We’re not putting monkeys in it!’
On Dad’s computer we sent what I hoped would be my last advice request.
Dave, can you help us? We need your advice on how to write a story with lots of conflict? Thanks, Liam and Aoife.
First thing in the morning, myself and Aoife nipped into the office and checked Dad’s email for a response.
His reply had arrived. We quickly read the Writing Advice from Dave Rudden, author of The Knights of the Borrowed Dark trilogy.
Thank you for your letter and your question.
Conflict is necessary.
It sounds strange to say that, when conflict in real life is something you want to avoid. But conflict is what drives story, what turns the wheels of narrative and keeps a reader hooked. A story without conflict is a story without movement.
But maybe you don’t want to write a story where people are fighting, where people are angry at each other, where people get hurt or die. That’s entirely understandable. What you have to remember is – conflict is simply a person or people facing and seeking to overcome an obstacle. It’s character versus surrounding. It’s character versus themselves. If you want to write a story about a teenage girl afraid of heights, who wants to conquer this fear by climbing Mount Everest, you’re writing a story that’s full of conflict. Conflict isn’t about the girl having to fight her way through a pack of mountain yetis to get to the top, it’s about her having to overcome her fears and the mountain itself.
I hesitate to give writing rules, because there are no wrong answers in art, and as many ways to become a writer as there are writers, but when you’re creating conflict there are certain guidelines that will ensure that your conflict will resonate and work with the reader.
1) Your conflict must be important to the characters. This doesn’t mean it has to be about the World Ending Gem of Agasharr, or the Doombot of Jupiter, but that the conflict must go hand in hand with a reason why it’s important. If it isn’t important, why is the character putting themselves through his hardship in the first place?
2) There must be a chance to succeed and a chance to fail. If it’s too easy for the character, we’re not going to fear for them and root for them. If it’s too difficult, then either you’ve painted yourself into a corner because there’s no way the hero can succeed, or you’ll have to drastically improve their chances at the end. The reader should not be able to guess who will triumph, right up until the very end.
3) Everything must be connected. In my Knights of the Borrowed Dark trilogy, everything from the plot to the characters to the magic system to the world-building are all connected to each other. The monsters are darkness, which means the magic is fire, but the cost that is connected to the magic ties the characters closer to the dark so everyone is coming together rather than coming apart. Your conflict must tell us something about the character and about the themes in your story. If your character is afraid of heights, there must be a reason that tells us something about her and her past. If she chooses to defeat that by climbing a mountain, that choice cannot be random either. People think the hardest thing about writing a book is achieving the word count, but actually 70000 words is not a lot of space to tell a story, so you need to make sure that nothing is there randomly, and everything is playing a part.
We don’t like conflict because we’re all bloodthirsty monsters. We like conflict because we like seeing people strive to achieve something. We like seeing people face and overcome hardship because that is what we have to do in our day-to-day lives. We can take strength from the struggles of others, find inspiration or ideas in the solutions other people have found, and use that to overcome the conflicts that are waiting for us.
Best of luck,
PS: Here’s a Story Challenge for you!
Remember, practice makes perfect. Writing is a muscle – the more you do it, the better you get. If you want to try out writing many different types of conflict, write out ten types of character and ten types of conflict on a page. Here’s some ideas to get you started:
Possible characters: Tough Detective / Stressed Out Lawyer / Assassin-In-Training / Knight Commander / Jolly Sea Captain / etc..
Possible conflicts: Must Overcome A Fear of Spiders / Must Get Good At Ballet / Must Escape An Old Rival / Must Find The Gold Medallion of Much Importance /Must Win A Karaoke Competition / etc..
Now cut them out then muddle them so they’re mismatched. Challenge yourself to figure out why the stressed-out lawyer must stay in a haunted house for a whole night, or why the tough detective needs to learn ballet.
Aoife and I gave each other thumbs up. After school, we’d come right back home and get this challenge sorted. With all this advice, it’d be easy.
I was pulling on my school uniform when Mam knocked on the door. Her face was pale. Eyes bleary from lack of sleep.
‘No school today.’
‘We’re going to visit Dad.’
An hour later, we were deep the bowels of a hospital in front of security doors with a ‘Warning- Authorised Persons only’ sign.
Mam pressed a buzzer. ‘They’re keeping Dad here. All the expert doctors working on him. Just to be sure. ’
A burly security man opened the door. He checked Mam’s ID before letting us in.
A nurse led us to a small room with no windows. Dad was in the bed, staring at the ceiling. Machines beeping around him. Wires hooked into him. I waited for him to turn to see us. I wanted our old Dad back – that spark of magic in his eyes, those stupid jokes, all of him.
Mam said, ‘Phil? I’m here with the kids.’
His head turned. He looked at us. There wasn’t any recognition at all in his eyes. He might as well have been looking at the wall.
Aoife hugged him, but he barely moved. I tried not to cry.
Mam had told us to bring something for him. Aoife tucked her teddy into the bed beside him. I doubted Dad knew how to read anymore, but I placed his favorite book onto his bedside table just in case.
We waited in the hall while Mam talked to a doctor in the room. They tried to speak quietly so we wouldn’t overhear but we did.
‘He’s deteriorating. We’ll have feed him intravenously soon. After that, well, we just don’t know.’
Aoife’s eyes welled up with tears. I had to be her big brother now. Had to take care of her.
I whispered, ‘Just one last challenge. We’ll beat the thief. Get our Dad back.’
She wiped away her tears. ‘Okay.’
Once we got home we got working. Aoife kept my enthusiasm up and, I have to admit, even had some good ideas. We imagined Dad with us, helping us, encouraging us to let our imaginations run free. We were sure we’d have him back soon.
Just before 11pm we had the final challenge complete – an hour before our midnight deadline. We walked out to the back garden. Placed it on trampoline as usual.
Suddenly the garden lights went on. Mam stormed outside. ‘What are you doing?’
I tried to hide the sheet of paper, but she saw it.
‘Give me that!’
She looked it over. ‘What..?’
‘I told you to quit that Story Thief nonsense. Your father is sick. It’s not magic -’
This time I spoke up. ‘Mam, it’s real. We have to -’
‘Enough! You’re not visiting your father again. And this -’
She held up the sheet of paper in her two hands. All our hard work. Our last chance to save Dad.
I shouted, ‘Don’t!’
Aoife roared, ‘No!’
Mam tore it up. Into tiny pieces. She threw them into the air. A cold wind sent them up high into the air, out of our garden. Gone.
‘Up to your rooms! Now!’
But we’d come too far to give up.
Once it was safe, Aoife snuck into my room. We tried to remember everything we’d written earlier and rewrote it all. We were so tired. It was hard to tell if it was working or not. Did it have enough conflict? Was it good enough?
At 11:55, we stood at the top of the stairs. We could hear Mam’s footsteps pacing around the kitchen. There was no way we’d be able to get past her to the garden.
Aoife whispered, ‘What’ll we do?’
I thought for a second then rushed into my room. Sitting on the floor, I carefully shaped that single sheet of paper into the best paper aeroplane I could make. Hoped that years of practise would pay off.
We opened my bedroom window. The trampoline sat in the garden below. It was at least twenty foot away. And it was windy. I was petrified. If I missed Dad would never be saved and the Thief would come for our stories and memories too..
Aoife read my mind. ‘You can do it. You’re my big brother, you can do anything.’
11:58. No time to wait. Boosted by Aoife’s confidence in me, I fixed my eyes on the trampoline and threw the paper airplane hard.
It flew straight at first, then a strong wind hit it, sent it flying off course.
Aoife’s grabbed onto my arm. ‘Oh no.’
It drifted towards the edge of the trampoline netting. My teeth ground together. It was about to overshoot the trampoline entirely then –
Its point hit the netting.
It fell backwards…
Landing in the centre of the trampoline.
We whisper cheered, hugged each other tight, shook our fists in the air, generally celebrated as loudly as we could without alerting Mam downstairs.
Then I shivered. Aoife shivered too. The bedroom door creaked open behind us.
The Thief stood in our doorway. We could see it clearly now. Its cloak billowed in a cold wind. Pale, crooked hands gripped the spear sized pen. The nib, itself the size of a knife, was aimed at us, the point gleaming in the moonlight.
And where the Thief’s face should have been under its hood, there was a darkness that seemed to go on forever.
I called out. ‘Was the challenge good enough?’
That cold wind roared at us, slamming us backwards into the wall, almost knocking us out the window.
By the time, I sat up, it was gone from the doorway.
I could hear Mam running up the stairs, shouting, ‘Aoife! Liam! What happened?’
A piece of aged parchment sat on my lap. We read it.
We looked at each other hopelessly.
How could we get away from our mother? ?Get our father out of a locked ward? And then get him, almost catatonic now, to a library on the other side of town?
Just as the Thief obviously intended it was impossible.
We’d never save our father.
As usual here’s the stuff Dad told me I had to tell everyone…
The Story Thief Challenges is a twelve part story series published on the first Monday of each month. Each episode includes writing advice from an Irish children’s fiction author and a Story Challenge activity that can be used by teachers, librarians and other educators with kids.
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If you would like more information on Dave Rudden and his books and how to contact him, including for school, library and other visits click here.
If you’re a teacher / librarian / educator or parent and you would like advice on how use The Story Thief Challenges and each month’s Story Challenges with children to promote reading, writing, story telling and creativity please click here.
Check out the work done by kids on this series and get work featured on it –click here.