The story so far… In covering some of the basic elements boys look for in their reading I’ve discussed Humor and Emotion as part of group called the HEAVES. This week we’ll take a look at the middle letters in the acronym, the A and the V, and pry the lid off a couple of elements that are perhaps known but not discussed much. If you’re new here, previous parts are being collected as we go into the tab above titled “@ boy books.”
Let’s see what this next passage can tell us about the letter A in The HEAVES.
…Rich rounded another corner into a narrow alley.
The alley was empty. There was no sign of Darrow.
Rich swore under his breath and ran to the end of the alley. He looked one way, then then the other. Still no sign of Darrow. In fact there was no sign of anyone. Just another narrow passage between two red brick buildings.
How could that happen? Rich looked around in bewilderment. He checked both ways again. The distance was just too great. There was no way Darrow could have sprinted to the end of the passage that fast. The walls were flat and unbroken––no doorways or even windows.
It was just impossible. There was nowhere at all to hide, even if Darrow had spotted he was being followed. The passageway was only about a meter and a half wide. If Rich spread his arms, they’d touch the sides. He could probably brace himself between the two walls and climb up between them.
“Oh…” Rich felt suddenly cold as the possibility occurred to him.
He looked up.
Just in time to see Darrow braced between the two walls above his head. Just in time for him to pull his feet away from one wall and drop toward Rich with the force of a sledgehammer.
A is for Action. Or rather, Actions, because it isn’t simply a question of making things and people move, its about how the action informs the character as well as the story.
This excerpt from Jack Higgins Sharp Shot is typical of ninety percent of the book, the third in a series that follows the adventures of twin teen siblings of British special agent John Chance. It is one, long protracted chase scene with an occasional break to explain a key piece of background information. In fact, it takes nearly forty pages just to figure out who they’re running from, much less why. These books are not necessarily great literature, but there is something to be gained in studying these action-movies disguised as novels.
William Pollack, an associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, and director of the Centers for Men and Young Men, writes in his book Real Boys that boys tend to communicate through action. They are also more likely to express empathy and affection through an activity, like sports. For both the boy reader and the boy character, action is a way of exploring and expressing ideas. In the example I just read, it is through physically exploring the narrow alley at the end of the chase where Rich is able to realize where his quarry has escaped to. He doesn’t “think” or “realize” the information, he uses his body to process and physically puzzle it out.
Boys physically puzzling out their environment should come as no surprise to parents of young men. Whenever they take apart a bicycle or a car or a toaster or an old cell phone they are physically exploring the world and learning the mechanics of how things are constructed. And they like the same things in their reading, watching the main characters explore and puzzle out their world, their emotions, their ideas. They like having the pieces laid out in front of them and trying to figure out how they go together again. It is what draws boys toward genre fiction where as much of the story is piecing plot together as it is exploring emotions and conflict.
Language and communication are also physical activities that boys and boy characters utilize, which is why dialog works particularly well in moving a story along. But we need to be careful that the dialog does more than simply define the action.
Put another way, when a character is confronting a situation a writer shouldn’t simply have the character wonder “How do I respond?” which is passive, but rather “What must I do?” which can only be answered with action. Consider also that some boys, younger readers in particular, have a tendency to reenact the stories they have read when they tell them to others, so knowing what the character must do informs their actions and better helps them comprehend what they are reading. This element of retelling a story shouldn’t be taken lightly; it is actually a key component of another point I’ll be making later on.
Dialog is a form of action that has the added advantage of giving the page a welcoming openness with all that glorious white space around it. The impatient reader is going to start flipping ahead to see where the chapter breaks if a book is page after page of inky blackness.
Writers shouldn’t give boys a reason to fan those pages. They need to keep things active, and more importantly. keep protagonists moving.
On Thursday I’ll contradict what I’ve just said by opening with a large block of dense description that, nonetheless, is full of Action and Emotion but speaks more to a topic that is often little-discussed in children’s literature. The V in building better boy books…