03 - That Dragon's Just Not Realistic!
Updated: Mar 16, 2021
Have you ever been reading a silly children story and thought of yourself:
“Well, that would never happen. There’s no way a penguin would be able to jump clean over a polar bear. Besides, polar bears live in the Arctic and penguins live in the Antarctic.”
The fact that the penguin talks, uses a fishing rod, lives in an igloo with central heating and pushes its egg around in a pram is fine; the height if its jump is some heinous crime against storytelling.
I sent a story out to my critique group recently, in which a boy grows impossibly tall. To my mind, this was perfectly acceptable – in storybook land, we can do what we like, can’t we? However, one critique came back saying this didn’t feel believable. In another story, children on a beach dig up (alive) figures from history whilst digging holes. Again, my mind said that this suspension of disbelief was fine; others thought not (“Wouldn’t they have died?”). Another story from a group member was pulled up for a line about calling the Queen when a toddler wouldn’t use their potty.
It appears there are rules about what is possible and impossible, even in a fantasy world:
We can change the world to a completely new setting, such as an underwater kingdom or alien planet, but we can’t apply new physics to our existing world.
We can introduce a magical creature into the real world, but they must obey the rules of that world, unless we explain why they don’t have to.
We can replace people with animals (and vice versa, in theory – there could be a story in that!) but they have to stick to human behaviours and emotions.
If we do introduce unusual behaviours, they have to be explained (for example, through magic)
Even in a fantasy world, behaviour has to be ‘logical’ and consistent. A character can’t change what they believe or how they act without explanation.
Great, we have a set of rules. But should we follow them? Surely the beauty of writing for children is you get to break all the rules?
‘Stuck’, by Oliver Jeffers, is my all-time favourite picture book. In it, a child throws increasingly large and ridiculous items into a tree to knock down his kite. It is all set in the ‘real’ world, but you never question whether a boy can throw a fire engine (plus crew) into a tree.
So, perhaps some of these rules can be ignored once in a while if we want to create really original and memorable stories.
What do you feel are the inviolable rules of children’s stories, if there are any at all?