Story Bite 9: On Character-Driven Beginnings

Happy New Year! For this story bite at the start of the year, we’re going to talk about one of the most important—and the most challenging—aspects of writing creative fiction or nonfiction: the beginning.

Here’s a pic to start us off: my cat Flora, who is beginning (LOL) to fall asleep.

credit: Diane Magras

Beginnings need to hook your reader. They also need to introduce your characters and world (for fiction) or topic (for nonfiction) and, for both, the mood of your piece. Beginnings lead the writer down a pleasant path, or a rocky and challenging one. Raise your hand if you’ve written a first sentence and then been stuck, unable to write the next sentence. I suspect that every published author (myself included) has been there more than once.

So it’s crucial to write a beginning that will engage you, the writer, as much as the reader. It needs to post questions, introduce a conflict, or just be plain fun.

For this story bite, we’ll work on beginning a piece of fiction using character.

Let’s start with some questions.

Do you know who your character is and what they’re up to?

If so, skip down below the pic.

If not, pick a character and a conflict:

I. Flora the cat (pictured above) who is a) plotting to steal a pen from this author’s desk, b) worried that someone is about to start vacuuming, or c) wondering why her family is in Scotland while she’s at home with the cat-sitter.


II. The stone unicorn (pictured below) in the fountain at Linlithgow Palace (Linlithgow, Scotland), who is a) trying to pick the right moment to burst out of its stone after hundreds of years of imprisonment, b) angry at having been turned into stone only yesterday by a cruel fairy and is plotting its revenge, or c) in love with an umbrella and trying to figure out how to express its affection the next time the umbrella and its owner draw near.

stone unicorn

credit: Diane Magras

Do you have your character and your conflict. Then ask yourself these questions:

What does your character feel physically?

Sun on their nose?

Carpet or stone or something else beneath their feet or around it? (For the statue, does it feel the stone that it’s made of?)

Write down your answer.

(If it helps, write it down like this: “The [whatever your character is: cat, statue, alien, kid] felt [what: sun, cold, rain, snow; stone, carpet, wood] beneath/upon/around him/her/them/it…” So, for example, “The stone unicorn felt sun upon its face…”)

Now, what does your character feel emotionally?

Anger? Eagerness? Fear? Pick a strong, tense emotion; starting a story with sleepiness or boredom might bore you and your reader.

Write this down.

(And if you want a structure, try this: “…a [pick one: swell, rush, wave, tower, pool, whirl] of [emotion: fury, eagerness, terror, sorrow] [pick one: rose, sank, consumed, lit…or come up with your own verb]” and for my example: “…a swell of sorrow consumed it…”).

Now combine the two in one sentence.

For my example: “The stone unicorn felt sun upon its face, though a swell of sorrow consumed it.”

Can you think of a sentence to follow? Why is your character feeling the way they’re feeling?

Continuing my example: “The stone unicorn felt sun upon its face, though a swell of sorrow consumed it. The green plaid umbrella was on the other side of the courtyard, and might not be coming back. But if it did, the unicorn would confess its love. Only if it could speak.”

How did that feel? Did your first sentence give you ideas of what to write next? If not, consider rewriting your first sentence. Switch around what your character is feeling (emotion first, then physical, or even cut one and write more about the other). Or move around some of the other text you wrote. I might, for instance, change mine to:

“The green plaid umbrella was on the other side of the courtyard, almost out of sight. Please, my darling, thought the stone unicorn, don’t disappear. The unicorn couldn’t move its head, though it tried. And so it waited, the sun burning upon its stone face and horn, sorrow swelling in its heart.”

If you end up rewriting your beginning, know that you’re following a proud tradition of authors everywhere! I rewrote the first line of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter at least twice for each draft (and there were five drafts). Give yourself time, be patient with yourself, and try to have fun.

I hope this was helpful. I’ll offer other ways to begin a story or a piece of nonfiction in future posts.


If you’d like to share your story bite with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.

Year-End Writing Tips

These tips (which I first posted on Twitter tonight) are meant for people writing middle grade fiction. They come from discussions that I’ve had with my son about the books we’ve read and the books I’ve written. He’s an avid reader of middle grade fiction, and the first reader of every one of my books, and his criticism has been incredibly helpful in my editing process. I thought it might be useful for other writers to hear some of our top writing tips.

1. To start, let’s talk about the beginning. Make the beginning snatch the reader’s attention. That first page, and the first chapter, need to clearly introduce a character (ideally your MC), pose a meaningful conflict, and ramp up the tension. Answer this: What’s this about, and why should I care?

2. Second and third chapters need to keep it going. If you’re writing for middle grade readers, don’t slow the tension or they’ll put the book down. Weave in the explanations you need to introduce. Show characters by their interactions with others. Just keep your story humming.

3. Give your reader a chance to breathe. Let your characters have a chance to think, not just to act. And while you want your readers to be unable to put this book down, remember that sometimes they just have to go to school or sleep. Give the tension a wee lift here and there.

4. If you’re pounding your characters, be sure that you give them a hand up too. It’s no fun to keep reading a character who is treated horribly and feels no joy, page after page. Just a tiny bit of kindness or warmth (say a delicious meal, even) can make a big difference.

5. Be sure to know all your characters, especially your major characters, not just your MC. Give them their own stories, and great dialogue. If you do this, you’re giving readers many options of characters to love most. It doesn’t have to be the MC.

6. Take care how you kill off a character. Yes, you sometimes need to. Be aware that your middle grade reader may be really upset with a literary choice that removes a favorite character, which may make them not eager to read another one of your books. Just be humane.

7. Don’t waste the middle of your book. Start weaving together the tensions of the early parts, and introduce a few new elements to shake up your MC’s life. Middles can be hard, and can bog. Keep your middle tense and busy.

8. Know how you want to end the book. Most middle grade readers want a happy sigh ending: Some sadness is okay, but overall things are good. And make that last chapter matter. Even in a series with a cliffhanger, something should be solved, or just feel right.

9. One more: It’s fine to write what you feel middle grade fiction should have, but write for your kid audience, not just for yourself and for other adults. Most of us MG authors want to pack our books with Big Themes and Powerful Stories. But they won’t be of any use if no one reads them.

Because I love examples, here’s a book to highlight each item on the list (taken from the incredible list of books that my son and I have read this year):

1. Stellar Beginning: Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart. A nice kid is dropped off at a youth prison on an island for a crime that maybe he did commit, but something’s fuzzy about it, and something’s clearly wrong on that island, and oh, my, you can’t stop reading.

2. Great Secondary and Third Chapters: Takedown by Laura Shovan alternates characters, which is a great way to keep your reader hooked, but this story also loads up the tension for each MC with expectations, nervousness, and pressure from peers and family.

3. Letting Your Reader Take a Breath Without Dropping Interest: Sayantani DasGupta’s The Serpent’s Secret shares a few mysteries and a few secrets in a new world to the MC, right between massive bouts of action (with snakes and demons!!!).

4. Being Kind to Your MC: Kelly Yang’s Front Desk pounds its poor MC from the start (though nothing keeps her down for long). But the kindness of her neighbors, and her parents’ own kindness to others, show that this world, while hard, isn’t all bad.

5. Creating Fab Secondary Characters: Kat Yeh’s The Way to Bea has wonderful secondary characters. Will and Briggs are so engaging, lighting up the story each time they come onto the page. I wouldn’t be surprised if either one of them are readers’ favorites.

6. Killing Characters Kindly: Pádraig Kenny’s Tin kills off *sob* a wonderful character in the most beautiful, humane manner possible. And this is fiendishly hard to do right. I can’t say more without spoiling the story! (BTW, Tin will be out in the U.S. on March 26, 2019.)

7. A Tight Middle Section: Black Panther: The Young Prince by Ronald L. Smith hits its stride so perfectly in the middle, where the superhero story rises, and the other important story of two male friends is reaching some of its most tense peaks.

8. Happy Sigh Endings: While we agree that it’s a cliffhanger ending, my son and I also agree that The Forgotten Shrine by Monica Tesler ends well. It’s a tense moment, and things aren’t solved. But two important characters are together and that lets the reader get that sigh.

9. Writing Big Ideas for Kids: It’s hard to pick just one, but Mae Respicio’s The House That Lou Built has family struggles, a MC who disobeys her mom, brilliant engineering idea, friends conflicts, identity questions, and grief and happiness rolled up in a fun, deep story.

I hope this list and the examples I’ve shared from my son’s and my 2018 reads are helpful. These are certainly writing tips that I need to keep in mind myself, and it’s heartening to have so many great books around to help me remember how to follow them!

Teacher’s Guide

I’m thrilled to share my Teacher’s Guide for The Mad Wolf’s Daughter. I hope this guide will be used in many classrooms, especially once the paperback comes out (which will be on February 12, 2019).

I love inspiring students, and I’ve read a lot of educational literature, so I had an idea of how to put this together. But special thanks to Anne O’Brien Carelli (my fellow debut MG author this year, as well as a former teacher) for pointing me toward great information about Common Core Standards and proofing this for me.

I’m offering the guide as a free PDF. I’d love to know if you’re using it in your classroom. By the way, if you are and would like some bookmarks to go with it for your students, contact me and I’ll send you a batch as long as I have any left!

Kirkus on Book 2

We authors are always a wee bit terrified to read reviews of our books, so it was with great relief that I read this review of my second book from Kirkus, which includes these lovely lines:

“Magras deftly balances introspection and action as Drest proves herself willing to risk everything—and the result will leave readers cheering. Fair-minded men and strong women in unusual roles make this a standout among quest tales for middle graders.”

Read the full review here.

Gender Empowerment and Risks: A Conversation Between Diane Magras and Laura Shovan

The ranks of strong girls in middle grade fiction is growing. (Thank goodness for that!) These girls come in all forms: tough, spunky, wild—and occasionally soft and gentle but with a core of steel. They’re fantastic models for girls (and boys) to see diversity in how girls are represented. And often, these days, they have male sidekicks who play the time-honored role of helper. It’s a nice transposition of gender roles in books. And I applaud that.

But I applaud even more books where the boys who are helping out the girls and taking risks to do so. These books are models that the world needs to see: It’s important for boys and men to back up girls and women and hear their voices, especially when the easier choice would be to turn away and pretend they never saw or heard what’s happening.

If readers of this post have read The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, my debut novel, you may have noticed that Emerick and Tig (my two primary male characters) listen to, support, and rely on Drest (my female protagonist). Her brothers and father also believe in her unquestioningly; hers is a world where she knows her voice matters. And Emerick and Tig risk much to follow her, in the end their very lives.

I was delighted when I read Laura Shovan’s newest book Takedown to find some of these themes as well. The risks Lev takes to support Mikayla’s wrestling show how hard it can be in today’s world for a boy to support a girl, and indeed, he doesn’t at first. But the way he does, and his final acts of support, are magnificent. Part of this book is about finding yourself and having the courage to be yourself, but also the courage to stand up for someone else.

Read More…

(This article was posted on on December 1, 2018.)


Dystopian books explore what might happen to our world when something fundamental is different from what we know. Often, it’s society-based, though sometimes technology is part of it. These are books that start with a “What if” world tangled into our own. We see aspects of life we recognize, but something feels off or wrong or just plain disturbing. And it’s the main character’s role to figure out how to survive, or escape.

When I first read Melanie Sumrow’s middle grade debut The Prophet Calls, I knew it was based in the real world, and what is no doubt a very real world for certain populations in the United States. But this book felt dystopian to me. I’ve known people from religions akin to, but fortunately not as restrictive, as the one that dominates this narrative, and I’ve read of the religions that keep similar tight bonds on their women and girls, but never explored the story of one of those girls.

Read More…

(This review was posted on on November 29, 2018.)

The Book List That Matters Most

Here’s a post for children’s authors, first shared on Twitter, where it went a wee bit viral (for me), about the “Best Book” lists that are ubiquitous on social media this time of year. (As you might guess, “Best Book” can be hard for the many, many children’s authors who don’t see their works upon them.)

All these “Best Book” lists are lovely, and congrats to the authors whose wonderful books are on them! But if you’re not on on those lists, you’re on *this list*. Ahem:

1. A kid rushes home from school, dumps their homework in a heap on the kitchen floor, and picks up your book, retreating to the quietest corner of the house to read. And keeps reading. Up to dinner, after, past their bedtime. Repeat: your book.

2. A kid brings your book to school, sandwiched between folders and binders in the crush of their backpack. This kid is shy, and lonely. Your book is their friend at lunch time, at recess in the cold, after school on a 40-min bus ride. Your book comforts as little else does.

3. A kid who lives in a group home. Another kid with tons of siblings and a house of noise. A kid who hunkers down in their room when their parents fight, your book before their face. These kids need a book that will love them back, that will help them escape. That’s your book.

4. A kid who loves to read, and swallows two books each week, but regularly returns to your book on the weekend, or in the middle of one of the others, because it’s the book that makes them feel the best about themselves and the world around them. Your book is a constant friend.

5. A kid who hates to read—except your book. Yes, your book, which touches them in the right way, drawing them in, entertaining, engaging, delightful in ways people may not understand. Your book shows them that they’re truly a reader, no matter what anyone else says.

Your book may not appear on any of the formal lists. Your book may be called not serious enough, or too niche, or vague insults that make you feel small and meaningless. But know your book is loved. It’s part of a huge library of books that are needed. Always remember that.

Holiday Book Box

I love to give books for holiday gifts. This year, some of the books I give will be reaching recipients in book boxes, so a book with a few other little things that go with the theme. As I was thinking of what would go with each book, it occurred to me that I have some lovely wee pieces that could go with any copy of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter that someone else might like to give: the character buttons of Drest, Emerick, and Tig that are so popular at my in-person events; a personalized bookplate to sign the book for the intended recipient, as well as themed bookmark; and a personal note. I’ve done a few of those in giveaways, and it’s been fun to write as an author to a student who loves to write, or a student who needed a book friend. And I figured I’d offer that as well in my own hand-sketched castle cards (every one of them is different).

Comment here or DM me on Twitter if you’re giving the gift of Drest to a student this holiday season, and I’ll send you the book box parts pictured above. I’ll send these out until the end of December, or as long as my supplies last. Happy Holidays!

A Book to be Thankful For

I’ve been pondering this week about what book for which I’m most thankful. And while there are many that I’ve read this year and in the past few years, the one that comes to the very top is a book that made me who I am as an author. It’s a book that was dropped into my hands by my mother when I was 13 and lounging in a flat in North London. “I think you might like this,” she said.

It was Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, a tale of British lore and a midwinter’s night from a New Englander from England.

And though it took place in another world from the Maine where I’d grown up, I’d never read anything that felt more like home.

Will Stanton was like me with his chore-filled childhood in a rural place. He dealt with siblings who were not always kind, but ultimately were good to him. He had to go out into the dark to feed the chickens. (I remember my own treks to our shed in the snow at dusk, shooing hens and ducks in, feeding them and giving them fresh water from a bucket I carried all that way; then wandering back in the utter darkness knowing that there were foxes, coyotes, and maybe more in the woods around me.) I feared the dark of those woods. And I felt a tinge of them in Will’s Dark, which wasn’t simply the world after dusk but a malevolent force intent on world mastery. Yes, I was at home.

This story—of the seventh son of a seventh son, an Old One with powers that came on his 13th birthday, a boy who sought to outsmart a cruel force throughout shifting times with mysteries, ancient texts, betrayal, and hope surrounding him—showed me how a book could feel like home while opening up a whole new world.

I’m most grateful to it because it inspired me to start writing my first novel.