Where does he get his stories?
“Aristotle and Hollywood,” Tony says quite seriously. “Story is a form, it is a thing, it is a work of art, it is a structure. Aristotle talks about drama in the three-act structure and in all the Hollywood screenwriting books you see, the three-act structure is at the root of drama. Aristotle’s Poetics is a great body of writing. You should rush out and buy it.”
Tony has written and edited more than 200 books for children since his first book was published in 1984. “What really taught me about stories was editing other people’s work,” says Tony, speaking at the September instalment of the SCBWI Professional Series. “I used the lessons I picked up in my own writing.”
“There are two essential ingredients to a story: character and plot,” Tony explains. “And of the two, character must always come first. The temptation is to put plot first but always and forever character must come first.”
The most memorable stories have memorable characters. “I don’t think George Lucas thought of Luke Skywalker as a boy who lived in space, but as a boy who was the son of Darth Vader – a boy with a distant father. Think about it. That’s why so many boys get into Star Wars!”
In Tony’s soon to be published take on the Big Bad Wolf, he portrays the Big Bad Wolf as a father who feels like a failure because he has lost the will to hunt.
To develop the story, Tony thought long and hard about the Big Bad Wolf. “My way of finding The Big Idea is to think very very hard about the character: who they are and what they want. Really great stories are the ones that grip you. You encounter the character, you are gripped by the character’s problem, how is he going to solve it? You can say at any one time: What does that character want?”
What does the Big Bad Wolf want? “The reason he cannot be a predator anymore is because he loves little kids. He sees his kids in Little Red Riding Hood. But he wants to feed his children. What he wants is to be a good dad, a good provider. His greatest fear is that his family will starve to death – in a fairy tale, it’s always a life or death situation.”
In Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, which outlines the classic hero’s journey in mythology, one of the elements that can help a hero solve his problem (after passing tests, and enduring the supreme ordeal) is confronting his own nature.
And so, after a series of terrible job-hunting setbacks, the Big Bad Wolf finally faces up to his true nature (“that he is big, strong, fast, hairy”) which leads him to taking up a job as a security guard.
Aristotle first defined the three-act structure for stories: the beginning, the middle, and the end – or, as Philip Larkin said, “a beginning, a muddle and an end”.
Tony explains, “In the beginning – you meet the character, you find out what the problem is. In the middle – the problem gets worse. In the end – the problem is resolved one way or another. You send a character up a tree and throw situations up at him.”
Tony swears by Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey (subtitled Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters) which, taking its cue from Campbell, examines how the hero’s journey model is used in modern writing. “I use that structure in all my stories and I do a lot of stories for five to eight year olds.”
The hero’s journey model begins with the introduction of the hero and his problem and follow him through several stages until he gets his final reward. “All the great myths have an underlying use as models for testing this story model.”
The hero must strive to deal with the problem. “The character should be striving against the forces of opposition, wanting to solve the problem. But it gets worse and worse and worse. It’s part of the classic fairy tale structure: the character tries one then a second thing then a third thing. It builds and builds and builds – until he or she is at the point of despair. It ends when everything is resolved by the character one way or another. You have a problem if your character is just reacting to the situation.”
The story must ratchet up: “What is essential to a good plot? It must get worst.”
Plotting and scheming
As he came to the end of the talk, Tony opened up an A4, hard-bound, ruled notebook. From margin to margin, every single page was covered with cramped handwriting. Taking a cue from screenwriting, Tony has adapted film-making’s Step Outline (a detailed telling of a story, outlining every scene and beat of a story with indications for dialogue and character interactions) to his planning process, scribbling up to 20 pages in his notebook before he is ready to write a single line of story.
“You are teasing out the material, your structure is already there,” he says. “It is useful when you are struggling in the middle – you can immediately see that a great scene might be meaningless to the rest of the story.”
The process exposes any weaknesses in the plot, any digressions and lack of tension. “Once you get into that, and start exploring story that way, it is a revelatory experience.”
It seems a long laborious process, especially for those of us who thought it would be easier to write the shorter forms of children’s books – like the early readers and five to eight books that Tony specialises in.
But if you want to a career in children’s books, heed Tony Bradman’s parting shot: “Don’t be satisfied with just getting by. Dig deeper.”
This article was published in the Winter 2006 issue of Words & Pictures, the newsletter of SCBWI British Isles.