Wednesday, May 11, 2011

R is for Rules: Creating Tension for MG Readers

If you write middle grade fiction, it helps to have a good picture of the life of a nine- to twelve year old. One big part of that life is rules. There are rules for home, rules for school, rules for friend’s houses, rules for sports, rules for games…Everywhere they go, kids have to follow rules.

Explicit rules. There are rules that kids hear around them all the time, like “Homework before computer” or “No talking during the quiz” or “No friends over when a parent’s not home.”

Implicit rules. Some of the “rules” kids follow might not be stated but are learned from the reactions of other kids in social situations, for example, “rules” about how to dress or where to sit in the cafeteria.

What are some key things to know about rules if you’re writing MG?

Think hard about which and how many rules a character will break. Some kids might enjoy reading because the characters in books can escape some of the rules in their lives and do things the reader themselves might not be allowed to do.

On the other hand, parents are still a big part of the lives of middle grade readers and may still be helping to make choices about reading materials and book purchases. Characters that break too many rules might be frowned upon, or depending on what the rules are, push your book more towards YA.

Take a kid perspective. Adults have a totally different perspective on rules than kids do. Have you ever tried to explain your logic in making a certain rule only to see a blank stare from your child? Because adults and kids value different things, there are some rules that kids just don’t get (e.g. Why do I have to keep my room clean again?)

Kids use rules too. Because they are still figuring out how rules work and which ones apply to them, rules are big in kids lives. They care about whether other kids follow the rules in the games they play. They also compare rules and use them to try to influence parents (e.g. “Well, Sophie is allowed to….”)

Rules can be a great way to bring in some tension and conflict in MG novels. Think about your main character’s attitude towards rules. Do they try to break them, maybe in a creative way? Or grumble about them but mostly go along? Which rules bug them the most? Does your story world have any unusual rules?

Do your characters have any rules to follow? How have you used rules in your stories?

Books where following (or not following) rules creates tension:
*If you can think of any others, please let me know and I'll add them to the list.

The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet by Erin Dionne
The Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson
The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau

Sorry, I couldn't find any on this topic. If you come across a related link, let me know and I'll add it for our reference.


  1. this is a good one. I think rules fuels tension in YA and adult stories too. Moral codes, social codes - without them there would be no tension!

  2. You are right, Andrea - rules are very important to MG and something I hadn't really thought that way about. Thanks!

  3. Great things to remember if I ever try a MG! Thanks.


  4. My chapter heads are life rules from the eyes of a MGer. My protag breaks the rule during the chapter and hopefully tension ensues. Great post. Kids are constantly policing each other about actual rules and playground rules.

    It's not fair.

  5. My MG character has to break the rules, in order to help someone in trouble. She almost wavers--after all the rule is in place to protect her--but she charges forward anyway. I agree, breaking the rules adds necessary tension...

    Great question, food for thought!

  6. Great post! I'm a total rule-follower by nature, so it's fun to have my characters break the rules sometimes. :-)

  7. Great observations! I think most kids are greatly concerned with justice—maybe because rules are such a big part of their lives. Funny how some kids are very rule-oriented and truly bothered by the injustice of someone breaking a rule and getting away with it, while others focus on whether the rule itself is just.

  8. Excellent reminder. Life at that age is just one rule after another, especially for kids at boarding school, where there's a rule for everything, down to what socks you have to wear :)


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