The Wolves of Willoughby Chase , written by Joan Aiken (1962), is a long-ago favorite, but it’s a book I hadn’t re-read at all. I recently picked it up at my library along with a number of other titles by Aiken to see if any of them still charmed me. They did. They had slower starts than we’re used to today, and more description, but good writing is still good writing.
Time magazine hailed it as a “genuine small masterpiece” when it was published. How could it not be? A cruel governess, a prison-like school for orphans, mysterious, dangerous wolves on the loose, and Ed Gorey’s grim cover and interior illustrations by Patricia Eleanor Howard. . .
Roaming the shelves of my library, I bumped into Joan Aiken’s The Way to Write for Children: An Introduction to the Craft of Writing Children’s Literature by an Award-Winning Author.
As writers, we are always looking for the next best book on our craft, whether it’s a book on words and sentences, scenes and plots, or style. Books about writing are published by the dozens every year. Here was an older one, written in 1982. Could Aiken have something to say to me that I haven’t already read? Yes. And for the first time ever, I found someone who agreed with me that E.M. Forster was wrong about story and plot. A refreshing find.
According to Forster in his Aspects of the Novel, where he damned the story, he said:
‘A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality – “The king died and then the queen died” is a story.’ But ‘“the king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.’
I never, ever believed this to be true but lacked the storytelling knack, the courage, and the writerly experience to explain myself. Aiken has finally enabled me to express my reasoning: “The king died and then the queen died” isn’t story or plot. It is narrative.
But, “the kind died and then the queen died of grief” is NOT plot, it is story because it has shape. It has emotional pull. It resonates. You take out the word “grief” and the whole thing falls apart– that is story.
Aiken reminds us that children do not read to find out what happens next, but to find out why. There are plenty of other nuggets in The Way to Write for Children for those of you looking for one more book on craft.