Mining for Heart: “Breaking the Rules” by Carrie Finison

There are lots of rules about writing for children and breaking them usually results in rejections. But…like in most aspects of life, if you do it right, that story might just turn out for the better. Thank you, Carrie Finison, for sharing your process in DON’T HUG DOUG!

And thank you for offering a GIVEAWAY! Leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of DON’T HUG DOUG. 

The winner of Susan Kusel’s THE PASSOVER GUEST is…. Maria Marshall! Congratulations!

Mining for Heart by Breaking the Rules  By Carrie FinisonCarrie_Finison_headshot

When I first began writing my picture book DON’T HUG DOUG, I thought I knew what story I was telling. It was about a little boy who didn’t like hugs and who tried all sorts of things to avoid getting one from his overly-huggy aunt, uncle, and cousin when they came to visit. In the end of that early version, Doug adopted a puppy and deflected all his relatives’ loving attention onto his adorable new pet.

The story was fun to read and followed the “rules” of the traditional narrative structure — Doug made two humorous attempts at avoiding his relatives’ hugs until succeeding on his third try. He had agency and he ultimately solved his problem himself, in his own way. But as I mulled over comments from my critique partners, I realized that the heart of the story wasn’t working. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what, or how to fix it.

I put the story away for over a year as I thought about it, off and on, and also worked on other things. Over that time, I came to realize three things:

  1. The conflict was the wrong conflict. It wasn’t just about Doug avoiding a hug from his relatives during a one-time visit. It was much deeper than that. It was about Doug’s relationship with these people, about the fact that they weren’t listening to him or respecting his feelings about hugs, and (on the flip side) about the rejection that the relatives experienced when Doug said “no” to a hug from them.
  2. This was not a problem that Doug could solve by himself. He couldn’t MAKE his relatives listen to him and he also couldn’t stop them from feeling rejected when he refused to hug them.
  3. The takeaway for the reader was not helpful. I don’t set out to “teach a lesson” with any story, but I do want each story to say something true about life — something that kids can see reflected in their own lives. And perhaps, within the story, play out a solution that readers can implement in their own way when they find themselves in similar circumstances.

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At the time, these problems seemed kind of insurmountable, which is probably why it took me over a year to come back to the story. When I did, I decided the only way through was to simplify. I knew I would not be able to resolve these story issues within the confines of a traditional narrative story arc. Doug could NOT solve this problem by himself. I needed to break “the rules” and break out of that structure if poor Doug was to have any hope of escaping these hugs.

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Doug_front_cover_webI decided to boil things down to the most basic message, the heart of the story ­— don’t hug someone who doesn’t want to be hugged. As the words of this new draft came out, the story grew away from the traditional narrative structure, and became more of a concept book. In a traditional narrative, change, growth, and learning occurs in the main character. With a concept book, change, growth, and learning occurs in the reader themselves. As the writer, I could help Doug state his preferences in a way that would make the reader listen. And, I hope, the book will give child and adult readers practice asking out loud the question, “Do you want a hug?” and then answering that question in a variety of different ways. Not only would readers listen to Doug — they could listen to each other.

Someone recently said that they wished storytelling “rules” were called “tools” instead. The rule of three, the three act structure, the hero’s journey — these are all wonderful tools that can help writers tell a good story. But if they’re not serving your story or your purpose for writing, it’s OK to try something different. Follow the heart of your story where it leads and you’ll discover the best way to tell it.

Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of DON’T HUG DOUG. (US addresses only, please)


19 thoughts on “Mining for Heart: “Breaking the Rules” by Carrie Finison

  1. This is a great read! I love hearing about the evolution of a story! And I love the idea of using the term ‘tools’ instead of rules, options rather than obligations. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is so refreshing to hear that you faced the fact that a main character cannot always solve their problems on their own. I struggle with this ‘rule’ of picture books because it does not mirror real life. Children should and do need to ask for help from others at times. I am glad you were able to restructure your book. It looks wonderful. Congratulations!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you Carrie for sharing all the wonderful insights you learned from writing story. I’m going to check it out at our library:) Congrats!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful analysis of how DHD evolved. I’m glad that your three realizations ended up guiding the new version. And now you’ve got me thinking about a couple of my books and whether this would apply to them. Thank you! And yes, “TOOLS” NOT “RULES” should be everyone’s mantra!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am so glad this book is receiving so much buzz! Enjoyed the interview with Carrie. I like that she broke away from the “traditional” mold to tell the story! Thinking outside the box really added to this story. Great ending! Don’t enter me in the contest, because I have a copy to review.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fast forward to this pandemic with no kisses and no hugs. We have gone back to our “Hugga, Hugga” days. We had elderly great-grandparents and then grandparents and they all wanted hugs. But it never failed that one of the kiddos had a cold, a runny nose or a cough. So we came up with a safer hug.. We would all say “Hugga, hugga” three times. The kiddos thought it was so funny and so did the elders. We didn’t share germs and we all still felt loved. Now, we are all back doing this again. Feeling the love while staying safe. It is our family’s tool. I think Doug would approve.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. As a Kindergarten teacher, I’m always looking for books for social emotional learning – and I wish books like these started coming to light ages ago. These are such important topics and my kiddos would benefit greatly from this book!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I will be purchasing this book for my youngest daughter- not almost 19. This hug vs. not hug thing was always an issue in our family. My other kids loved hugs- her not so much and family would really tease her and try and hug her- made a joke out of something that really wasn’t funny. Great idea and I am glad you sat on the book and changed the conflict.

    Liked by 2 people

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