Lessons from R. L. Stine’s Masterclass #1: No moralising

1024 548 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

Last year I took R. L. Stine’s masterclass on writing horror for young readers and it was utterly fascinating. I was a huge Point Horror fan as a teenager and still read a lot of middle grade and YA horror now, so I knew I had to sign up for this course. Just minutes in and I’d completely fallen in love with him. I wholeheartedly recommend the class to anybody remotely interested in writing kidlit because Stine is such a joy to listen to and hilarious to boot. There’s so much good stuff in his webinars that I’m going to take this one post at a time, looking specifically at his writing values and the advice he gives writers of middle grade and YA horror. This week, he answers a question he gets asked a lot:

What are the morals I’m teaching? None! There aren’t any. The main moral lesson is ‘Run!’

Told you he’s funny! This line had me laughing out loud but it also struck a chord with me as a writer. I think Stine is absolutely right that children’s authors shouldn’t attempt to teach their readers a moral lesson – leave that to the Victorians. The literary landscape has changed since the didactic 1800s and it’s no longer the role of the kidlit author to preach or instruct. We want to give young readers something to think about, but we don’t want to tell them how to think.

But what I suspect Stine is really getting at here is the fact that his stories don’t have an overarching theme or idea holding them together. The Point Horror books are the literary equivalent of a 90s slasher movie, full of flashy scares and red herrings that keep kids guessing until the end. Like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend, they’re not commenting on complex social issues or exploring the teenage psyche, they’re just fun. Please note I am not being derogatory – 90s slasher movies hold a very special place in my heart and I still watch them often. But typically their protagonists don’t change or grow significantly over the course of the story. They have limited character arcs and their primary goal is to, as Stine says, run!

It’s typical in middle grade and YA novels to see the hero go on an emotional journey, their view of the world or themselves shifting throughout the story as they try new things, meet new people, uncover secrets and overcome challenges. Readers want to feel a connection with a book’s protagonist and follow them on this journey, feeling more and more invested in the plot as the character grows.

Plot-driven vs character-driven stories

In Stine’s books, the main character’s emotional journey is secondary to the action plot. Readers pick up Goosebumps or Point Horror for the scares and don’t much care if the protagonist grows as a person by the end of the book. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: R.L. Stine is a bestselling author for a reason. There is obviously plenty of room for plot-driven stories like his in which character development takes a backseat while fun and excitement drive the story. In fact, Stine says on this course that he doesn’t write to scare kids, he writes to get kids reading. He knows accessible, high-action stories like his are probably more likely to excite a reluctant reader than an emotionally rich, character-driven coming of age story, and that’s his goal. And a brilliant goal it is, too. I believe passionately that children should be encouraged to read whatever on earth they want to: comics, chapter books, horror, sci-fi or adult literary fiction. Reading is reading! If a story about swamp monsters or a babysitter stalker gets a ten year old hooked on books for life, that’s a huge win. It certainly worked for me.

However, it’s important to be aware that, nowadays, a lot of agents and publishers are looking for manuscripts with strong characters, particularly if you’re writing for older children or teens. Kids adore R.L. Stine but he doesn’t get a whole lot of respect from critics because his characterisation is often seen as flimsy. But does that matter?

I read an interesting interview with children’s book author Bruce Hale where he talked about the lack of respect his funny stories get from the industry:

Your books are often humorous and filled with adventure, two things that middle grade readers love. Do you think you are treated less seriously as an author because your books are not introspective and sad? 

It’s an old tale in publishing and in Hollywood—funny stories get no respect. Audiences and readers may love them, but critics and those who pass out awards somehow see these humorous or action tales as being less-than. I try to be philosophical about it, since those are the stories that come to me to write. Sure, it’d be great to win awards. But what matters most to me is whether the reader likes my stories. If I can bring joy by bringing laughter, it feels like I’ve done my job well.

What a great answer! If children are enjoying his work, that’s all that matters. Some authors crave industry recognition and literary awards, but others just do it for the love of writing and for the love of their audience. There’s no one right way to write a book!

Again, Stine’s approach clearly works phenomenally well for him, regardless of being snubbed by critics (I’m sure he’s crying all the way to the bank) but it doesn’t mean you have to emulate it to be successful. You can take lessons from Stine and incorporate the exciting, plot-driven elements into your story without sacrificing character and theme. That’s the great thing about writing: the more you read, the more you learn and the faster you figure out what does and doesn’t work for you. So if you’ve never read a Goosebumps or Point Horror before, pick one up and make your own judgements. They’ve sold hundreds of millions of copies for a reason.

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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes