Are you struggling to create enough tension in your middle grade novel? If so, it's important to remember one of the most annoying things preteens have to navigate everyday: boundaries.
For middle school kids, boundaries seem to be everywhere. They are just discovering the joy of freedom and for the first time, start to feel the restrictiveness of the rules and expectations that have been placed on them. On top of that, there is much about their lives that they have absolutely no control over.
What types of boundaries should you consider when plotting your novel? Take a look at these 5 ways kids struggle against their boundaries.
1. Unless your main character is an orphan or is severely neglected, kids of this age often have to ask permission to do just about everything. They have to ask if they can walk to the ice cream shop, go for a bike ride, or ask for a ride to the movies. They may even have to ask permission to walk to the library!
What things does your main character have to ask permission for? What boundaries did your character accept without question until recently, when she realized she might be able to do it on her own? What happens when she's granted this freedom and it goes badly (as it should)?
2. Preteens need approval for some of their relationships. Some preteens complain that their parents won't let them date in middle school. Others are free to do so, or simply don't tell their parents. Friendships can also be controlled during the middle school years. Parents, knowing all too well the power of good and bad friendships, may try to steer their kids in the 'right' direction.
Does your MC have a relationship with someone that his parent would disapprove of? Does he hang out with this person anyway? What happens when this relationship is discovered?
3. Many kids are limited to what possessions they own, especially when it comes to expensive clothes and technology. Kids may get an allowance or monetary gifts from relatives, but most of what they own is purchased for them by their parents. This can create tension when a child wants something that a parent can't or won't buy. As our luck would have it, this is exactly the age in which kids start to pay attention to material things.
Is there something that your character wants more than anything? Is the the goal of the story, or something that will help them with their journey? Maybe it's a guitar or signed pair of Air Jordan's. Or maybe it's to raise a large amount of money for a good cause. Either way, what is the price that must be paid and in what ways is this goal out of reach? What does your character do to earn this item despite the high cost?
4. Children of all ages are reliant on their parents for their most basic needs including housing. If parents decide to move to a new town, children have no choice but to move with them, regardless of how they feel about it. Having little to no control over their living situation can be a huge source of stress, especially for the middle-schooler. Studies have shown that this is the most difficult for children to move somewhere new.
This same kind of tension can also be present when parents force kids to go on a vacation, switch schools, or even switch club teams. The key is that in some situations, parents hold all the cards leaving none for their child who was in the process of learning all about the wonders of freedom.
Has your MC been forced to move or go on a long vacation? If this is happening in your story, how does your character cope? Does she secretly plan to return to her old home? Does she make an effort to do so? How does her journey backfire?
5. Schools also have strong boundaries for their students. These include required attendance, assignments, school rules, and the rules of various clubs and sports. Kids even have to ask to speak in class by raising their hand and ask for a hall pass to go to the bathroom. Peer pressure can create boundaries by influencing what clothes you wear, how you wear your hair, what music you listen to, and what kind of cell phone you have. Technology in the classroom can also give teenagers and preteens boundaries in new and annoying ways - assignments can arrive via email after school hours and be due the next day. Or, an assignment may arrive on Friday night - just in time to ruin the weekend (yes, these things really do happen).
How do the boundaries in school prevent your MC from reaching her goal? How does he push back and what happens when he gets caught?
All of these boundaries provide a very real and strong framework for tension that middle grade readers can identify with. They long for more freedom and will push back against their parents and teachers for it, even if they aren't yet ready for the responsibility. Of course preteen say that having all these boundaries stinks and is totally unfair. However, for you, the writer, they are pure gold when it comes to creating tension in your stories.