After getting the MasterClass annual pass, I’ve becoming obsessed with watching the different classes MasterClass offers. The most recent class I’ve watched is by R.L. Stine, best known for the children’s series Goosebumps. Regardless of the genre you like to read or write, there are so many great lessons about storytelling to learn from Stine who has sold more than 400 million books.
I can’t cover everything I learned from Stine in this post. There’s too much to share. But if you are a writer, you will really benefit from his lessons. If you are just a fan of Stine, you will also love it. I can’t imagine there being a greater resource to learn about Stine and his process.
(You can check out Stine’s MasterClass here. There are also dozens of other great MasterClasses to choose from that range from cooking to music to sports, fashion and more.)
From the beginning, Stine admits that he’s teaching writing the way that he does it and that it probably flies in the face of how a college professor would teach it. But it’s only the way he knows to write.
On Generating Ideas
Stine says 2/3 of the fan mail he gets asks him where he gets his ideas. He says he doesn’t know where the ideas come from, but he talks about three ways ideas are generated – experience, memory and imagination.
As an example of memory, Stine talks about remembering a time when his parents left him alone at home. So he wrote a book about parents who didn’t come back. As an example of imagination, he says that while he was walking his dog, thinking, he came up with a title ‘Say Cheese and Die.’ Then he imagined a killer camera and it becomes a book idea.
Develop an idea from a catchy title. A good title gets attention but doesn’t give too much away about the book. Stine thinks of titles and, based on the title, wonders what if this happened or what if that happened. Many of Stine’s titles are inspired by 50’s horror movie titles and The Twilight Zone.
You can also use a topic as a starting point instead of a title. Stine does a Halloween book nearly every year. He brainstorms ideas about that topic and sees how he can take it. He also likes to use the topic of camp as a starting topic. Stine says, you only need one good idea, not a dozen.
On the Writing Process
To go from an idea to an outline, ask yourself – what is the conflict? Then build your outline with basic scenes and characters. Stine’s outlines are usually 15-20 pages. He says the more complete they are, the better he can make his book. Stine spends a week outlining a book, making sure there are good surprises, strong middle and chapter endings.
The hardest part of writing is making the plot interesting all the way through the book. An outline helps you see the whole plot before you write. Stine says that when he hears writers say that they wait to learn what their characters will tell them what they will do, he thinks it’s garbage. Stine says he can write so many books because he makes clear outlines.
Stine’s books are plot driven as opposed to character driven. He suggests short chapters with quick, good cliff hangers to keep readers reading. Maximize the adventure.
Once Stine has his scene outlines, he tries to figure out the ending. If he knows the big ending before writing the book, he can do a better job of making it a surprise.
In Stine’s experience, kids will not accept an unhappy ending. Once he wrote an ending where the bad guy gets away and the good guy ends bad. He had fierce feedback in response. Kids begged him to write a sequel. They wanted relief.
Every book he writes needs to have a happy ending. But he tries to add a fun twist to it. He credits the success of his books to surprises and twists. In each book, Stine tries to have three big twists.
Cell phones are making it harder to write because problems can be solved so easily now with the help of calling someone.
Make your books fun for kids. Stine doesn’t worry about moral lessons. His only lesson is run. Adults can read trash and magazines for fun, so why should we expect kids to always learn something. Writers are competing with tablets, tv, etc. You have to make it fun.
Know what age you want to write for. Middle grade is for ages 7-11. Young Adult (YA) is for ages 11-15. But Stine says 40 percent of YA books are read by adult women.
Kids like to read about kids who are slightly older. In Goosebumps, the characters are 12 years old. And in Goosebumps, nobody ever dies. Kids have to know it is a fantasy and couldn’t really happen. For teens, it’s the opposite. Details have to be real. Readers have to believe it. Teens die in those books.
Don’t date your books. For instance, don’t write about a current one-hit pop star. Readers may not get the reference in 10 years.
Read what is selling in your age group. Stine wants Goosebumpsto be at a 5thgrade reading level. His secret is he never challenges the reader. He doesn’t give them new words. He writes short sentences with easy to read words and short chapters.
Use dialogue to tell the story. Stine says his books are 2/3 dialogue because that’s the fun part for readers. He says he’s not great at description. Some writers can describe setting, but he thinks his gift is writing great dialogue.
When writing dialogue, use as little current slang as possible. If you try to sound like teens now, it will be out of date quickly. The same is true for technology. He uses the Walkman as an example. Today’s readers might not know what you are talking about. Also, be careful with references. Kids don’t get many references. Kids also don’t talk in complete sentences. Use sentence fragments.
Create characters that readers identify with. Stine doesn’t worry about characterization. He gets right to the adventure.
You, the writer, are the enemy of the protagonist. You aren’t their hero. You have to get them into as much trouble as possible and then finally clear it up for them.
Stine makes the parents in his books useless. They either aren’t there or they don’t believe the kids. The kids have to use their own wits and imagination.
Stine tries to use the most popular names so more people can identify with them.
Stine writes character descriptions before starting a book so he has a head start on them and doesn’t have to stare at the screen when he gets to a new character.
Have fun with your first draft. Go fast. Do the hard work later. Just keep going. Getting the first draft done proves you have what it takes to get it done.
When revising a draft, look for mistakes, scenes that drag, weather mistakes (cloudy then sunny?) and scenes that don’t go far enough (can I make it scarier?).
If a novel is intimidating, write a short story first.
On Writing Scary Books
Stine likes to write in first-person. The reader knows every smell and thought. It also allows the reader to experience the scares with the protagonist.
Balance what’s happening with thoughts. Describe the danger, but don’t overwhelm your reader with the feeling of being scared.
Hook readers right away. They need to know right away that they will like the characters and the story. End Chapter 1 with some sort of cliffhanger.
To scare kids, tap into your childhood fears.
Make normal locations scary. You might want to set a scary story in scary woods or in some scary land or something. But kids can’t relate to that. Stine sets his books in school, basements, etc. Get in a character’s head and write what they see. Write more scraping sounds, slow building tension, smell, darkness. Don’t skip details that build suspense.
What makes a monster? Anything that can’t be controlled and you can’t do anything about.
It is much harder to write humor than horror. We’re all afraid of the same things: darkness, being lost, etc. But we laugh at different things. Stine laughs at dumb humor like Dumb and Dumber.
Horror and humor are closely aligned. When somebody scares you from behind, you jump but then you laugh. On a big roller coaster, you scream in terror and then laugh. Balance horror and humor, but don’t put in too much horror. There’s no normal life that way.
On Being an Author
Writers love to read. Stine tries to read new fiction all of the time. Books stay with you. Remember what you loved and reset the moments in a new way. Stine used Dickens’ Christmas Carol for his book Young Scrooge. He also wrote A Midsummer Night’s Scream.
You have to decide what kind of writer you want to be. For instance, do you want to be a literary writer or an entertainer? Stine considers himself an entertainer.
Know your market. Don’t try to write something that is its own category. He acknowledges that might not be good advice to everyone, but you need to know your audience and what books people are buying in that genre.
Most children’s authors build fanbases by doing school visits. Adults aren’t ever in the same place, but schools are a great place to reach many kids. They are better than bookstores.
When you’re ready to sell your book, look for book fairs to sell your book.
A lot of publishers expect you to do your marketing and your own social media. Stine agrees that it helps sell books when he’s active on social media.
Stine doesn’t get writer’s block. He credits that to having an outline and breakdown of the characters that tell him where to go next.
Stine makes a goal to write 2,000 words a day. When he hits that mark, he quits. It makes it easier for him to start the next day. Stine says he starts writing at 9:30 a.m. and it usually takes him until 2:30-3:00 p.m. to reach 2,000 words. Goosebumps books need to be 23,000 words.
For everything else Stine teaches, you’ll need to check out his MasterClass for yourself.
**I did not get paid to write this post, but I am an affiliate for MasterClass.