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Plot Guidelines for Writing in Different Fiction Genres

From mysteries to thrillers to historical fiction – learn the rules of the road for developing your plot.


Genre writing requires particular attention to plot, as each genre has its own unique plot structure. When creating your characters and determining your story’s catalyst, keep in mind where the overall arc of your plot needs to go. Here are some general guidelines for the most popular children’s book genres. (Note: Many authors combine two or more genres, writing a fantasy/adventure or historical fiction/mystery.)


Mysteries: In mysteries, the plot is extremely important. It’s advised that authors work out their main mystery plot line before they begin to write. Several elements are important for successful mysteries for children:

  1. The reader should have access to the same clues as the protagonist.
  2. “Red herrings” (misdirected clues or suspicious characters who turn out to be innocent) help throw obstacles in the detective’s path and add suspense.
  3. The protagonist (the detective) should have some attributes that make him/her the best person to solve the case: a photographic memory; an intense interest in a topic that ties in with the crime; a personal connection to the case; an overly-persistent streak that keeps the detective from giving up. The detective should also have some flaws that get him/her into trouble.
  4. If the detective has a sidekick, make it count. Give this character a few talents that fill the holes in the detective’s abilities.
  5. It’s OK to have the characters get into situations that are more dangerous than we’d want the average kid to try. Kids read mysteries to be entertained and taken out of their own worlds. The older the reader, the more dangerous the plot can be.


Historical fiction: Remember that the time period is the setting, and should remain in the background. It will affect who your characters are and what they do, but not any more than if the story was set in modern times. Work in the details of setting as your character interacts with them: have her hitch up her hoop skirt as she steps into the carriage; allow him to draw water from the well so Mom can cook the holiday goose, etc. Characters won’t remark upon the strangeness of their own time period.

Do allow the conflicts of the plot to be affected by the time period, but also work in universal ideas. For example, a boy may be getting bullied in school in 1860, but how his parents/teacher react to it, and what he has to do to stop the bullying, may be distinct to the time and place in which he lives.


Fantasy: These books are populated by fantasy creatures (elves, fairies, giants, etc.), talking animals, and humans who can all interact with each other. Fantasy occupies another world that might look like our world, but is different. You can make up whatever rules for this world that you’d like, but be consistent. If dogs talk to humans but cats don’t, then you have to explain why in the story.

Fantasy also often includes magic. Magic can be used to get your characters into trouble, and may be one of the tools they use to get out of trouble, but it can’t be their only tool. And if a character is using magic to help himself, he needs to earn it. In other words, he can’t just wave a wand and make the bad guys go away. But if he learns to cast some spells, through hard work and effort, he can use those spells in conjunction with other talents to solve his problems.


Science fiction: Like fantasy, science fiction takes place in a world that doesn’t really exist. It may be our world in the future, or another world similar to ours. And like fantasy, whatever rules you create for the world have to remain consistent. Science fiction can be populated with strange creatures that may have some fantasy elements (talking animals, for example) but usually doesn’t involve magic. Instead, science fiction relies on technology (real and imagined) to characterize the world and create plot twists.

Science fiction and fantasy are often combined in the same book, with fantasy creatures living in a future or parallel world to ours, and using technology. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series (upper middle grade) is one example.

Science fiction and fantasy often involve a journey or quest of some type by the main character. Also, what’s at stake for the character is often bigger than herself. The future of the world, the survival of a species, the unseating of an evil dictator might depend on the protagonist’s success. This is more of a given in science fiction, but fantasy can have these epic stakes as well.


Thriller/Suspense: Very plot-driven books, with lots of action and danger. But the “thriller” part should also touch on some dark aspect of your protagonist’s character. Push his buttons, force him to deal with his biggest fear, etc. Books that also fall into this category are stories with vampires and werewolves, or other mythological characters that represent man’s dark side.


Adventure: Also very action-driven, but the adventure forces the protagonist to reach inside herself and find hidden strengths. Characters grow substantially from their experience. The adventure often involves pitting the protagonist against nature in some way, as well as other characters.


Laura Backes

Laura is the founder and publisher of Children's Book Insider, and co-founder of Her work has appeared in Writer's Digest and The Writer magazines, as well as on numerous writing blogs. She's the technical editor of "Writing Children's Books for Dummies", and her book "Best Books for Kids Who (Think They) Hate to Read" is published by Random House. Through webinars, workshops, and online courses, Laura has taught thousands of children's book writers how to improve their craft .