by Shutta Crum

Intention: that’s an important word—especially now as we celebrate the month of Janus (the god of beginnings) and when we make our resolutions, or we begin Storystorm month. But, like Janus, intention is a two-faced concept. It makes all the difference in the world—and, ultimately, none. Let me explain . . .

It’s a necessary word when I ask myself, what do I intend to get accomplished today—in addition to my picture book idea for Storystorm? When I write, intention is critical. Crafting characters, I need to know what each one’s intentions are so I can intertwine them and build the overall structure of the story, scene by scene. But how do you get a grasp on fictional character intentions? Well . . . first, you start off simply assigning what seems like the obvious intention for that character based on the his/her background and a sketchy idea for a plot.  Let’s say your main character needs to get home because his father is gravely ill. That’s his primary intention.

Ok. You start writing. His path crosses with others who prevent him from hurrying home, and you make him choose between two honorable tasks which undermines his intention of doing that. (You’re using all the good things you’ve learned about plotting.) Then suddenly, you get the urge to have your main character turn onto a path you hadn’t expected him to take. This is good! You should be open to serendipity and surprise while you write. Now, you slowly begin to discover that your main character’s real intention is not just to get home to see his father, but to get home and make sure the father’s will gets changed in your main character’s favor before the old man croaks.

What I have come to understand is that clarifying intention happens through a process of discovery; the more you write the clearer all your characters’ intentions become. And this may not happen until you’ve written a couple of drafts.  Once the true intentions of your characters are revealed you can begin to honestly revise. Yes, it can be a lot of work wandering around lost for a good deal of time to get clear on intention. But it is clarity of intention that will then allow you to lead your reader to the heart of your story and to create a riveting plot. And while it’s important for you, the author, to be clear about intention it may be that you will want to obscure that intention intentionally for your reader—depending upon the age of your audience.

In many picture books for very young readers/listeners we need to know right away what the goal of the hero/heroine is. Lizard has to get the birthday cake safely to the party despite the hot sands of the desert. The child has lost polka-dot baby and can’t go to sleep without it, etc. But often it is the slow reveal of multi-faceted intention that’s critically important to sustain a reader’s attention.  It’s the surprises, the freshness, the sudden turns, and the realistic and humble bumbling toward enlightenment that can entice and keep a reader reading. This then leads to the satisfying ending that either rewards or thwarts your characters’ intentions.

Finally, let me say that all this butt-in-chair work on intention is critical. But it’s also, ultimately, not important. But-but-but you’ve just spent all this time getting to know intention—and now we have an about-face! (Hey there, Janus! Or, “embrace the ambiguity,” as writer Uma Krishnaswami says.)

What’s going on? Well, when your book is out, your poem published, your play performed, your music sung, or your artwork viewed, intention—like an untrustworthy friend—takes a scamper. Whatever you, as the creator of your work, intended your creation to do does not matter much. All that’s important is the perception and personally altered conception of it by your audience.

I’ve gotten reviews that made me scratch my head and say, “Oh! Is that what I wrote?” I had no idea. And that is okay!

Enjoying art is a personal experience. Your overall intentions as a creator should, rightly, not dictate how your art is taken in by the art lover. The audience can, and does, internalize your work. Readers/listeners/viewers will compare it against a multitude of life experiences and bases of knowledge—whatever the age of those art appreciators. This is good. Art is not static. It’s a reenergizing force that zooms onward and outward to become . . . who knows? It takes on a life of its own—regardless of whatever you intended your work to do. And isn’t that wonderful?


Shutta Crum is the author of several middle-grade novels and many picture books, poems and magazine articles, as well as an oft-requested presenter and speaker. THUNDER-BOOMER! was an ALA and a Smithsonian “Notable Book.” MINE! was reviewed by the N.Y. Times as “a delightful example of the drama and emotion that a nearly wordless book can convey.” Her books have made Bank Street College lists as well as state award lists. MOUSELING’S WORDS (2017) and a reprint of the Kentucky-based SPITTING IMAGE (2018) are her latest books. WHEN YOU GET HERE, a collection of poems for adults, will be published in 2020. More info:

Shutta is giving away a picture book critique.

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