THE LAST CHILD is an 117,000 word novel I finished over a period of several years. It is an epic ‘Portal Fantasy,’ which means the main characters travel from our world to a magical one via some kind of ‘portal.’
The book moved ahead of 4,000 other submissions before advancing to the second round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. I’m really proud of the work I did on it. The world-building is very rich, deep and exciting.
Since The Last Child is a novel, I cannot visually illustrate all of its dynamic story lines, characters and the like. What I will try to do below is isolate a few elements which compare to aspects of game design.
Here is an overview of the plot.
In 1532, a young orphan’s desperate wish creates a world where children’s wishes come true. To remain there, however, imposes a terrible price…one the boy is willing to pay.
Almost 500 years later, the children of our world are disappearing at an alarming rate. Ten-year-old Danny Thompson isn’t truly scared until his mom goes missing. Alone, he finds himself teetering on the edge of a centuries-old mystery. He learns his mother has been kidnapped, taken to a dark and twisted world where only children can survive– and every moment there brings her closer to death.
Danny must now place his trust in the Keepsakes, an underground resistance of militant stuffed animals devoted to returning missing children to their families. Wielding night-lights, blankets and other childhood trinkets, now transformed into extraordinary weapons, he dives into the world of monsters to rescue his mom and unlock the mystery at the heart of her disappearance.
He desperately wants to find his mother, but the fiend who kidnapped her is desperate too, longing for a secret Danny’s mother alone possesses. With this knowledge, the tyrant’s godlike powers will become absolute, threatening not only Danny and his mom but every child on the face of the earth.
Story Beats & Pacing
I found the secret of pacing a gigantic novel is through the chapters. Chapters are the key, because they can introduce things, transition, slow or speed up the pacing of a story. They are also great places to add cliffhangers, intriguing readers with their last sentences to read more in order to find out what happens.
Here is a sample of what I am describing. In it, Danny (the protagonist) is already in the World of Monsters, but he is alone because his guide, Monkey, has been abducted. Now he is about to undertake a mission with his new Keepsake friends to rescue him. Bearly, a small yet tough Keepsake general, is about to instruct Danny on how to use his mundane items (nightlight, blanket, silly string, etc.) which have now been transformed into powerful weapons.
“And what about Danny?” the doll asked.
Bearly looked Danny up and down. “I think he can handle himself. Danny, I assume Monkey had you bring some things with you?”
Danny nodded. “They’re in my backpack.”
“Good. Place each onto the floor. I’m going to teach you how to use them.”
Previously in this chapter, I gave readers a taste of how very powerful these items have become. Now, to discover the extent of that power the reader must continue into the next chapter.
One of my strongest talents is world-building, and it’s one of my favorite things to do, too. Once I get into a head-space of being ‘in the world,’ I can see, hear and feel every aspect of it. I can imagine the landscapes, see the cities, know the peoples and their cultures, and get a feel for the underlying evils that may be hiding throughout.
The story begins to develop in my brain and unfolds just like I’m watching a movie. So creating stories and world-building for me is more of a ‘writing down what I see’ than it is ‘coming up with something awesome.’
I hope that makes sense!
Danny’s main allies in The Last Child are the Keepsakes. Keepsakes are stuffed-animals who come to life if the child who owns them is ever abducted and taken into the World of Monsters. Their mission is to go after their abducted child and return him or her safely to their family.
Keepsakes come in a variety of sizes, skills and personalities. They gather in secret bases hidden throughout the World of Monsters, working together to find their lost children. Some have been searching so long that they have accumulated many scars and tears from all their run-ins with monsters.
Keepsakes are resilient, courageous and steadfast. They are protectors, utterly devoted to their children.
Here are a few, by name.
A skinny, red-furred monkey in a gray business vest, cuff-links and top hat. His hat never falls off, even when he is upside down. He is nimble, calm under pressure, optimistic and kind. His protected child (his ‘Ward’) is the main character, Danny Thompson.
A squat, fat, light-blue polar bear. Wears a red vest over a belly so wide its single button barely holds it together. Gruff, tough and sly. Speaks with a Scottish accent. He’s been around the block and has an attitude, but a kind heart for children. He carries a very powerful plastic baseball bat, and his child/Ward is Danny’s mom.
A small, white teddy bear with a red stocking cap. His is worn and battered, with a right arm that has been resewn many times from injury. He is the General/leader of the Keepsake base hidden beneath a giant bridge known as IceFall Overpass. He is a tough, no nonsense, all-business Keepsake with a very serious job to do. He has been searching for his Ward, a girl named Elaine, for almost 13 years.
A doll in a pink dress with mismatched eyes and yellow yarn for hair. She is an intelligence specialist and the only Keepsake who has learned to read the monsters’ written language. Wendy is one of the oldest Keepsakes alive, having looked for her Ward for over 97 years. The fact that she is still alive confounds her, because Keepsakes are only alive for as long as their child is, and no child in the World of Monsters ever lives past the age of 18.
A black-and-white striped raccoon with an incredible sense of smell, but who is also unfortunately allergic to monsters. He carries a close-pin to pinch his nose (to stop himself from sneezing) whenever stealth is required. He has been searching for his Ward, Maggie, for about 3 months.
Monsters is the general term used to describe those creatures that inhabit the dark, cursed realm of The Last Child. These monsters are actually the twisted versions of the original inhabitants of that world. They all hate children and seek to kidnap or destroy any child they can catch.
Monsters are able to enter our world through any place feared by children: closets, under beds, basements, crawlspaces, caves and even scary water. The more fear a child has of a place, the more open the passage will be.
Greater monsters have individual names, but lesser monsters are only known by their type. Here are a few examples.
Jozef, the King of Shadows
The original child who wished the world where ‘children’s wishes come true’ into being. He corrupted it though by crushing the spirits of other children in order to stay young. He is the main villain of the novel and the one who stole Danny’s mom in order to gain her secret of an eternal, child-like spirit.
Old Mrs. Kearning (the ‘Crone’)
A long nosed, elderly woman-looking creature with the body of a huge snake. When a Keepsake is captured by the monsters, they often send it to her because she is extremely effective in getting information out of unwilling prisoners.
Saeson, the Witch of Swarms
A swarm of large wasps with long, stringy legs (like a centipede’s). Each wasp has three sets of wings and a stinger that hangs from its back like a sickle. Saeson can never really be fully defeated, for if even one wasp escapes destruction, she can rebuild herself. She is a vengeful wretch and wants payback on the Keepsakes for her many years of imprisonment by them.
Small, shelled creatures which look like closed, brown flower buds. When they open and unfold, they flip onto spider-like legs and can spray a poisonous gas from vents in their shells which smells like sweaty feet. They hiss to communicate with other Nilstails and their Queen.
“Closed flower in a shell, don’t touch and all will be well.” -a Keepsake rhyme.
Small, rat-like creatures with shiny teeth of steel. They are obsessed with organization, and thus can be easily distracted by throwing puzzle pieces at them (which they then attempt to fit together).
Jello-like blob, pukes slime that eats away cloth fiber like acid. Harmless to skin, deadly to stuffed-animals.
To impart a strong juxtaposition between the World of Monsters and the World of Children, I took mundane items from childhood, focused on their essence (what their core purpose was) and exaggerated those attributes into powerful abilities. These abilities are activated once the item is brought into the World of Monsters. Here are a few examples. There are many more in the book.
Emits a brilliant light when turned on. Does not require electricity to do so when used in the world of monsters. Will continue to work forever, unless the bulb is smashed. Used in our world to protect the rooms of children by warding off creatures.
One of the most valuable tools a child can possess. It can be used to protect a child against even the strongest of impacts. It acts like a hardened, steel curtain. It can be used for lots of other things too, such as a trampoline.
Creates a tent over the user when first opened. Can be used to slow falls, like a parachute or hang glider. The size of the tent/parachute can be adjusted by turning a ring on the handle. If seen from above, the tent acts as a perfect camouflage, hiding those under it while still showing the ground there.
Used to capture small creatures, such as insects, and kill them.
Rubber Super Ball
This small ball bounces around a room at high speed, punching holes through stone and wood. It is like a ricocheting round bullet, often going right through one wall, into the next room, bouncing off something there and punching back through the wall into the room it came from. Very dangerous.
Used as caltrops to damage and thus slow enemies walking over them.
The Last Child’s world was a lot of fun to discover. I let the story do most of the world-building, naming and describing locations as the characters experience them. I love placing what I call ‘story seeds,’ which are little ideas or names, etc. dropped throughout the book which can later be developed and explored.
In The Last Child, the ‘World of Monsters’ is the dark realm in which most of the story takes place. It is a cursed world where kidnapped children are brought to, and in which only children can exist. Hundreds of years prior it was a golden land where wishes came true, but it became cursed when the villain and his fellow orphans began to steal and break the spirits of children.
There are many interesting locations in The Last Child, creating a huge and captivating map. Here are a few, including some in which the climax of the novel takes place.
The Rotting Forest
A grotesque, labyrinthine jungle of rotting trees, deep, murky pools and dangerous monsters. It is a place where the forest has spread like a fungus, gripping everything in a mantle of moss and decay.
The Forgotten City
The ruins of a once great medieval city, and the aftermath of a terrible war of magic. Shells of buildings, abandoned shops, jagged craters and a giant fissure splitting it in two. Relatively safe during the day, but a very dangerous place at night as creatures that were in hiding roam the streets.
The Frozen Canyon
A profoundly deep canyon separating the Forgotten City from the darker lands to the east. At its bottom, a half-frozen river runs southerly towards the Ocean of Sand. Over it spans an icicle-encrusted bridge known as IceFall Overpass, underneath which is hidden an underground Keepsake base.
The Mourning Mountains
The red, rain-soaked mountains far to the east, where the Fortress of Ire resides.
The heavy rains that endlessly surround the Mourning Mountains and Fortress of Ire, protecting them from the Keepsakes (Keepsakes/stuffed-animals die if they get wet).
The Fortress of Ire
The central home of all monsters in this part of the world, and the seat of the King of Shadows (villain).
The Weeping Walls
The reddish, rust-colored cliffs supporting the Fortress of Ire.
The Tower of Tears
The highest tower of the Fortress of Ire, piercing the clouds themselves. The villain’s domain. His original castle, now twisted and corrupt.
© Ron M. Francesangelo