Once you’ve learned your colors and fine motor skills, there’s very little point to the game, because it’s mostly dumb luck. You can stumble through the game without any skill, unless it’s the skill of stacking the deck. (I’ve seen a six-year-old try that with jelly-sticky fingers and a guilty look…so subtle.)
So don’t make your stories Candy Land. This may seem silly, but I’ve seen it happen a lot. Here are some examples:
All Sugar, No Substance: These are the stories full of pretty people, witty dialogue, and bright colors. Whee! Fun! But these stories don’t last, and they don’t mean anything. At the risk of assigning a cause-effect where it doesn’t belong, I might even say they don’t last because they don’t mean anything. I’m not saying that you have to work a heavy-handed moral into your story or have everyone die tragically at the end. Just don’t focus so much on funny one-liners or a clever plot twist that you miss the point of storytelling.
Luck of the Draw: This is more of a one-time thing in some stories. There is a looming crisis, but just as all hope seems lost, there is an unexpected occurrence or realization or intervention that makes everything right. Sometimes, we can buy the random happenstance if it means something bad happens to the main character (readers seem to be cynical that way), but not if it helps the main character. Or maybe we’re just tired of the fact that we never stumble upon fairy godmothers, convenient bottles of anti-venom, or escape levers in our lives when we need them most. So we want the main character to solve things on his own just like we have to.
Letdown Ending: Face it, once you’re out of kindergarten, you’re not going to brag about winning Candy Land. The stakes aren’t high enough. It wasn’t an accomplishment because you didn’t have to work all that hard. Some stories are the same way—you get to the end and yawn instead of cheering. There might be many things to blame here: characters the reader doesn’t care about, lack of good conflict, predictable plot, or a one-dimensional villain that you knew all along would be defeated. The good endings are the ones where the protagonist had to struggle to win. Then the audience will celebrate with them.
Now, I don’t want to be too hard on Candy Land. The very fact that it works as a game at all has to do with the fact that it tells a story—a simple story, yes, but I’m sure the peril of the missing king of Candy Land is absolutely captivating if you’re four years old.
There is a simple plot line, but the players are never a part of that plot. They are never required to make a decision or invest anything in the game. They just turn over cards and follow the instructions.
So, if you don’t want your story to be like Candy Land, involve the reader. Make them choose between two likeable characters on opposite sides of a conflict. Write in such a way that they care about the ending and can’t guess exactly what it’s going to be. And don’t send them all the way back to the start when they think they’ve almost made it to the end ("And then Carlisle woke up, his heart pounding. 'It was only a dream,' he sighed, relieved."), or they’ll just feel cheated.