Sunday, June 25, 2017

How to Write a Picture Book - Part 6

In Part 5 of my series of posts on writing picture books for children I suggested first just listing what ‘events’ happen and how the main character reacts to each one.

 Here’s my starting list in a story that I’m still working on:

·         Penny platypus is tired of cleaning up the stream
·         Penny finds a large sheet of paper amongst the rubbish
·         Penny asks Frank frog what it is
·         Frank tells her it’s a map that can be used to find beautiful places
·         Penny throws a stone on to the map and decides to go to the place where the stone lands.
·         Problem - which way should she walk?
·         Frank offers to help her find the place
·         Penny and Frank leave home

 The aim has been to have one action and reaction sequence follow one another in a logical flow.

Screenwriters call an action/reaction unit a ‘beat’, the beats join to make a scene and scenes join to make acts. Thinking about the story that you are trying to write, by now I hope you have clarified a problem for the main character, events that will take place in the plot and how the story will be resolved.

 Now you will place them all on a ‘time line’ of numbered pages, or on a storyboard, taking account of which pages will be used for titles, legals etc.. The exact page number position of each event may get changed – but setting out the story this way will help make sure each element gets a sensible amount of focus and the story will have a ‘balanced structure’.

I write my events on index cards or small pieces of paper and paper-clip them to the pages of a dummy book made from 8 sheets of copier paper folded in half and stapled together.

Eve Heidi Bine-Stock has written 3 brilliant books on writing - ‘How to Write a Children’s Picture Book’, volumes 1, 2 and 3. I make no financial gain if you buy any of them, but I do believe that all picture book writers, no matter now experienced, should have a copy of each one. In Volume 1 you’ll learn how an understanding of the importance of the structure of the story is the key to writing a successful picture book and she likens ‘structure’ to a coat-hanger on which one can hang an infinite variety of clothes, i.e. stories.

Click on the cover images for details.


I’m sure it will come as no surprise that most picture book stories are in three acts – a beginning ‘first act’, which sets up the problem; the ‘second act’ in which obstacles are encountered; then the problem is resolved in the ‘third act’. This is symmetrical, and, through analysis of already published books you’ll find that in the majority of well-loved stories, act one and three are almost of identical length, about 20% each of the total number of pages in the book. In a 32 page book, that’s 5-7 pages each. It is very rare that Act 2 is shorter than the lengths of Act 1 and Act 3 combined. You recognise the start of Act 2 by an event – something that happens that causes the story to move in a different direction. Eve Heidi Bine-Stock calls this ‘Plot Twist 1’. ‘Plot Twist 2’ is similarly like a punctuation mark, and is something that happens in the story that moves it in a new direction that will lead to the resolution. Being like punctuation, each is short and only a page or two in length.

But did you realise that most picture book stories also have a distinct ‘Mid-Point’ punctuation in middle of Act 2, that divides the act into two themes, but links them? Both halves of the act are of similar lengths. This Mid-Point can be a single incident, which could only take up a phrase of description - perhaps signing a transition from day to night, or before and after, for example. It will take up no more than 2 pages. Alternatively, in the middle of Act 2, there can be a ‘Mid-Spot’ interlude of 3 to 5 pages, again, with events that happen at its start and finish that mark it off as a separate entity.Some stories also have a ‘Coda’ – a short addition, a page or two at the most, that adds something after the story has actually finished, for example ‘…and the fox family happily stayed there for ever.’

Disregarding the title page and legals, here’s Ms Binne-Stock’s breakdown of Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak: 

Beginning of Act 1
Page 1 – Max is wild 

Act 1 Set-up
6 pages - Max is so mischievous he is sent to bed without his supper 

Plot-Twist 1 – The start of Act 2
2 pages – The forest grows 

First half of Act 2 – Conflict
8 pages – Max sails away 

Mid-Point left marker
1 page – Lands ashore 

3 pages – Tames the Wild Things 

Mid-Point right marker
1 page – Max is made King of the Wild Things 

2nd half of Act 2
7 pages – Wild rumpus 

Plot-Twist 2 – Finish of Act 2
1 page – Max misses home 

Act 3 - Resolution
8 pages – Returns home 
1 page – Supper is still hot 

…and she gives many more examples from well-known and acclaimed books and other  structure plans including ‘Iterative’ which is also balanced, such as: 

Act 1

1st half Act 2

Mid-Point or Mid-Spot

2nd half Act 2

Act 3
















Stories with these structures are not only satisfying to readers (the child reads the pictures while the adult reads the text), they also help authors ensure that one part of the story is not given too much or too little attention.

You need to read her book!

You don't have to always create an absolutely perfect balance, but I do try to get as close as I can.

Do you recall that I described an action/reaction sequence as a 'beat'? How many beats are there in Act 2 of your story? Yes, it's time to start counting.

Whatever total you arrive at, this is usually balanced by the same number of beats in the first and second halves of Act 2, and in Act 3.
So, before writing the sentences, it’s a good plan to list the action/reaction beat sequences, count and balance them until each scene and act is complete.
Every action will produce a reaction (either ‘inner’ or ‘outer’) and in each scene in your story, a character is trying to achieve an immediate goal (which they may or may not achieve). As they react to what’s happened, they will set a new ‘immediate goal’ as they aim towards their ‘overall goal’.
When a character speaks or does something, it’s an ‘outer action’ or ‘outer reaction’. When someone thinks something, it’s an ‘inner reaction’. Inner reactions, and outer actions and reactions, can also be shown in the pictures.
‘Jenny painted a picture of her Aunt Mary’s garden (Outer action). “I think it needs some more flowers,” she said (Outer reaction). She added five yellow sunflowers (Outer action – which could just be illustrated without the use of words). “That looks better!” she said (Outer reaction).
In picture books, most reactions are doing something or saying something, because characters are unable to read another’s mind (what they are thinking or feeling or wishing for), and wishes and thoughts, smells and sounds cannot be illustrated. But inner thoughts can be included. In picture books, however, inner reactions always lead to an accompanying outer reaction:
William (goat) eats Ruth’s door-mat (Outer action - illustrated).
Ruth was horrified when she saw the holes (Inner reaction). “Are you that hungry?” she asked (Outer reaction).’
Although dialogue can be effective in describing feelings and desires, ‘telling us’ these things (horror in this case) should be avoided wherever possible. It’s expected now that we will be ‘shown’ how a character feels by what they do. In the above example, it would have been better to have left out the inner reaction description and left it to the illustrator to draw an irate and distressed Ruth. That’s what picture books are all about – having the illustrations do half the work. And what a character does will give us insight into how they feel. An outer reaction could have been “Aagghhhh!” Ruth screamed. She’s shown grabbing the mat and running inside in an illustration. “If you’re that hungry, I’ll find you some carrots. Wait there!”
If there is an action and no immediate reaction, the reader wonders ‘why not?’ This can be used to build suspense or as part of a special joke, but there has to be a definite reason for leaving it out. Normally, this ‘action leads to reaction’ linking sequence is constantly maintained in picture books.
Characters can also react to things or conditions:

‘Ice crystals (Things) covered most of the window, and there was very little (Condition) glass that David could see through. He went outside and started to scrape the crystals off (Outer reaction)…’
Although it might be grammatically correct to write:
“Jimbo raced down the beach and picked up the stick that Dennis had thrown for him to find.”
it’s the wrong order for books of this genre. Dennis must act first – Jimbo must then react to it. ‘Action leads to reaction.’
Imagine your story as a movie and you are giving instructions for the events in sequence:
Dennis throws the stick. Jimbo happily chases after it.
This could make good writing if telling the story in the present tense, but you could also translate it to past tense for your story, if you wished, and you’d still have good active sentences that readers (and publishers) like:

‘Dennis threw the stick. Jimbo happilly raced down the beach after it.’

This will help you to avoid the dreaded passive use of ‘was’.

Dennis was throwing  -  No, he threw!  

Jimbo was happy as he raced – No, he happily raced!
“Racing down the beach makes me feel good,” said Jimbo.

I hope these posts will help you create wonderful stories. Next we'll talk about rhythm (not rhyme).

Peter Taylor

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