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

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

How to Write a Picture Book - Part 5

Maybe I should clarify what a picture book actually is and how it will be used.

There are many kinds of children’s books illustrated with pictures – stories with words; wordless stories; narrative non-fiction (for example, the life-cycle of a particular animal that has been worked into a story); counting, alphabet, time, colour recognition; works of art; graphic novels; non-fiction; board-books; books that link words to pictures to aid spelling and reading skills, and more. They are produced for a full range of ages from babies to young adults.

Picture books (also called picture book stories, picturebooks, picture storybooks or picture story books) are for shared reading, for children who are mainly 7 years old and younger. This means that words can be included that will sound good (which is so so important) when read by an adult and have a meaning which is obvious from their context (like ‘nubble’ – which may not be used in everyday speech), or which could be difficult for a young child to read them self (like ‘luxuriant’, or made up words such as ‘eruptublasted’ or ‘hyperboggulated’). While an adult is reading the text, the child will be reading the pictures.

Today, ‘picture books’ are never stories that can be read on radio and fully understood without reference to the pictures.

Books where the illustrations are included purely to break up the pages of text and give the reader a pleasant experience, are ‘beginner readers’ or ‘illustrated story books’.

The pictures in a ‘picture book’ add to and tell a significant part of the story. Occasionally, they can tell the whole story.

What picture books have you been reading? Have you tried writing the plot of each one in a sentence or two? For example:

The main character is introduced and given instructions, but they are not followed and there’s trouble, but the character returns home and is still loved. (Peter Rabbit)

Life is terrible for the main character, which is a problem. Something happens and life gets better, but the character acts and there’s disaster …but all is well at the end and life is great. (Cinderella)

Here are some other simple plot descriptions – see which books that you’ve read fall into one of these:

All is going well until… there’s a problem. The main character makes a response, but things get worse, then they solve the problem at the third attempt they succeed and life is good.

The main character has a ‘character flaw’ which is obvious by the things they do. Something happens and because of the flaw the situation gets worse, but the main character decides to change and all is good at the end.

There’s a problem right from the beginning and the main character tries to solve it, but things get worse. The problem is solved and life is good.

The main character has a good character feature, but other individuals cause the ‘hero’ to abandon this. There’s suffering for all until the hero (main character) returns to their original nature which is now recognised as beneficial, and the other individuals give up their demands for the hero to change.

There are other plans, but a large number of popular picture books do fit one of these plots!

It may be useful to base your story on one of these models …but don’t try to write all the words yet – just list what ‘events’ happen and how the main character reacts to each one.

Peter Taylor 

Friday, May 26, 2017

How to Write a Picture Book - Part 4

In this series of posts on writing for children I hope to help you develop your own picture book story in a way that will give it the best possible chance of acceptance by a traditional publisher.

Do you have some ideas for a story? What will your story be about—no, not …about a mouse that… or …a boy who… What will it REALLY be about?

Picture books normally have a theme that helps the child reader to make sense of their world and discover how it works, how to fit in and how to get the most out of life.

Examples of universal themes include:

  • You will always be loved by your parents
  • The value of friendship
  • How to love
  • How to compromise
  • Happiness through sharing
  • When fed lemons, make lemonade
  • The value of honesty

...And I'm sure you can think of many more.

The theme of your story will be its foundation, its soul and life-force. And the story will be an outer layer wrapped around the theme, explaining the world emotionally. The theme could be described as the moral or meaning of the story, or what will be learned.

A story can have more than one theme.

You may choose a theme or themes as a starting point for your story, or the theme(s) only become clear during the planning and plotting …or even after a few drafts have been completed and you’re into editing.

At whatever time you decide on or discover the theme or themes, your story will be the showcase, and so the theme(s) tell you what belongs to your story and what doesn’t ...therefore, as you plot and edit, most scenes, characters, dialogue and images in your story should reflect one of your themes.

You can write an entertaining story without a universal theme …but it’ll never be considered a ‘great’ or ‘significant’ story because the reader won’t gain inspiration or learn anything about the world.

Theme is what people will talk about when they describe or discuss your story—it’s what makes people buy copies. It’s what sales people look for, and they have a voice in the acquisition process.

The theme is why the story exists and should be read (though you need to entertain as well)…


…you must never tell the reader what this theme or meaning is. NEVER write: ‘…and so always remember what Barry Bunny learnt: you must always tell the truth!’ This is a sermon. It’s didactic. It’s preaching, frowned upon—the current belief in publishing being that people don’t want to be preached to, told the moral or how to behave.

Theme needs to be like sugar dissolving in and becoming invisible among the other ingredients of a baked story cake.

Children are smart. If your story is well written and illustrated, the theme will be obvious from the characters' actions, reactions and dialogue - just make sure that it comes across is a worthy theme. You don’t want children to take from your story that ‘the winner is the person who makes the biggest threats’.

In the next post we will look at plotting and story structure. In the meantime, I hope you keep noting ideas and possibilities and remain open-minded as to what you may add or discard later.

Peter Taylor

Monday, May 22, 2017

How to Write a Picture Book - Part 3

In Part 2 of this series of posts on writing picture books for children aged about 3-6 years old, I suggested that you note particular properties of recent and acclaimed examples. But I hope that you enjoyed reading each of them, too.

Let’s think about story and what readers and purchasers will want from your book. First and foremost I believe they seek experiences that will grip their heart and mind through emotional connection. As a writer, you have to engage the reader emotionally. They must feel something. Emotions and feelings should be the lifeblood of your story …but not just one emotion. A whole range of emotions. A rollercoaster ride of emotions.

Emotional engagement is the most compelling reason we choose and continue to read any book throughout our life.

The easiest way to encourage a child to connect with a picture book is to make your story about someone—a main character. Give the character a name to help the connection. 

As this main character is loved, solves a problem, makes mistakes and errors of judgement, interacts with others, faces disaster and everything turns out alright at the end, the child reader sees themselves as the hero or has empathy with the main character who is ‘just like me’ or ‘could be me’. The main character of a picture book is never an adult. The illustration of the main character will depict them 2 years older than the average reader. 

Children are clever. If the story features an animal as a main character, the child understands that it represents a child just like them. If a baby duck wanders from the family and the parent hunts for it, the child reader (who reads the pictures while the story is told) recognises that in the same way they are loved by their own parent who will similarly hunt for them if they get lost.

If a story is only about a child going to grandma’s house or somewhere and having a lovely time, it’s not really a story at all. It’s just a series of events or anecdotes. 

We are eager to keep reading and turn each page of a story (any story for any age of reader) to find out what happens next. The story will be a series of actions and reactions and at each point there will be a tension. This tension will be caused by what outcome we hope for vs what we fear may happen …and we read on to discover the consequences, either good or bad.   

The simplest definition of a story is probably:

Someone wants something and has a hard time getting it.

This implies that there is trouble. Problems to be overcome. Mem Fox says that ‘Only trouble is interesting’.

Who is your main character?
What do they want? Why? What are consequences if they fail to get what they want?
Why can’t they instantly have what they want? What’s the problem?
What or who will make it difficult for the character to achieve their goal? Really difficult!! If the story was about a duckling getting lost, she wouldn’t just walk in the opposite direction. That would be too easy to find her. Perhaps she would fall down a drain, or get washed over a waterfall…

Keep thinking about your story and note down a range of ideas and possibilities. Stay open minded.

I’ve much more that may help you that I'll post on this blog. We’re only just starting. It takes a lot of time, consideration and multiple re-writes to create publishable stories and I look forward to sharing tips and devices that are used by the best writers in the business.

Peter Taylor