I have an upcoming picture book REMBRANDT AND THE BOY WHO DREW DOGS by Barron's Educational Series (2008) and I thought I'd discuss some of the writing process over a few posts. Take a look at my earlier posts, IDEA and CHARACTERS, for more about picture book development.
A standard picture book is 32 pages long. Two pages are devoted to front matter – title page and LOC (Library of Congress blurb) and sometimes back matter – acknowledgements, sources, and author’s notes. That leaves about 27 to 29 pages to share your story. You also have about 500 words to share your story. This means that only very important things need to happen. There is just not a lot of room.
The plot is all about what happens next. The first thing that happens is the hook. It is the moment that draws the reader in. This action should be something that your reader will identify with. If you can slide in a double meaning for the grown-ups – all the better. If you add an educational/holiday/consumer slant with that action – yay! If you twist in a universal meaning and dash on humor-- why, the editor might read more. Remember that’s just the first action in the story arc, your first piece of the plot puzzle. Yes, you have your work cut out for you.
Here’s another bit of advice, each plot point must transition smoothly from one to the next. A great plot is like giving a ball a push down a hill. The ball bounces down in a natural way and depending on the slant of the hill with varying speeds. You’ve got to place your character in circumstances that will roll them forward to a natural conclusion. You might find that when you take a hard look at your story that the sequence of events doesn’t quite ring true. Is there a purpose to your sequence? You should be able to answer for every action in the story. You need to understand why things happen.
OK, you’ve written the whole story? It’s charming and you know it, but the interested editor has written you back the dreaded “quiet story” or “thin story” note. Hey, this picture book had a beginning, middle and end and every one of the kids in your child’s classroom laughed out loud when they heard it. Yes, Drusilla loses her doll. It is a great beginning. Next, she makes a flyer and posts it on the street pole. Yes, that is the middle. Then the doll is returned to her by a Babushka. That is an ending. So what’s the problem? No complications! Here’s some news: three is the magic number. You need a series of at least three big complications. Less will lead to dreaded "too thin" notes from editors.
Hey, I didn’t say a word about rhyming the text, and I'm talking about picture books. Those rhyming text picture books work the same. They need all the stuff above, and you have to shove every word into a highly structured format and all the words have to flow perfectly, naturally, sensibly. No prob. Right.
I hope you've found something here that will give you that little push you needed to create an awesome picture book! I will close with two quotes that help me when I'm crafting my plots.
"Clear your mind must be, if you are to discover the real villains behind this plot."
“A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise. Because that is how life is-full of surprises.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer