Monday 17 February 2014

How to Write and Illustrate a Picture Book Part 2 (of 6)

Picture Book Writing Course Part 2
How to Write a Picture Book

Last week we talked about how difficult the industry is to get into and why, and what makes a good picture book.

Part of your homework was to look at a selection of picture books (I’m afraid this homework is ongoing for the rest of your life if this is your chosen career - you have to keep on top of what’s being published and by whom, and what’s selling well and why). Through looking at successful picture books, although they vary wildly, there are certain ingredients which pop up time and time again which , if your book is going to be successful, you need to know.

So what makes a great picture book?

Here’s a recap of our checklist from last week and then I’ll break down some of the points more clearly;


- Original
- Well written
- Beginning, middle and (great) end
- Fit nicely into 12/13 spreads with action on each spread
- Attractive and entertaining to children and adults
- Children/main character solving their own problems, not adults stepping in to 'save the day'
- A Simple idea told clearly
- Engaging characters

Ok so it has been said that there are no original ideas, others have said there are only 7 fiction plots, and my favourite view on the matter was from Russian writer and awesome beard owner Leo Tolstoy who said that; “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” But there are always new ways to tell stories, new hooks, inventive narratives, uniquely engaging characters, new plot twists and so on and so on. There are many ways to make your story original and that’s what you should be looking to do.

Well written - just because children are going to read your story does not mean your story should read as if it has been written by a child! Grammar, spelling, punctuation are all important as are beautiful sounding turns of phrase. A picture book has few words so those words should be picked carefully until, even when it’s not a rhyming text, it reads almost like prose.

Some good linguistic and story-telling tricks:

Alliteration - Can be humorous and an excellent way of exploring sounds but don’t over-do it and don’t do the obvious just for the sake of it - ‘Harriet’s Horrible Hair day’ is a great title, “Leo the Lion’ is not.

Think in 3s - 3 repeated words, phrases, situations always works well and adds rhythm and predictability which children like without going on and on and getting dull. Think Goldilocks and the Three Bears, or The three little pigs and even the wolf’s phrase, ‘I’ll huff, I’ll puff, I’ll blow your house down.’

A book’s main design feature to be explored and exploited is the page turning! Encourage page-turning by ending the pages on a cliff-hanger, end the page on a ...but...  ...and then....    ...or..... ,or with something that makes the reader ask ‘what happened next?’. - All adds to the suspense and excitement!

RHYME - great, if you can do it, but it has to be outstanding to be in with a chance of publication! If you do use it make it fresh, don’t try to sound like Dr Seuss - it’s been done! But be warned - many publishers refuse rhyming text because it’s so difficult to sell it in countries speaking different languages - not only have they got to get it translated, they’ve got to get it translated by a poet who can make the story work in rhyme all over again! Unless it’s your thing I would avoid it as a beginner.

Beginning, middle and END. It seems obvious that a story should have these three things and yet it is surprising how many first time picture book writers miss one or two of them out! The beginning in a picture book should be straight in - no messing about, no descriptions, no “Polly was a 4 year old girl with pigtails and a yellow dress.” We can see that in the picture!! It’s a picture book! We want to be thrown straight into the story - captivate us on the first page - what problem is the main character trying to solve, what conflict, known or unknown to him, is he facing?  In the middle there should be a progression of the story, one thing leads to the next pleasingly, the character’s attempts at solving the conflict get him further into trouble, or the characters he meets lead him further into the situation etc. And then the end - this must tie up the loose ends, bring the whole thing to a satisfying conclusion, and will preferably involve something unexpected or some kind of twist (we’re not talking Sixth Sense proportions here, just some extra unforeseen something which makes the reader smile, gasp, laugh or even jump.) Don’t rush it or drag it out.
There is an old playwriting adage about beginnings, middles and ends that goes, “Get your hero up a tree, throw stones at him, then get him down.” Brilliant.

Fit nicely into 12 spreads with action on each spread
Picture books are mostly 32pp long and taking away end papers, title pages, copyright pages etc. you’re normally left with 12-14 double page spreads (depending on the publisher) I normally work with 12 so when writing a book I am always thinking how it would fit over those 12 spreads - making sure there is enough action to fill each spread and not too much that I have to cram it in. Get into the story on the first two spreads, play out the narrative in the next 7 spreads, twist and conclude in the remaining 3. But every book’s different of course!

Attractive and entertaining to children and adults
Adults publish the book, edit the book, buy the book and read the book (to their children)! So often the most successful books amuse the adults just as much as the children - Olivia by Ian Falconer is genuinely funny, as is I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen , Harry & Hopper is genuinely sad for all ages, The gruffalo truly exciting and pleasing to all ears, and so on. Make the parents love the book and the children will too, but equally don’t underestimate your young audience - children will find things funny that you never thought they’d ‘get’, or see the sadness in things you thought were too subtle.

Kids solving their own problems, not adults
It’s important that the main child or child-like character is the one who solves whatever problems he may get into throughout the book (with the help of others is fine) - rather than an adult character stepping in and sorting it out for them.

Simple idea told clearly
Don’t be over-ambitious in your narrative or theme, keep it simple but interesting. You should be able to sum up and ‘sell’ your story in less than a sentence.

Engaging Characters
Make your characters stand out, but make sure your readers can identify with them. And a character on its own doesn’t make a story, it has to be the magical combination of great story and great character.

Ok, so we have an idea of what makes a good picture book so now we’re going to look more specifically at how to write one.

First - you need an idea!

Hope you all did your homework! Partly to show that ideas are ten a penny - they’re all around - it’s what you do with them that counts. If you’re stuck try thinking about;
writing for a particular child
starting with a character
starting with an incident
think about your own childhood
Look around you!
Or try thinking about themes - Classic children’s story themes:
Growing Up

Avoid trying to impart a moral through your work though - children can smell a moral lesson a mile off and it usually pongs (subtle background themes can work - my books Just Because and Sometimes feature my daughter Clemmie who is severely disabled and in a wheelchair but importantly the books are not just about disability, and do not preach to children that they ‘must be accepting of others’, it’s merely a theme in the background of an otherwise fun, funny story about sibling love.)

The most common narrative which can fit within all these ideas and never goes out of fashion is this; a main character that readers can identify with and a conflict that needs to be resolved, and is by the end of the story.

It’s what you do with that idea that counts - how you make it original, how you shape it into a pleasing and perfectly formed picture book.

Here’s a few extra Dos and Don’ts I’ve come up with over the years through looking at what works and what doesn’t (there are exceptions to ALL of these but they’re a good general guide for someone starting out)

NEVER put in the words what can be told in the illustrations - never describe a character or setting as that’ll be in the pictures. Show don’t tell.

NEVER write about something country-specific or time-specific - stories about red london buses, or the 2014 Winter Olympics have a limited shelf-life and/or are limited to certain parts of the world.

ALWAYS keep the story flowing - your illustrator needs different action and/or scenery on each page to keep the viewer interested - this is a PICTURE book so think in terms of pictures.

NEVER use more than 1000 words (most are much less - mine are around 3-400 words)

ALWAYS remember you’re writing for kids - pay attention to them - notice what they like, how they talk, how they act and get in touch with your inner child!

ALWAYS stick to a consistent point of view - don’t start off talking about Charlie the puppy’s day and then cut to ‘meanwhile out in the yard Charlie’s sister Cheryl...’

NEVER talk down to the child - no preaching, no patronising - don’t worry even about vocabulary level when first writing the book, maybe consider later down the line.

ALWAYS read your story aloud after every edit - this will be how it’s presented to it’s audience and it needs to flow and have rhythm,

NEVER use cliches (eg. , excessive exclamation points!!!!!!!!, or over-exaggeration - it looks amateurish and often compensates for a lack of actual excitement in the story!

ALWAYS research - eg. if writing about animals, unless in a zoo, look into what animals actually live in the same habitat (so no tigers/lions living together),

ALWAYS make sure there’s story progression - each scene must build on the previous scene/s before story is resolved - some get worse and worse (, with others small victories are won along the way (Gruffalo, 3 little Pigs) Or if it’s an adventure make sure it’s moving towards or away from something (Where the Wild Things Are)

You have your idea, you know what works, so now to actually write the book - but how do you go about it?

This is based on how I work - you may do it differently!

1. I scribble down basic plot ideas - think of a vague beginning, middle, end,  include character ideas (even sketches), twist ideas, ideas for your first line. This is often the longest stage (Zoo Girl was at this stage for literally years before I managed to pin it down and mould it into an actual story that worked!)

Pace out the pattern of events over 12 spreads - either by numbering 1-12 down the side of a piece of paper and filling in the blanks or/and by using a story board or dummy book (fold 7 pieces of A4 - use spreads only, write your story description in each spread - also very useful at later stage for checking flow of the story)

3. Write the book! Use your notes and put in page breaks between each of the 12 spreads of text.

4. Finally and most importantly - edit, edit edit! Picture books use few words meaning that every words has a much higher importance, so has to be exactly right. If it isn’t necessary, cut it.
Shorten or remove any scene, section, word, paragraph, character, or sentence which doesn't move your story forward. Publishers are big fans of brevity!

Homework - Pick the best idea from your homework last week (or come up with a new one based on what you’ve learnt in this lesson!) and write a finished manuscript! Try to make less than 500 words and if possible Print/write/paste the text in to a dummy book to see if it works.

Next week - how to sell your masterpiece and see it published!


  1. Hi Rebecca, these posts are great! Thanks for sharing your How To Course.

    A lot of advice is to avoid rhyme because it's difficult to do well, you are the first person I have read that has said to avoid it because of translation difficulties…

    Love your artwork, it's gorgeous. I'm going to share this blog on Facebook :)

  2. Thank you very much for your post, Rebecca. You helped me a lot!
    You write that if I work with 12 spreads: Get into the story on the first two spreads, play out the narrative in the next 7 spreads, twist and conclude in the remaining 3.
    if I work with 14 spreads, how many spreads give to start, middle, end?

    Thanks in advanced

  3. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, it has been very inspiring. Time to polish my project. Thanks thanks... thanks! :D

  4. Thanks for your post and for sharing your knowledge

  5. Excellent, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge Rebecca!


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