Picture Book Plots
The first thing you want to know about any story is "What’s it about?" The unfolding of events in the story, the plot, describes how one thing leads to another and how everything is resolved in the end. The plot tells how your characters move through time and space and what happens to each of them. To write for kids, you must know how to devise a strong, workable plot.
Don't be fooled. There are no cookbook recipes for writing a picture book or any other kind of book. But I've found it useful to break a story down into its various plot components before writing it.
To give one example–here is the plot of The Three Little Pigs: Three pigs go off to seek their fortune. Each pig builds a house. The first pig builds a house made of straw. A wolf comes along and says he will huff and puff and blow the house down. And he does. The second pig builds a house of sticks. The wolf blows it down. The last pig builds a house made of bricks. The wolf tries to blow it down, but can't. So he decides to come down the chimney. He falls into a pot of boiling water, runs away, and never bothers the pigs again.
Note that this plot consists of a sequence of events describing what the pigs and wolf do, feel, think, and say. Both the pigs and the wolf strive to gain or to keep something of value. Each of the pigs wants to build a house. The wolf wants pork chops for dinner, but the pigs want to avoid being eaten.
If your story is a picture book or short story, your plot will be simple and straightforward. But even a picture book must show a series of logical events, although the logic can be playful.
A typical picture book has 32 pages, generally with about 28 pages of text. You want your story to fill these pages so that the action unfolds in a consistent pattern while also building excitement and interest.
There's a lot to think about when creating a picture book plot. I like to break the process down into three steps:
FIRST STEP--I build the basic plot. How will my plot begin? How will it develop? How will things come to a climax? How will it end?
SECOND STEP--I figure out how to fit the plot into a picture book format. Does the plot divide smoothly and evenly into 28 pages?
THIRD STEP--I add details to the plot.
Let's take it one step at a time.
Here's how to analyze (or build) a typical picture book plot:
1. First, Think about the point at which your story actually starts. Readers want to be drawn into the story right from the beginning.
EXAMPLE: In my book MONSTERS IN MY MAILBOX, I introduced the main characters in the first two paragraphs:
"Reginald McGillicuddy lived in a grown-up part of town. Grown-ups lived up the street, down the street, and across the street. And none of them had any children.
No one, that is, except Mr. and Mrs. Appleby next door. They had Anna Marie, who didn't really count because she was a girl."
It’s best not to waste time, or words, telling about Reginald's background or what he ate for breakfast. The first paragraph should introduce the story problem and/or set the scene.
2. Think about the pattern of events or results that follow.
EXAMPLE: Reginald wants someone to play with. He orders monsters from a mail order company. More and more monsters arrive as the months go by. Reginald tries to keep the monsters from causing trouble.
Most stories will have a story problem, a dilemma that the main character will confront. As the character tries to solve the problem, she moves from scene to scene.
Each scene must build on the previous scene before things get resolved. Often, three escalations occur before the climax arrives. Notice that many fairy tales have events happening in threes—three sisters, three wishes, three riddles. In some stories, the problems get worse and worse. In other stories, small victories are won along the way.
3. Think about the climax of your story, the point at which things seem most hopeless and tension is at its peak.
EXAMPLE: The monsters get out and cause havoc everywhere. Anna Marie suggests a solution.
Up to this point, none of the main character's attempts to solve his problem have worked; in fact, the situation may have gotten worse. But at the climax, a change occurs. Perhaps the main character sees the situation in a new way, or perhaps certain elements of the plot come together leading to a surprise.
4. Think about the ending or resolution, the point at which the problem has been resolved in a new or surprising way.
EXAMPLE: Anna Marie's solution works. Reginald realizes that she might be the friend he's been looking for.
At this point, the crime is solved, the villain is defeated, or the goal is achieved. The characters are seen or see something in a new light–their new situation is apparent.
Not all stories follow this pattern, but most are based on some variation of it.
Your next step is to enlarge the scope of your outline. Make a page plan to see how your plot works as a picture book. You won't be sending this to a publisher, but you need to see if your story can fit into a 28-page format. Here is a typical plan, based on the plot of MONSTERS IN MY MAILBOX:
Story problem: Reginald has no one to play with except Anna Marie, the girl next door. (1 page)
Attempt to solve the problem: Reginald joins the Monster of the Month Club. (4 pages)
Result One: Reginald now has playmates. They have fun (small success), but the monsters cause trouble. (6 pages)
Result Two: More and more monsters come in the mail. More and more trouble ensues. (10 pages)
Result Three: Monsters cause complete chaos and run amok. (3 pages)
Climax: Anna Marie helps Reginald get rid of the monsters in a surprising way. (2 pages)
Surprise resolution: Reginald's opinion of Anna Marie changes and they become friends. (2 pages)
When analyzing the page plan, I can see that there's enough room to develop each part of the story. For example, I'll have six pages to show the monsters causing trouble.
The last step is to go back and add action and details to the outline. Think of HOW you're going to achieve each result or plot development. And remember that each idea should provide lots of interesting ideas for an illustrator--and humor, if possible.
Result One: Reginald now has playmates. They have fun (small success), but the monsters cause trouble.
Detail: The first monster eats mud pies and makes a mess.
Detail: The second monster has a temper tantrum and smashes his foot through the floor.
Detail: The monsters play wrestle, smash Reginald's crayons, and kick over a bookcase.
Continue with this process, adding details to Results Two and Three and to the climax and ending, keeping the alloted page count in mind.
You'll note that the plot naturally unfolds as you add more descriptions of the specific actions that take place. In a book that's primarily visual, this process can be simple. But, as you've seen, a lot of thought goes into creating a successful picture book plot.
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