I was thinking about the narrative structure of a traditional picture book, and how many picture books one might have to write before it becomes ingrained into your being.
At this point, I think/hope I have absorbed it into my core, but I’ve also been writing and freelance editing and representing picture books for years now. I submitted my first picture book to an editor in 1997, and had my first picture book published in 2017. (Maybe some of you are thinking OMG TWENTY YEARS BETWEEN START AND PUBLICATION I MIGHT AS WELL JUST THROW EVERYTHING OUT NOW AND START MY CAREER AS A COMPETITIVE DOLPHIN RIDER* INSTEAD. But to be fair, I started when I was a teenager and there were longish periods of time in those two decades where I didn’t write much at all, and I also didn’t focus solely on picture books. I wrote all sorts of things, trying to find my voice and genre, including a really bad story about someone who poisons themselves with their own antique taxidermy collection. Anyway…)
Back to picture book structure. In a traditional picture book, we’re introduced to the protagonist’s main problem within the first couple lines. A picture book doesn’t have a lot of room for exposition, and the set up could be as easy as:
Aaron was the best competitive dolphin rider in the world…
…until he wasn’t.
Bam – and we’re off! Character (Aaron) and problem (he’s no longer the best). We know what’s going to happen next – Aaron has to find a way to regain his title – and what’s exciting is the how. What three things is Aaron going to try and fail at before he succeeds in getting back to the top of the competitive dolphin riding world?
This is the meatiest part of a traditional picture book structure – the try three times and fail before the character finds success.
There are so many things that have to happen with these successive trials. They have to
- Make logical sense. We have to learn something from the first try that informs the second, and from the second that informs the third.
- Grow the tension. The easiest way is to make things successively bigger, funnier, goofier, etc.
- Create varied illustrative opportunities through the use of movement and action.
- Not be based on asking another character for help. (This is a big one! I see a lot of picture books in my query pile where the character solves their problem not by fixing it themselves, but by asking other characters questions.)
So, let’s look at a non-dolphin rider example because this is much easier to explain with a problem that perhaps everybody is familiar with.
If we had a picture book character who needed to build a sandcastle in a hurry, perhaps first they’d use a garden trowel but it’d be too small. Then they’d use a shovel but it’d be too heavy to lift, and then maybe they’d use a dump truck but it’d be too much sand. Finally, they’d succeed by using a bucket, because it’s neither too small, too heavy nor too big.
So in the example above, we can see the tension rise as the character tries bigger and bigger tools – but also with each try you can see what they learned and how they would apply it. A trowel is too small, but a shovel is bigger. A shovel is bigger, but they don’t have the power to lift it. A dump truck is a way to lift a lot of sand, but AH – they’ve overdone it! It’s too much to control and shape into a sandcastle.
Now, to be honest, if we were writing the above as a picture book, we’d need a more surprising and clever answer than a bucket. Something that the reader wouldn’t expect but would still build on the previous clues. More on that below, but first back to our dolphin book…
In trying three things before Aaron finally succeeds and finds himself back on top of the competitive dolphin racing world, Aaron also has to learn an emotional lesson. In picture books, this could be about friendship, or the love of family, or the value of helping somebody, etc. But through trying to be the best physically, Aaron has to change emotionally in a way that makes sense with what he’s learned.
And, of course, we need that surprise beat at the end. If we start with the opening above, we expect Aaron to regain his place at the top — but what wouldn’t a reader expect? How could he accomplish his physical goal in a way that would be an unexpected surprise or twist for the reader?
So that’s traditional picture book structure – and the heart of it is those three tries before a final success. Now, there are a ton of picture books that might not follow this structure, but I feel like in picture books, it’s better to learn and internalize the structural rules before you try and break them. (That goes for a lot of things, right?)
I hope this helps you as you revise! For more writing posts on picture books, you can click here.
*Is competitive dolphin riding a thing? Probably not, and it probably shouldn’t be. But I don’t have a better joke at the moment, so it stays. (It’s better than the notes I leave myself in my WIP – “INSERT SOMETHING CLEVER HERE.”)