Perimeters of the Picture Book Story
Fact #1: The vast majority of picture books have 32 pages. This is due to signatures (folded pages) used in book construction, cost, and tradition.
Fact #2: Pages 1-3 typically function for title, copyright and dedication. This leaves 29 pages to tell the story. Or 14 double spreads plus page 32. There are, of course, slight variations on this format, but thinking in 14 spreads remains appropriate.
Fact #3: The turn of the page can be a significant element in pacing and punctuation.
Fact #4: The better we understand the perimeters, the better our text will fit and flow.
Fact #5: Artist, art director and editor make the final decisions regarding page breaks. Not the writer.
Fact #6: Numbers 4 and 5 do not need to be viewed as contradictions.
If we want to write a haiku poem its perimeters are automatically a part of our focus. Seventeen syllables. Five-Seven-Five. It’s what the writer creates within these perimeters that makes all the difference. The same is true for picture book stories.
There is no reason for a writer (not illustrating) to submit a dummy. But there are many reasons why it is valuable for the writer to make a dummy for herself. Making a dummy helps make sure the story you want to share is truly a picture book or would be better suited to another genre. It will also improve the pacing and flow of the manuscript.
Traditionally, I work on my text for several drafts, and then see how the action breaks down into 14 double-spreads. Do the page turns come at valuable moments? Do I have a question AND it’s answer on the same spread? Or a point of suspense AND it’s resolution on the same spread? If so, I may be sacrificing dramatic energy. When my text falls easily into 14 double-spreads I feel like I am on the right track. If not, the process helps me realize where I need to tighten or expand my text.
Those times I can’t get a firm sense of my story’s shape and rhythm I look at the perimeters sooner than later in my process.
Steven Spielberg’s now classic film, ET, offers a clear example of the traditional story line.
The bulk of most narratives is the period of attempt or struggle to resolve the initial issue. If ET used Elliot’s cell phone with long-range minutes to call home right away there would be no story. The story is in the action. And, the struggle to resolve the initial issue is where and how the writer engages the reader.
The moment or period of resolving the initial issue is the high point of the story. Tensions have built to a peak. There is a combined sense of relief and celebration. And, like any celebration, the writer is wise to leave the party on a high note rather than lingering too long and boring the guests.
Applying these categories of storytelling and their relative proportions to the 14 double-spreads of a picture can help us organize and pace our story.
GREEN – Introducing characters and establishing their objective. Page 4 to 7 or perhaps 4 to 9 (Three or four double-spreads).
BLUE – The action and struggles of the characters to achieve their objective. Pages 16 to 27 (nine double-spreads).
RED – Breakthrough actions and resolution. Pages 28 to 31 (two double-spreads).
YELLOW – Farewell and/or final twist. Page 32.
These proportions are certainly not rigid, but like any guidelines they can help establish order. And, if we do choose to work outside the template, we are better able to understand why and how our changes improve the text. Most of all, going through this exercise develops our own grasp of the genre which is then apparent to editors reading our story on good old fashioned sheets of 8 ½ x 11″ paper.
Coming: Part Two
We will apply this template to three picture books.