Archives for posts with tag: story structure

Different Kinds of Quiet

Publishing, like much of life, is filled with contradictions. My writing friends and I have all received rejection letters saying words similar to “beautifully written but too quiet.” Many writers receive such rejections. Yet, visit an independent bookstore or the new displays at the library and you’ll find recently published quiet books. Editorial tastes, goals, timing, and fame of the author all come into play. This can be frustrating. But it can also be an opportunity to enrich our writing. Instead of just grumbling, “what do they mean too quiet!” we can explore the different kinds of quiet.

A BEACH TAIL by Karen Lynn Williams is a wonderful example of a quiet, dynamic picture book.  It is quiet because no characters shout, and the action is minimal and leisurely. In addition to this, the setting is warm and intimate. Intimate, that is, until the young protagonist loses all sense of safety.

Gregory and his father are alone on the beach. Gregory plays in the sand. His father warms him to stay where you can see me. Gregory is totally absorbed in the lion he is drawing in the sand. As he draws, the tail of the lion grows longer and longer. It loops around objects resting on the beach. Gregory is lost in the reverie of exploring how long the tail can be. Suddenly he can’t see his father. He’s lost and accidentally disobeyed his father.

There is tension, feat and action, but A BEACH TAIL remains quiet in both tone and pace. Rather than can crying for help in a panic, Gregory takes a significant personal action. He decides to solve the crisis on his own. Both boy and narrative gently retrace their steps along the lion’s long tail. This book is certainly quiet. But it is so rich with characterization, tension, and action it far from being “too quiet.”

When we find a new picture book that seems quiet like A BEACH TAIL, let’s make the opportunity to explore what makes it quiet and how it might be different from our own rejected manuscript. Does our manuscript have tension? Are the experiences in our narrative significant to our characters? And, most important, does our protagonist experience growth? If our protagonist grows it creates the opportunity for our reader to grow. And that is vibrant action.

A BEACH TAIL by Karen Lynn Williams. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. Boyds Mills, 2010.

Delayed, but next: Learning to Appreciate What We Can’t Do: Related & Recommended Websites and Blogs

Beginnings–Part II

Like movies that establish setting, tone, and characters during the opening credits, many picture books today begin to establish their story before the first page of text. Authors who are also illustrators are able to introduce characters and even conflict on the title page, verso, and the page typically used for dedication.

Of course, writers who do not illustrate their own texts have no control over opening illustrations. But there are still some options involving text. A VISITOR FOR BEAR by Bonny Becker and Michaela Muntean’s DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK offer two interesting examples.

Becker’s narrative is unusual for a picture book in that it begins with a prologue. It serves as a springboard for the action to come, and stimulates an immediate sense of tension.

No one ever came to Bear’s house.

It had always been that way, and Bear

Was quite sure he didn’t like visitors.

He even had a sign.

Illus. by Kady Macdonald Denton A VISITOR FOR BEAR

The first page of narrative is the loud and clear dropping for the proverbial second shoe.

One morning, Bear heard a tap, tap, tapping on his front door.

When he opened his door, there was a mouse, small and gray and bright-eyed.

“No visitors allowed,” Bear said, pointing to the sign. “Go away.”

The young audience knows Bear is going to say, “Go away” before he says it. The prologue has already pulled us into Bear’s way of thinking. We want to know why Mouse didn’t respect the sign.

One could say Michaela Muntean’s prologue is the book’s cover and title page. DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK! is presented as a dialog balloon on the cover. Naturally, we open the book.  It’s a book. Pages two and three depict the surprised expression of the character we saw on the cover. Then BOOM we enter the narrative hip-deep in tension.

Illus. by Pascal Lemaitre. DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK!

Excuse me, but who do you think you are, opening this book when the cover clearly says DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK!? If a sign on a door reads DO NOT ENTER, do you enter? Of course you don’t. The least you would do is KNOCK FIRST!

In this case we (as reader) are not only pulled into the story’s tension, we ARE the cause of tension.  Each reader is the antagonist. One can’t get more involved that that.

These approaches won’t work for all picture books, but there is no reason not to explore such options. Play is the name of the game. Free play is our source of fresh ideas.

Picture Books Discussed

DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK by Michaela Muntean. Illus. by Pascal Lemaitre. Scholastic, 2006.

A VISITOR FOR BEAR by Bonny Becker. Illus. by Kady MacDonald Denton. Candlewick, 2008.

Kafka, Picture Books, and Spiderman

Linking Franz Kafka with picture books may seem absurd, but influences of his short story “The Metamorphosis” can be found in many books for young children.

These picture books are certainly fantasies, but the character’s metamorphosis is the single element of fantasy. Each narrative begins with a straight-faced leap from a very high diving board. The impossible literally happens, and must be dealt with in the real world. They are the ultimate “fish out of water” tale even though the (former) fish remains in his home water.

Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” begins:

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.

THE MAN WHO LOST HIS HEAD by Claire Huchet Bishop begins:

Once upon a time there was a Man who lost his head.

LOUIS THE FISH by Arthur Yorinks begins:

One day last spring, Louis, a butcher, turned into a fish. Silvery scales. Big lips. A tail. A salmon. Louis did not lead, before this an unusual life…

David Small’s IMOGENE’S ANTLERS begins:

On Thursday, when Imogene woke up, she found she had grown antlers.

Like Kafka’s salesman, these three characters discover their transformation as they wake in bed one morning.

Other sudden and extreme transformations occur in picture books, but the change is more internal.  These tales are less like Kafka than they are Spiderman where a spider bite transforms a nerd to superhero. Susan Meddaugh’s dog, Martha, is suddenly able to speak after consuming a bowl of alphabet soup. In WEEZER CHANGES THE WORLD, David McPhail’s dog begins as a typical puppy chewing toys and tinkling on the rug. But once “something striking” happens (lightning) Weezer begins predicting weather, playing piano, helping doctors solve diseases, and more.

Scott Santoro’s FARM-FRESH CATS offers a third type of poker-face dive into the extreme. It’s not an individual who is suddenly transformed within or without, but agriculture. A farmer checks his field and discovers that his crop is no longer cabbages but cats. Once again, the drastic metamorphosis is identified as something unexplainable. Then, on with the action and story’s arc.

These stories featuring outrageous events have a distant relationship to the tall tales found in folklore. But the two genres have more differences than similarities. While tall tales pile one impossible situation on top of another, these Kafka style picture books stick with one or perhaps two impossible actions. The traditional narrator of a tall tale is also very tongue-in-cheek. The narrator knows he’s telling a lie and with a wink let’s the audience knows that he knows that they know he’s telling a lie. It’s all part of the game and the fun.

In contrast, the tone and voice of Kafka-style picture books are both poker-faced. There may be humor, but it is based in characters’ coping with the transformation rather than the outlandish events that occur and their descriptions.

Why not play with our own dives off the high board into the impossible? This approach can provide rich exercise opportunities. We’ve got nothing to lose but opportunities.

Sample Picture Books That Echo Kafka’s Leap Outside Reality

A BAD CASE OF STRIPES by David Shannon. Blue Sky Press, 1998.

IMOGENE’S ANTLERS by David Small. Crown, 1985.

LOUIS THE FISH by Arthur Yorinks. Illus. by Richard Egielski. Farrar, 1980.

FARM-FRESH CATS by Scott Santoro. HarperCollins, 2006

THE MAN WHO LOST HIS HEAD by Claire Huchet Bishop. Illus. by Robert McCloskey. Viking, 1942.

MARTHA SPEAKS by Susan Meddaugh.  HoughtonMifflinHarcourt, 1995.

WEEZER CHANGES THE WORLD by David McPhail. Beach Lane, 2009.

Perimeters of the Picture Book Story

Part Two

Just like the patterns of text explored in earlier posts, Writing to Be Heard, becoming more aware of the perimeters and proportions involved with a picture book story helps us hone our writing.

I recently gathered a canvas bag of picture books at my library, and began to see how they compared with the triangular template. I found more small variations in total number of pages than I expected. However, the proportions or percentages of space and text within the perimeters were basically the same from book to book.

Introduction of characters, setting, and conflict.



Characters struggle to resolve the conflict. This is, again, the part of the story where the audience becomes fully engaged in the story as the characters take action. It is also the largest portion of most stories.


After several attempts the characters finally resolve their conflict. The question stated in the beginning has now been answered. Cue the final music.


A final, very brief moment of celebration and/or wink to the audience.




23%  56% 23%  7%


21%  43% 29%  7%


33%  40% 20%  7%


25%  56% 17%  6%


14%  43% 29%  14%


23%  54% 15%  8%

It can be very beneficial to see how our story-in-progress fits these proportions. If our introductory/green passage takes up more pages and text that the action section of solving the conflict, we would be wise to tighten the beginning. If the action/blue passage of our story is less than 40% we know our manuscript could be improved by expanding that section. And, if the finale’/yellow section of our story involves more than 10% of our text we need to be very sure why it has to be that long. If we can’t explain why, then it’s time to try a shorter draft of that passage.

The primary goals of sharing a story are to connect with the audience and keep them engaged. If we fail to do that, we lose the chance to share our theme and the events involved. The perimeters and proportions of basic storytelling exist because they work. They are not the only game in town, but they are certainly the most established.

Sample Picture Book Stories

THE AMAZING BONE by William Steig. Farrar, 1976.

THE FOX AND THE HEN by Eric Battut. Boxer Books, 2010.

FREDERICK by Leo Lionni. Pantheon, 1967.

HORACE AND MORRIS BUT MOSTLY DOLORES by James Howe. Illus. by Amy Walrod. Athneum, 1999.

JULIUS by Angela Johnson. Illus. by Dav Pilkey. Orchard, 1993.

MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL by Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton, 1939.

MRS. POTTER’S PIG by Phyllis Root. Illus. by Russell Ayto. Candlewick, 1996.

OFFICER BUCKLE AND GLORIA by Peggy Rathmann. Ptunam, 1995.

PIGGIE PIE by Margie Palatini. Illus. by Howard Fine. Clarion, 1995.

A TREEFUL OF PIGS by Arnold Lobel. Illus. by Anita Lobel. Greenwillow, 1979.

A VISITOR FOR BEAR by Bonny Becker. Illus. by Kady MacDonald Denton. Candlewick, 2008.

WILL I HAVE A FRIEND? by Miriam Cohen. Illus. by Lillian Hoban. Simon & Schuster, 1967.

Perimeters of the Picture Book Story

Part One

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.

Elliot and ET meet in the backyard. ET wants to phone home. This is THE engine of the story. Everything that comes after this relates to ET’s desire/need and Elliot’s attempts to help his friend.


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.


Finale and farewell.



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.