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How to structure your picture books for success

These tried-and-true structures can provide a blueprint for your picture book plot.

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One of the things I love most about writing picture books is that many have their own built-in formats.

A to…yep, you guessed it – Z!

1, 2, 3…hmmm…what comes next? 4!

Days of the week. The seasons. With these examples, the structure is clear (obvious, maybe!) and yet perfectly appropriate.

But what if your book doesn’t work with one of these can’t-miss structures?

Author Heidi E.Y. Stemple admits that while she doesn’t get bogged down by worrying about story structure when she’s writing, she absolutely focuses on that during revision.

“I tend to think of it in terms of getting the plot points to line up – no loose ends.” she says about her process. “The ending must be earned all the way through – on every page, with every word.”

How to earn your ending and make those slippery plot points line up just so can be quite the challenge. Fortunately, we have plenty of mentor texts – those well-done books that illustrate various parts of effective storymaking – to examine some tried-and-true picture book structures. See for yourself:

 

Pattern of Three 

This one’s been around forever, it seems, but with good reason – it works. A character has a problem, and they try to solve it but fail. They try harder and still fail. Then they try even harder/smarter – and fail once more. This sets up #4 as a well-earned, audience-appreciated success (though sometimes the success occurs on attempt three).

Three is a powerful, satisfying number that children are preconditioned to expect. Morning, noon, night. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Baby, child, teen. (You also find a similar “rule of threes” in photography, interior decorating, and music – plus this very sentence.)

Examples:

Dan Santat’s The Adventures of Beekle features an imaginary creature looking for the right child. On option No. 3, he finds the perfect one.

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Tammi Sauer’s Princess in Training shows Princess Viola Louisa Hassenfeffer failing at being a “good” princess at Camp Princess in three ways, but with her next attempt to do something right – when a hungry dragon shows up and needs to be dealt with – she wins the day, and the respect of the entire kingdom, too.

Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo features a mouse who is threatened by three animals (and then the mouse frightens off all three right in return).

 

Parallel Stories

This structure presents two stories at once in a mirroring fashion. Often, these two stories come together at the end to create a powerful, unified conclusion. Why is it so popular? Because it’s two stories for the price of one.

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Examples:

Beverly Donofrio’s Where’s Mommy? shows how Maria and Mouse Mouse both have missing mothers at bedtime. Where those moms are brings Maria and Mouse Mouse together in a unified and emotionally satisfying manner.

David Macaulay’s Black and White uses double-spreads broken into quadrants to tell four – yes, FOUR! – different stories that (sort of) operate independently.

 

Breaking the Fourth Wall

The fourth wall is the “wall” that keeps readers a safe distance from the action of a book. Yet this type of picture book smashes right through that wall and features characters who interact directly with readers or go so far as to take over the story. Young readers love this kind of “rule breaking,” which so often has a laugh-out-loud sensibility. (The fancy-pants term for this is “metafiction.”)

 

Examples:

Kelly Bingham’s Z Is for Moose shows how Moose throws quite the fit when this ABC book uses M for mouse instead of moose.

Deborah Underwood’s The Panda Problem has a narrator who wants the story to go in one direction, but a feisty panda has other ideas.

 

Circular stories

Quite simply, these stories end right back at the beginning. Readers enjoy the “Uh oh, here we go again!” feeling when they read the last line that sends them all the way back to page one. You can also create a “full circle” feel by ending with the same phrase, noise, figure of speech, or even place and time as you use at the start.

 

Examples:

Laura Numeroff’s If You Give a Mouse a Cookie starts with a boy giving a mouse a cookie, and then the mouse wants a glass of milk. The book ends with this same mouse getting thirsty and having a glass of milk, and the boy realizes he’ll probably want a cookie to go with it.

I Am Jazz is a picture book memoir by celebrity transgender activist Jazz Jennings. The story begins and ends with the powerful statement: “I am Jazz.”

 

Literary agent Abigail Samoun reminds us that structure has to work hand-in-hand with theme. “For instance, if you’re working with the Pattern of Three,” she says, “each time we revisit the situation, we have to develop the theme just a little bit further. Each time Beekle finds the wrong child, we learn a little bit more about the relationship of an imaginary friend in a child’s life.” In short, the most effective structures amplify and develop a story’s theme.

Here’s the good news about structure. You don’t have to stick to the choices listed above. It’s perfectly OK to invent your own theme-amplifying option or variation, as Stemple did with her award-winning picture book, Counting Birds.

“With that book, I wanted the story structure – the narrative arc – to be exactly like the history of the subject of the book,” she explains. “So, if you look at that story structure, it starts with one incident (point) and grows larger and larger and larger (if you were to graph it, it’d look like a cone). What is truly satisfying to me is how the last line returns the reader full circle to the first page.”

Samoun offers this final bit of advice, which I’ve heard versions of from other industry professionals in the picture book world: “Think of structure as the skeleton of your story – it’s what gives it its overall shape. It’s also what organizes it and defines it. Without structure, a story is just a big ol’ mess.”

Let me put it plainly: no literary agent, editor, parent, librarian, teacher, or child is going to get excited about a picture book that’s a sprawling mess. But a thoughtful choice in your structuring options can help make it all come together.

—Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20 books and a frequent contributor to The Writer. Visit him at ryangvancleave.com & onlypicturebooks.com.

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