Ask Tania: Picture Book structure--circular, narrative, characters, rhyming--HELP!

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Dear Tania,

I've started writing children's stories and am dreaming up some picture books. I've been reading a lot about typical book structures (set-up, incident, events, climax, result, resolution) and I've found reference to other structures sometimes used (circular, concept, cumulative, mirror, parallel and reversal). How strictly should an author keep to these structures? Do you write with this in mind or do you just write? 

On characters, must the main character always have an obstacle to overcome for the story to be successful?

I'm also interested in your thoughts on rhyming books, as I know (particularly emerging) authors are advised against it - and yet, so many picture books still seem to use rhyme and meter.


Hi Paula,

First thing I have to say is how great it is that you're reading up on book structure and the associated elements that make a story wonderful, particularly picture books. When we were running the Kids' Book Review Unpublished Manuscript Award, so many of the entries suffered from a lack of understanding of story structure, so even when the writing itself was good, the story was little more than an 'account' or a set of descriptions. So understanding story structure is a fine way to embark on your picture book writing journey.

Let's explore your questions--I'll break them down into parts:

Story Structures

The many and varied story styles can be learned about online, as you have already done. Understanding these structures will definitely help you write better stories.

The three most commonly used picture book structures would be:
  • linear arc (a classic structure, where we have a beginning, middle and ending, with resolve)
  • circular (where the story starts and ends in the same place) 
  • episodic (where we present a line-up of concepts or happenings or scenes; the 'concept book'--alphabet books, colours, numbers, etc--falls into this category)

Linear arc is probably the most common of all--it involves setting up a place and character and then taking the story to a peak (often via the rollercoastering of conflict and resolution), followed by a solution, intimation of solution, or some kind of 'outcome', which can also be sad, surprising or negative (ie: not always a happy or fully 'resolved' ending).

I tend to use this structure the most because it's so page-turning, and is a pleasure to write. Having your character, or the storyline, experience shifts and turns and plot twists and challenges, is an engaging technique that not only has your reader championing the characters, but makes them WANT to know what happens next. Books like this are 'repeat reads', and are key to book/author success (sales rely on repeat reads and subsequent word-of-mouth recommendation!).

So yes, stories like this do need characters to overcome things, but more on that shortly.

How strictly should authors stick to structures? Well, like anything in life, learn all the rules, then break them! A general understanding of how story structure works is priceless, and everyone should learn it. Once you learn and grasp it, you tend to write intuitively to a certain style, which you'll get better at doing over time.

For me, I tend to just write the story, once I've set what kind of structure I want it to be (after all these years, this is not a conscious thing). But I also stretch things a little as I go, so the story oftentimes doesn't end up classically adhering to that structure. It might employ two or even three structures.

With Smile Cry, for example, the main structure ended up being episodic because a) it's for very young kids, who respond so well to a series of presented ideas, and b) the subject matter intended to show the varying ways we could smile or cry. A series of independent scenes would best showcase these varying ways, and it worked very well. 

If this book had been written as a narrative, the emotion-exploration would have been far too subtle, and would have become lost within the storyline  (for very young kids, anyway). I wanted kids to be able to point at a page and relate to that ONE singular scene, and kids most certainly do that with this book. Then they eagerly anticipate the next scene.

So, the episodic style really worked for Smile Cry, but I didn't stop there. I mixed things up by creating a flip-book concept, where two opposing (mirror) stories meet in the middle. I also created a kind of resolve (resolves are most noted in a classic arc structure) where the two stories meet in the middle. This centre spread brings the two opposing themes together in a way that melds and shows kids there's no black and white.

For Tottie and Dot, the overarching premise was consequence. So the very best way to achieve this was with a linear arc, though in this case, there is little rollercoasting (ie: obstacles don't keep appearing to make the story go up and down, faster and slower) but rather an incremental build that reaches a really dramatic climax, before collapsing on itself. This works for stories that need to reach the climax right at the end (in this case, two pages before the end).

So, as you can see, even the classic structure can be manipulated to suit story content and purpose.

My suggestion for you, as a new writer, would be to write your story. Write it as a stream of consciousness and then let it sit a while. Once you've let it marinate, go back to it and read it over. What kind of structure is it? Does it have a beginning, middle and ending? Is it circular? Episodic? Once you know what kind of structure it sits in, you can then work on honing the story to ensure it achieves an attractive balance that will enchant the reader.

Story vs Account

This is a good way to understand whether or not your story is achieving its intended purpose--entertaining, enlightening, enchanting or educating the reader (or a blend of all). I call these the Four Es.

A story about a bear who gets up in the morning, makes breakfast, goes shopping, meets a friend for lunch, hangs out the washing, feeds the chooks, reads a book, makes dinner and goes to bed is NOT a story. It's an account. Many, many, many stories are just an account.

A story DOES something to the reader. It makes them feel, smile, cry, understand, learn. Even episodic books that DO simply line-up concepts, have to have a hook or an intention that entertains and delights, even if it's just stunning artwork. Clever, well-thought-out books are the books that do well.

It also takes them on a JOURNEY--whether literal or figurative.

Essentially, in your story, something has to HAPPEN. Something has to occur as a result of something else. There has to be a message or meaning or some kind of delight or even horror. Again, the best way to describe this, is that your story should make the reader FEEL something. I'm not going to feel anything reading about that bear. I want something to HAPPEN.

The Ending

Another huge part of a great story's structure is the ending. For me, the ending is EVERYTHING. It's that delectable mint at the end of the meal--that moment of pure satisfaction. No greater let-down to read a fabulous book and find yourself looking for more pages because the ending fell so flat or felt unresolved. Someone going to bed at night and going to sleep is not an ending (unless it's absolutely central to the narrative and resolves the narrative).

An ending needs to in some way resolve the story or at least link to the plot line and theme in a way that is delightful, surprising, unexpected, hilarious, shocking, healing, circular--SOMETHING, other than just nothing. Most emerging author picture books I read have no ending at all, let alone a good one.

Think of a wonderful way to end your stories, hopefully with something that surprises or delights or elicits a realisation of some kind, and you'll write very good stories indeed. Remember--a great ending stands between your book and a repeat read.

A Word on Didactic Books

No one likes a book that hammers them over the head with morals. Kids particularly dislike them, even those too young to know what's really happening. Never talk down to your reader or dumb things down, no matter how young the intended readership. If you simply must teach kids a 'lesson' with your story, do it with intense subtlety, cleverness and humour. The lesson should not be in the least bit obvious. 

Word Count

In general, a picture book should not exceed 500 words ... unless it's for slightly older readers, it's a book designed to specifically impart information, or unless the writer has honed that text down to its purest essence and the result is an absolute and unadulterated pleasure to read, from go to woah. There are some high text picture books (for younger readers) that work beautifully, simply because they are a joy to read, the story gallops along, and there are no superfluous words.

To be safe, especially when starting out, make your text as minimal as possible. They say each word in a picture book must earn its place. A general rule is to not say anything the pictures can show, especially in regard to description. For example, do not describe a character's outfit unless it's a central plot point that you need to make super obvious. And never put anything extraneous in a story (read: Chekov's Gun).

Nutshell: keep things succinct and cut any extraneous text (which is most text, in my opinion!).

Characters Overcoming Things

We don't need to have our main character falling over obstacle after obstacle after obstacle until they are a wrung-out wreck, before miraculously rising at the end. The variety of ways we can 'challenge' our characters can be a lot more subtle, and can appear in multitude ways.

In Peas in a Pod, the girls simply try to overcome their sameness. They want to be different. They don't need to go over mountain and dale over thousands of miles, snow, rain and tornado, to get there--they just make a stand, and assert their individuality.

Try not to get caught up in how much conflict or resolution you need to add to your story. It's a broad brushstroke of a technique that can be achieved in many and varied ways, but yes, you DO need your characters to be championed by your reader. Kids need to *FEEL something for them, relate to them in some way, and want them to succeed against all odds. That's what carries the most entrancing stories--that essence of survival against storms, prejudice, even just an aversion to broccoli. Readers want your character to triumph, so this obstacle thing IS a fine tool in storytelling, but know that it can be done in clever and almost imperceptible ways.

*Of course, there are some characters kids WON'T feel for--the baddie, for example--but what they will do is feel something ABOUT that character. The more conflict and obstacles you give all of your characters (good or bad), the more well-rounded and real they will be--and the greater emotional response you'll elicit from your reader.

The Dreaded Rhyme

One thing that's struck me over the years, especially where emerging writers are concerned, is their insistence on penning text in rhyme. Perhaps it's a hark back to their own childhood when rhyme was so prevalent, or their adoration for the likes of Dr Seuss and Lynley Dodd and other (yet few!) truly brilliant rhyming creators.

The fact is this: very, very few people write rhyme well. A lack of understanding when it comes to 'meter' is often to blame, but also the rearranging of sentences and the cramming of unbalanced words to effect end-of-line rhyme. Another big issue is the misuse of syllable stress--featuring the word apple, for example, but expecting it to be read as AppLE rather than as APPle, where its natural syllable stress lies.

Remember, rhyming text is not about end-word rhyme. It's about so very much more.

Jackie Hosking has a wonderful Rhyming MS Editing Service that new writers can look into. You can also learn a lot about this online, and by--of course--reading your text out loud. You should also have someone else read it out loud. It's easy to read our own words in an effective rhythm because we have penned them, and know where the stressors lie, but when someone else reads the text for the first time, you may be surprised how frequently they stumble over the words and rhythm. You do NOT want your reader stumbling over words and rhythm.

Another option is to let your text marinate for a month. When you go back to it, you'll find a multitude of issues to fix.

As Jen Storer says in one of her fabulous Girl and Duck Q+Q Friday videos, publishers don't hate rhyming texts. They just hate BAD rhyming texts! And so do readers. She also mentions a really great point--that rhyming text is very difficult to extend into overseas markets, where translations can falter. So, publishers may also avoid it for this reason.

So, I strongly suggest writing your first picture book attempts in prose. Picture books are hard to write--why exponentially add to the difficulty by choosing rhyme? Practice in prose first, and then study and hone rhyme for later books. 

I must say, I absolutely adore good rhyming works, but I've been writing professionally for almost 30 years and I've only just recently penned my first rhyming book.

Don't be Boring

Some may disagree, but I find most super traditional stories (in terms of content) a little boring. I love unconventional works--works that sit outside the square--and more and more publishers are loving these, too (they're often the award-winners). Think outside the square. Surprise your reader. Do something different.

In Summary!

Essentially, you want readers to feel something when they read your books. And I don't mean in a schmaltzy way. I think a lot of writers believe they need to write sentimental or schmaltzy themes to make readers feel something, but this isn't true. We feel more than just sadness. Our emotions are vast and varied, and we shouldn't underestimate the power of more subtle emotions, even in kids ... those emotions well beyond happy sad angry surprised. 

Writing books about confusion or isolation or trepidation or boredom or contentment or creative satisfaction or thirst or other nuanced topics, can be some of the most successful stories of all.

Writing picture books for the first time can be absolutely overwhelming. An understanding that they are difficult to write is vital, as is the understanding that you WILL get better over time, and--like anything--the more you write, the better you'll get at both the content and structure.

Wishing you the best on your picture book journey!


See all the questions so far


I am Zoë said...

I feel like I should have been reading this blog for years, yet I've only just found it in the past few months. This is SO helpful. When I get the courage up to uncover my over-critiqued manuscript again, I am going straight for the ending (which from memory is ok, but is it EXCELLENT?). hm. Thanks again!

Tania McCartney said...

I'm so pleased this could be of help, Zoe. I'm looking forward to your uncovering your over-critiqued ms, too, and rescuing it! (doesn't too much critique knock the wind out of your sails??)

I am Zoë said...

Yerp. Indeed.

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