Tips for Writing Picture Books: Write with Active Emotion

Expanding upon my last post, today I discuss the why you should

Write with Active Emotion

I previously spoke about my dislike of the word was (in all it’s incarnations) and how it really detracts from picture book quality. But that’s just the first of many lifeless words to avoid in picture book writing. And while it’s important to show instead of tell, sometimes just showing isn’t enough. It’s important to show how. Let’s take a look at an example:

Marty walked down the hallway so he wouldn’t be given a tardy slip.

But how did Marty walk? Did he creep or sneak? Did he skip or trot? Did he trudge or slink? Did he rush or skitter? Any of those words shows more than walking … and most add a bit of an emotional charge … without using the frowned-upon adverb.

And since Marty is the main character, let’s treat all actions in relation to Marty (which also eliminates was‘s sneaky friend be). We don’t want Marty to be given something. Marty gets. So how about:

Marty crept down the hallway to avoid receiving a tardy slip.


Another thing to remember is that the pictures in picture books are not moving pictures (at least in paper form). Let’s try another.

Marty got into the time machine.

The static illustration for this line will be one of three things.

  1. Marty outside of the time machine.
  2. Marty inside of the time machine.
  3. Marty half inside and half outside of the time machine (possibly with some motion lines showing movement).

My reaction to the line of text with regard to each of those possible illustrations is as follows:

  1. I’m confused. I thought Marty was getting into the time machine.
  2. Boring! I can see he’s in the time machine. You don’t need to tell me, the illustrations shows it.
  3. Wow! What a great picture of Marty diving into the time machine! Why is it described so blandly?

I see two possible resolutions to make the text better.

  1. Don’t bother telling the reader that Marty has gone from point A to point B. We can see it in the pictures, so it’s possible to assume Marty got into the time machine. Tell us the next action, but say “In the time machine…”
  2. It’s likely a transition is needed to get Marty into the time machine. So rewrite with a more active and emotive verb.

Marty dove into the time machine.

Wow! Marty diving matches much better with illustration #3. You can almost see the arc of his dive without the illustrations. Which leads me to the heavy topic of …

Story Arc Components

… for next time.


See all of Josh Funk’s 12-Step Guide to Writing Picture Books

Lesson #1: So, You Wrote a Book. Now What?
Lesson #2: Picture Books Are Short
Lesson #3: Every Word Counts
Lesson #4: The Illustrator Is Your Partner
Lesson #5: Show Don’t Tell
Lesson #6: Write with Active Emotion
Lesson #7: Story Arc Components
Lesson #8: Don’t Write In Rhyme
Lesson #9: Rhyming Is All About Rhythm
Lesson #10: Some Ideas Don’t Work
Lesson #11: Keep Learning
Lesson #12: Now You’re Ready! Dive In!

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