Tips for Writing Picture Books: Story Arc Components

Today it’s all about …

Story Arc Components

To be clear, I’m not discussing all components of the picture book story, just those relating to the arc. And personally, I am not a fan of writing stories containing all of the traditional arc components. Those would be:

  1. Opening
  2. Tension increase
  3. Success
  4. Wink to the reader

The opening should be quick and concise, brief and succinct. In short, it should be short. Set the scene, introduce the character(s), and inform the reader of the problem statement. But don’t forget to show not tell. The best advice I have is that you should start by deleting the opening sentence/line/page/paragraph.

“What?” you ask. That’s right. Start on page 2. Take this example:

Anthony was so excited for today’s basketball game. He had been practicing all week. He shot 100 free throws a day and dribbled in every room of the house. What else could the shortest boy on the team do to prepare?

“Anthony! Are you ready for the game?” asked Mom.

If you simply start with Mom asking the question, you can show who Anthony is throughout the story (rather than showing his basketball prowess here). The illustrations can show Anthony in a basketball jersey and holding a ball. And Mom’s question pulls you in much more actively than the telly first line.

manute-bol-spud-webb
Anthony vs Manute

To increase the tension, I’m personally not a fan of the traditional ‘rule of 3’ – that being the rule that the main character should fail three times before eventually succeeding. Some people love it – it makes them feel warm and fuzzy, and I don’t begrudge those who feel that way. I just prefer to be nonstandard and find different ways to increase the tension. But whether tension rises through multiple failures or some other mechanism, the reader needs to see the main character at the lowest of low (or shortest of short?) points before ultimately succeeding. If the main character doesn’t hit rock bottom, the final success will not be satisfying. And without a satisfying conclusion, the story will fall flat (or air ball).

And once your main character succeeds, it should happen quickly and the story should be over. Don’t drag it out. When Anthony scores the winning basket, sum it up with a single line or two and end it. Don’t drag it out for 5 pages, because after Anthony’s team wins, there will be no reason for the reader to turn the page. The only page turn that should occur after success is to the all important …

Wink to the reader. This is where you make a little joke and give the reader something to continue thinking about once the book is over. It’s like the scene after the credits in a movie (or during the credits of a tv show). It’s the line that leaves the book open for a sequel. Or the line that turns the previous 31 pages upside down.

And for my wink, you just might think, I really stink – when I tell you the next thing I learned about writing picture books is …

Don’t Write in Rhyme

But that’ll be 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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11 thoughts on “Tips for Writing Picture Books: Story Arc Components

    1. Thanks, Wendy. Let’s not forget that THE DARK has splendid illustrations by Mr. Klassen. And fortunately for Mr. Snicket, he has the cache (and audience expectation) to do things in a non-standard format. Sometimes it’s hard for new authors to break into the industry – while breaking those traditional rules. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible …

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  1. Great post, Josh! As a person who has been attempting many different approaches, I tend to agree that rules are meant to be broken, if they are done right. (Did I just contradict myself?) It’s hard to really know when to stop standing up for a manuscript that “breaks the rules” when you know the brain logic says it works. How do you decide when that time has come?

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    1. This can be very difficult. I think it generally comes down to the trust you have with your critique partners, and what each critiquerer brings to the table. If lots of voices agree that a particular manuscript isn’t working, this is usually a sign that … it’s not working. However, sometimes responses can be more divisive.

      Not every book is for everyone. But if you can find an audience that ‘gets’ your manuscript, even if the majority don’t, you’re probably okay sticking to your broken rule idea – but realize that your audience might be smaller because of it…

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  2. Thanks Josh! Always great posts! I loved watching Spud Webb!! Especially winning the slam dunk contest over Dominique and MJ!!

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