How do you win a marathon? You run really fast for 26.2 miles without stopping.
Like winning a marathon, writing is easy to describe, but hard to execute.
Writing a good book is a magical art that blends creating interesting characters, placing them in intriguing settings, and weaving an engaging plot with page-turning action and authentic dialogue. Easy, right? Not so much.
And if writing well wasn’t difficult enough, writing picture books puts additional limits on the author. These children’s books are shorter than adult books, so there’s much less time for story arc or character development. The author is further constrained by the audience’s age; most kids won’t understand adult vocabulary, scenarios, or themes.
Think you’re ready to try your hand at writing a picture book? Here’s what you need to know.
What exactly is a picture book?
Picture books are typically, but not always, 32 pages. They are published in larger trim sizes (e.g. 8.5” x 11”) and can contain anywhere from zero to 1,000 words. Word counts under 500 are most common.
Picture books are anomalous in that they can be written at a reading level higher than the age of the intended audience. That’s because picture books, unlike easy readers through YA, are often read to a child by an adult. That said, truly timeless picture books, like Where the Wild Things Are or A Sick Day for Amos McGee can be enjoyed by kids of any age.
As the name suggests, these books have pictures on every page. Illustrations help tell the story, describe the setting, set the mood, and convey information about the characters. They provide visual appeal to young readers, and help the author tell a story in fewer words. Ironically, an artist illustrates a picture book after the manuscript is accepted by a publisher. So, it’s common for a picture book author and illustrator to never meet or even speak with each other!
While there is no formulaic prescription for writing a picture book, certain crucial elements should be considered: plot type, genre, setting, theme, appealing main character, point of view and tense, word choice, love/friendship, re-readability, and satisfying ending.
Which picture book plot type is best for your story?
Often called a sausage story, a “series of events” is just that, a string of small episodes, as in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. “Discovery” plot types begin with the character laboring under a misunderstanding. Eventually, they discover something and reverse their situation or outlook, as in Green Eggs and Ham.
“Wish fulfillment” plot types have a deserving main character wish for something and subsequently receive it, as in Cinderella. Contrast that with “purpose achieved” plots, where the main character has to struggle to attain a goal, as in Swimmy.
Choose your story’s type of fiction, such as fairy tale, fantasy, historical fiction, horror, humor, mystery, mythology, poetry or science fiction. In my own writing, I don’t pick the genre first. I devise story concepts, then see what genre fits best, but some writers prefer to plan their genre before outlining their story.
In some cases, the choice of setting (Alpha Centauri = science fiction) or main character (Abraham Lincoln = historical fiction) dictates the genre. And yes, you can write horror, but it should be mild and humorous — more like There Was an Old Monster than The Call of Cthulhu.
Picture books generally occur within a single setting. What is the best time and place for the story to occur — on a farm (Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type), in a medieval castle, aboard a pirate ship in the Caribbean, or on a spaceship orbiting Mars?
What positive message will the story convey? Examples include: beauty is in the eye of the beholder (Shrek), do unto others (How the Rhino Got His Skin), look before you leap (Curious George), and so on.
Is the main character interesting or endearing enough that the readers care about what happens to him/her? Can readers easily imagine themselves within the story?
Main characters in picture books are usually the same age as the readers, typically either kids or animals. Rarely are they adults or inanimate objects, but there are exceptions: The Day the Crayons Quit features crayon characters. For character naming tips, see 6 Creative Ways to Name Your Fictional Characters.
Point of view and tense
Which point of view and tense are most effective for this story: first-person present tense, second-person future tense, third-person past tense? Be consistent once that choice is made.
It is far more powerful to show than to tell. Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
The low word count of picture books requires the author to be scrupulous in their word selection. Don’t dilute the impact of your writing with weak words.
Consider “the sun had nearly set” with “the sun kissed the horizon.” Characters should act, not get ready to act. Use strong, descriptive verbs. Contrast “Josh started to get up” with “Josh vaulted up.”
Does the story feature love or friendship that resonates at an emotional level? Is there a strong bond between characters (Frog and Toad) or an enduring message (The Little Engine That Could)? Will readers laugh (Flap Your Wings) or have a catch in their throats (The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore)? Love and friendship help form a bond between the reader and the story.
Is there an unexpected twist (The Monster at the End of This Book) or satisfying payoff (I Want My Hat Back) at the conclusion of the story? A satisfying ending is the unexpected surprise that completes the child’s reading experience. It is the cherry on top of a good story.
Re-readability can’t be added to the recipe like any other ingredient. Rather, it is the result of considering all of the above elements.
Is the tapestry you’ve woven rich enough to warrant multiple readings? The ultimate proof that you’ve written an engaging and entertaining story is that kids read it over and over. (Click to tweet this idea.)
While at first glance it may not seem like it, a great deal of thought goes into the few words that comprise a picture book. Every single word counts. Shakespeare was right when he said, “brevity is the soul of wit.” And as far as we know, he never even wrote a picture book.
Have you written or considered writing a picture book?
Looking for a quick introduction to publishing picture books on Kindle? Check out this free mini e-course from Children’s Book Insider.