Revision 9-1-1 For Fiction: Picture Books

Here are the common things I notice when I evaluate picture book manuscripts.

Tuneless Picture Books

  • In my opinion, a picture book’s structure and rhythm are much like a tune. If I can’t hear your song when I’m reading your manuscript, the result is a text which reads like “heavy metal”. Discordant and jumbled. A tuneless picture book may have a beginning that’s too long, a middle that’s too short, and an abrupt ending. Or each sentence introduces a new pattern or rhythm. I’ll be writing more articles on the anatomy of the typical picture book, but for now, no matter what picture book you’re writing, it’s helpful to have tight structure–a clear story arc that has rhythm. If you can’t see the framework or the rhythm in your picture book (or even worse, you can’t tell where your beginning ends and your middle starts, etc.,), send up the red flags.
  • Solution: Think beginning (setup), three obstacles (increasing difficulty towards climax), and an end. Or…if your book doesn’t fit that structure, identify your beginning (start and stop), your middle (start and stop) and your end (start and stop). Step back and look at how many lines or words these sections take up. If your beginning is 400 words out of 800, do you think your start might be a little long? (answer is yes). If your ending is twice as long as your middle, is something fishy? (yes again). Typically your beginning should be 1/5th or less of the whole story. Your middle, 3/5ths. And your end, 1/5th. Of course no story will fit this exactly, but use reasonable guidelines to help pinpoint where you’re running long, where you’re running short, etc., Also, if each section of your story (and the lines within the sections) introduces a new rhythm or pattern, your picture book won’t sound like a song. It’ll read like a short story or an “anecdote.” The main idea is this–to me, picture book writing isn’t that different from composing a catchy song. A tune. So strike up the band!

Extra, Extra!

  • Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Now CUT IT. If you have words in your manuscript which could be nixed and have no effect on the intent of your story, that’s extra. To me, the tightest picture books depend on every word in the manuscript to tell the story.
  • Solution: Look at each sentence in your manuscript. Do you have silly words like “that” all over the place? Have you given us a play-by-play of every facial reaction or minor movement made by your characters? Have you communicated the same idea multiple times? Did you take the long route to say something? Do you need so many lines of dialogue, thought, or action to get your point across? Go E.B. White (see Elements of Style) all over your manuscript and be amazed by the results. LESS IS MORE, particularly in the case of picture books.

Chatty Picture Books

  • Another common thing I see are characters who “talk” the whole story. I ask you, how easy is it for your illustrator to DRAW conversation? (answer: not that easy).
  • Solution: Are you trying to write a picture book that really should be expanded into a novel? Or a chapter book? If you’re quite certain your aim is to create a picture book, then here’s how to fix it. Shut your characters up. 🙂 Narrate the conversation if you have to or decide if there’s a more visual way to tell the story. If your PB text is more than 1/3 dialogue, I’d say you’ve probably got a situation on your hands. And that 1/3 figure is being generous. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, but scrutinize your text. Do you really need the “Hello’s” and “How are you’s?”. Do you need to say “My tummy hurts” in three different ways back to back? Is there any way you can turn the intent of the conversation into actions that can be drawn instead?

Novels, Magazine Articles or Short Stories Posing as Picture Books

  • I see this more often than you’d think. I think there must be something going around where every children’s writer wants to write a picture book without really knowing if his or her voice is suited for picture books. Most storytelling does not come out of your head written like a picture book text. Chances are what you put down on that paper will have too much dialogue, too much description involving clothing and eye color, and the text will be way longer than necessary. Think of it this way: who naturally writes in refrains (or rhyme)? Who automatically tells stories using only a handful of words in a sentence? Hardly anyone. Too often, I see manuscripts which are billed as “picture books” when the style they’re written in is VERY MUCH like a short story or novel.
  • Solution: Read picture book texts. Study them closely. Observe the sentence structure and length of your favorite books. The ones you want to write. Crack open a few novels. What’s your style? Can you write in the PB-style or not? My point is writing picture books is much harder than it looks. Another way of looking at it: are you good at short-hand? Cutting to the chase? Writing about the highlights only? Picture books these days are almost like “bullet-pointed” stories. They’re short, to the point, and allow plenty of room for the illustrator to fill in everything you left out. Which brings me to the next issue…

Picture Books Without The Pictures

  • This is when characters spend the entire time in one room OR spend the story talking OR the structure (or even content) isn’t there, so neither are the clear refrains or “scenes” an illustrator can illustrate.
  • Solution: Here’s a fun exercise. Do what an editor would do. Imagine the page turns in your picture book and conjure up the picture that would be there on that spread. Do you find yourself in a pictureless black hole on certain pages? (BTW, eye-brow raising and a cough may not be a really great picture in a picture book). Pictureless text is not a picture book text. Make sure you’re story has REALLY INTERESTING pictures in it and they’re paced appropriately through the story. If it takes thirty-million lines to get to the next great picture, you know something is wrong. Don’t get lazy and hope it’ll all work out on the illustrator end somehow.

Mommy Knows Best

  • Mommy fixes everything. (Or Grandma). Or some other boring adult.
  • Solution: Write Mommy and the elderly out of the picture if they’re sole purpose is to guide or hand over the solution for the MC. Kids like to see the main character solving his own problems (so I’ve heard). Unless you’re a celebrity, you probably can’t get away with writing a book where Mom is the one who figures it out for the child.

No Twist, No Surprise

  • These are the books where the outcome can be predicted from page one.
  • Solution: Always try to figure out ways to take the story and twist the plot or the ending. Think of the predictable solution. Now make the opposite come true.

Slight or Lacking Kid Appeal

  • Here’s the part where I can only make guesses about a book’s marketability. In my view, the books that sell (assuming you’ve written the text in an illustratable way and it’s short) are ones that have 1) kid appeal and 2) something of real value to offer. If there is no value to the story, it might be labeled as “well-told but slight” by editors. So what is value? It can be anything from a nice message or a hilarious story. Or whatever the editor values in a story.
  • Solution: If you don’t know if your book has any value, ask someone if they’d pay $16.99 for your book. Better yet, ask yourself: would you pay $16.99 for your book? If the answer is no or maybe, how can you make the answer: TOTALLY! Can you put your main character in a situation lots of kids can relate to? Can you raise the stakes for your character? Can you turn some adult characters into kids? Can you make the book so funny or so touching it would be stupid for anyone to say no? Always look for ways to push your story to the next level. Think of what it would take to get someone who’s never heard of you to lift your book from the shelf and carry it to the cash register. At worst, doing that is fun to imagine. At best, you’ll have a better book.

Loose Picture Books

  • I might call something loose when all the ideas of the story are great, but the elements used to tell the story are “loose”. Or haphazard. Like picked randomly from nowhere. This is hard to explain in an article like this, but let me jump right to the solution. Perhaps the idea will be clearer.
  • Solution: Recycle elements you’ve introduced in the beginning and middle of your story in your ending. This might also be called “going full circle”. If the kid’s favorite food at the beginning of the story is nuts, and the resolution involves getting the kid to consume vegetables, perhaps there should be some nuts on that salad at the end. This is a bad example, but the point is LEVERAGE elements you introduce in the beginning and middle to fill out your end. This makes the story appear “tight”. Tight is good. Often this might require you to write your story “backwards.” When you’ve got the ending figured out, you may need to go back and revise. To plant the elements of the resolution in the beginning and/or middle. The result? An ending that is clever (if done correctly) and a tighter story. Go full circle. Make the story tight by reusing elements.
  • Also, watch out for picking details that seem too haphazard. For example, if your book features animals and it’s got three that are common zoo animals but then there’s an alien or a bug, and the book isn’t about that oddity, then the elements are too loose. If the girl loves to bake, but the boy is into something really obscure – like collecting stamps, I would say, make this tighter – you’ve picked a very connectable character trait that many kids will identify with for one character, but for the other kid, you picked something much more obscure in today’s world. If the book is generally about two kids then pick something just as broad as baking for children,  versus stamp-collecting. It won’t sacrifice your book’s message, and it will widen the total audience for the PB and help it fit what major trade publishers need to market PBs. There’s more to this than what I’ve just described, but whatever you do, USE every element in your story to drive the plot. If you don’t ever use something about that major hobby or baking to move the plot forward, then you’re probably using the wrong elements. They are too loose to make the story feel tight, so tighten a story by screwing down the elements that are absolutely necessary to convey your story’s theme, tone, etc. and get rid of the stuff that just doesn’t seem to fit as well or do the job better than something else.  That takes a lot of brainstorming about what’s similar and what’s opposite. But picking something in between will muddle the clarity of your picture book.

What’s The Big Idea?

  • The main idea is picture book writing is not the same kind of writing you use in novels, short stories, or magazine articles. You must allow room for pictures in your text. You must become a master of GETTING TO THE POINT. You will be “composing” a story. Like one might compose a song. And finally, you must tell a great story that has economic value (or the very least, value to an editor).

Go and read more articles in the Revision 9-1-1 series.


Happy revising,


10 thoughts on “Revision 9-1-1 For Fiction: Picture Books

  1. I’ve thought about PBs as needing a rhythm, but you spelled it out in a way that had never completely gelled in my mind before. (Both of my parents were music teachers, so this may be why I’m so drawn to picture books and their melodies. It was neat to realize this as I was reading.)

    What a wonderful resource this is. Thanks, Cynthea!

  2. Thanks for the very interesting tips…the 1/5-3/5-1/5th rule makes perfect sense, just never thought of it that way. You’ve made the basics for a picture book into a nice little package…exactly what I need!

  3. Incredibly clear explanation! Love the rhythm idea…much like the rhythm of a play…quite wonderful.

  4. I need to sit under a willow tree for a few hours and ponder a short story does not equal a picture book. That feels close to home. The good news is after working in the corporate world, I can do bullet points. Now, will my voice cooperate?

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