Picture books are short and aimed at little kids.So they don’t have to be about much, do they?
At a book signing I did recently, I got cornered by a newbie writer who really, really, really wanted to write picture books.But every time she had someone read a manuscript, she was told it was too “slight.”She confessed to me that she didn’t know what “slight” meant.
“Slight means there isn’t enough story there, or that not enough happens to support a whole book,” I explained.
That’s when I got the line above about picture books not having to be about much.
As slightly more experienced writers, especially picture book writers, it is difficult to hear this particular misconception about our craft.The truth, however, is that slightness is not exclusively a newbie mistake.Evaluating our own writing for substance – or the meat of the story – is a daunting task for all of us.
So how do you tell if your story is too slight?I do a simple test – I re-read my story and ask, “where’s the beef?”
Ingredient #1: theme
The first thing that can clue you in to whether you’ve written a picture book or some other kind of short story is called “theme.”The theme is the underlying meaning of the story, the universal truth that the main character is exposing.Popular themes in children’s books are often bravery, loneliness, perseverance, finding one’s place in the world – the list is a long one.
A good picture book has a theme – something that makes it readable over and over again.The theme imparts a lesson of sorts to the reader without being overly didactic.It also gives the reader that “warm fuzzy feeling.”And let’s face it, we all like feeling warm and fuzzy.
You might say, “The short story I read in last month’s magazine was about honesty – why couldn’t that have been a picture book?”Well, short stories that are not picture books can also deal with life truths, and they can have a theme of sorts, but the difference, I would argue, is in the universality of the story.Magazine stories are often very specific – Timmy is afraid of his mean neighbor, Jane is worried about her math test – and they are not necessarily something that can be read over and over again.
In addition, picture book theme is not heavy handed (and magazine themes often can be – after all, isn’t it obvious that Timmy’s neighbor is more misunderstood than mean?And if Timmy learned more about the people around him, these misconceptions would not be perpetuated).Perseverance isn’t shown by the character declaring, “I will persevere!”Instead, we see multiple attempts at reaching his or her goal.Similarly, loneliness and finding one’s place in the world isn’t demonstrated by narrating, “Bubba was lonely.He hadn’t found his place in the world yet.”In its place, we are shown Bubba isolated in some way, and we are shown how his home/setting isn’t appropriate for him.
The theme of your story needs to resonate with the reader, and a good, universal theme will resonate through repeated readings and through generations of readers.Where the Wild Things Are continues to delight readers because kids of any age or time period can identify with the need to be naughty in the face of authority, and the comfort that home and mother give and the end of a long naughty day.
Ingredient #2: action
No matter how satisfying of a theme you’ve established, it won’t be enough by itself to support a picture book.The next essential ingredient is action.Real action.Real, illustratable action.Preferably, real, illustratable action that causes kids to snort with laughter.
You’ve given your main character a goal – now what does he do to reach that goal?Does he go on a quest?Does he save his friends from danger?Does he invent something new or tame a savage beast?Whatever it is, it has to be long enough to fill the picture book, but not so long that it reading the book becomes a chore (Goodnight Moon wouldn’t be so much of a classic at 3,000 words).
When you’re creating the action in the story, you need to think about visual variety.This is another way that a picture book differs from a short story – the scene must change much more often in a picture book in order to fill the 32 pages.A story that all takes place in one room would be considered by today’s standards, quite frankly, boring to look at.The same would go for a solitary character discovering the joy of nature in his backyard – even if that concept wasn’t so slight in theme, can you imagine 32 pictures of your neighbor’s backyard passed off as a picture book?
Sometimes people like to “cheat” on the action – they use the character’s imagination or use a dream sequence to free the character to let him do fantastical things.This is a big no-no in my opinion.First of all, the reader might feel cheated at the end of the story when he finds out that the entire emotional investment he made concerning the main character’s success or failure was wasted on something that didn’t even happen.This hardly makes it a book he will ask to read over and over.Next, unless you’re an author-illustrator, it is very difficult to portray the fantastical elements of an imaginary journey in a way that will be appealing in manuscript format.
When I’m mapping out the action in a story, I usually rely on the rule of three – the character will make three unsuccessful attempts to solve his problem before the final successful attempt.Furthermore, there should be some connection between the first three attempts – attempt #1 should logically lead to attempt #2 and so forth.After attempt #3, there should be a “gear shift” in the character’s mindset and action that takes him down the final and successful path – something very different from what was originally expected.Throw in some snoring or some barfing, and the action part should be golden.
Ingredient #3: tension
Tension is a bit of an extension of ingredient #2, but it is important enough to merit a bit more discussion.A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that because picture books are for young children, they don’t really need tension.Not true.In picture books, as with any books, you need to give the reader a reason to turn the page.Dramatic tension is what does that.
We just talked about the basic structure to the action of the picture book – three attempts, three failures, gear shift, successful attempt.But what will make your audience read past attempt #1 to get to the pay off?While you’re writing, you have to put enough at stake to make the reader want to get to the end and find out what will happen.You have to scare him, make him worry, make him empathize, and, most of all, make him want it.
For example, imagine you’re telling a story to your family over dinner about what happened when you tried to buy new shoes.If your whole story is, “I decided I needed shoes.I drove to the mall and picked a style I wanted.The clerk found it immediately.I paid for it and came home,” your family will likely smile politely and think to themselves, That’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back.
On the other hand, what if this was your story: “I decided I needed shoes.I drove to the mall, and just as I was pulling into a spot, this crazy old man came barreling down the street.He almost hit me, but I swerved out of the way.Then in the store, the only shoes they had in my size were stiletto sandals or orthopedic walking shoes.Finally, I spotted one pair of super-cute sandals – in my size! – but the box was in a stack next to another woman.I could tell she was debating between those shoes and another pair of much less cute sandals, so I wandered over and “helped” her make her decision.After my convincing arguments, she left with the other pair – and I got the ones I wanted.”Now, this story is not going to change your children’s lives forever either, but it is far more satisfying because every step of the process does not come easily – you, the main character, had to work for each success.There was some uncertainty – or, tension – that made the story worth listening to all the way through to the end.
Ingredient #4: heart
The last ingredient I want to talk about – and, arguably, the most important – is heart.A picture book manuscript without heart is like a slice of cheese pizza – fairly common to come across, but utterly uninspiring when you do.Sure, it serves some basic purpose, but it’s never anyone’s first choice.And when your picture book manuscript is not the first choice, editors have a huge pile of other potential pizzas to choose from.
What is heart?It is a bit hard to define, in that heart combines several other ingredients.A good theme contributes to the heart of a picture book, as does a strong main character.Humor or emotional depth also play a part.But overall, if I had to give you the 30-second elevator pitch of what heart means, I’d say that heart gives the reader a reason to care about the character and the story.
At the very beginning of the picture book, when the main character begins his or her journey toward the eventual goal, you have to make sure that there is something more than a whim that is driving the journey.Furthermore, there has to be a reason that the character is beginning that particular journey at that particular time – there has to be something real and big at stake.Your character can’t just be sleepy, he must require sleep on that particular night because tomorrow is his big day (perhaps his wedding day).He can’t just be hungry, he must be super-hungry because he has just woken up from hibernation and hasn’t eaten in months.He can’t just be lonely, he must be devastated by the knowledge that everyone around him is finding romance while he is left all alone.
Throughout the story, the heart shines through in various ways – the main character’s resolve and pluckiness when faced with adversity, the way each attempt to solve the problem makes the reader root for the character even more (oh, he was so close that time!Maybe he’ll get it this time.).And when the main character finally reaches his goal, the heart of the story reverberates with the heart of the reader, making everyone feel satisfied and eager to begin the journey again.
Empty calories have no place in the beef
After talking for so long about what to add to your story to make sure there is enough beef there, the last thing to talk about is what you must remove from your story to keep the beef high-quality: the empty calories.In writing, empty calories are those phrases we writers leave in because we are emotionally attached to them, even though they add nothing to the story itself.You know what I mean – those flowery passages with the lovely rhythm and cadence, the internal rhyme that is just so cute, the side joke or pun we can’t possibly do without.
The truth is, though, that in writing, as in life, despite the temporary satisfaction they offer, empty calories do nothing but leave you bloated and swollen, and obviously unfit.So we must eliminate them whenever we see them, in order to ensure that our picture books remain fit for duty (and for publication).
The Dish is Done
We’ve taken all the steps. We’ve checked off every ingredient and made sure that we only used the highest-quality materials and tools. Does this mean we have a gourmet meal before our eyes? Or just a plate of spam? (My apologies to spam-lovers.)
To belabor the metaphor one final time, writing is like cooking. Two people can follow the same recipe and come up with vastly different tasting dishes. One person can use the same recipe twice and get a mouth-watering meal one time and an inedible, gelatinous mess another time. In the same way, the things we’ve discussed here can help you create a great picture book, but you always bring your own unique flavor to it – and at the end of the day, whether you have a masterpiece on your hands is really just a matter of taste.