In chapter 2 of Ann Whitford Paul’s book WRITING WITH PICTURES, she makes a key point about picture book stories, or any story, really. And I know it’s a key point because she bolded it and said “it is critical.” This is not a lady who generally speaks in hyperbole, people, so listen up.
“It is critical that each story has a question”
Having a question – a single question, in the case of a picture book – will keep the story focused and moving in the right direction.
Now, as she states, not all writers know their story question when they start writing. Sometimes you do. Other times, you might discover the story question as part of the writing/revision process. But sooner or later, you gotta have one.
The story answer is one sentence that describes how the question is answered by your story. This short summary is like a blurb or elevator pitch for your story.
“Spend time carefully formatting your question and answer.
If you do, the writing of your book will be infinitely easier.”
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that she’s right on this one as I plow forward with revisions on one of my manuscripts.
For practice, I thought I would try writing story questions and answers for some published picture books I’ve read recently. I noticed that, while the story questions are very general and could apply to many different stories, the story answers are very specific to the individual stories. Care to take a stab at it? Leave a story question and answer for a published picture book in the comments.
Story Question: What happens when we lose a favorite plaything?
Story Answer: When Floyd’s kite gets stuck in a tree, he tosses up object after object trying to knock it down until the tree is so full that there is no more room for the kite and it comes down on its own.
Story Question: What happens when a child’s behavior is too wild for the house?
Story Answer: Max gets sent to his room for his wild behavior and once there goes on a fantastical journey where he can be as wild as he wants, but eventually discovers that while being wild is fun, being where you are loved is what’s most important.
Story Question: What do you do when someone you love is missing?
Story Answer: Three baby owls, surprised to find their mother missing, huddle together and try to reassure each other until their mother comes back again.
Story Question: What happens when someone, or some animal, wants something that is impossible to get?
Story Answer: Kitten tries many ways to get the moon, which she thinks is a big bowl of milk in the sky just for her, but in the end must be satisfied with a small bowl of milk on her own porch.
Story Question: What can we do when we’re bored?
Story Answer: When no one in her family will play with Lulu, she becomes Ladybug Girl and uses her imagination to entertain herself.
Story Question: How do people and things settle down at the end of the day?
Story Answer: In a construction site, each machine has it’s own way of settling down to sleep.
Story Question: What happens when someone, or some thing, gets left behind?
Story Answer: Thinking that the class who baked him has left him behind, the Gingerbread Man searches the school for his missing students, and finally discovers that he had not been left behind, only left to cool.
Want to practice? Leave a story question and answer for a book you’ve read in the comments…then try it for your own manuscript. (It’s part of the homework for chapter 2!)
Speaking of homework, I’m on track to check in about Section 2, which includes chapters 2-6, on February 26…and hoping not to be derailed by school vacation week.