Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – Section 3 Check-in


Section 3 of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul covers a lot of ground. A lot. Beginnings, middles, endings. The whole kit-and-caboodle.

The thing about this book is that what I notice in it—the nuggets that help move me forward as a writer—change based on what I need to learn right now. This is why I love rereading craft books. So here’s what spoke to me this time around.

Three Act Structure

From Chapter 9:

No one map can get every story to its destination. Each story reaches its end sometimes traveling down roads similar to the roads of other stories, but most often demanding its own path.

I love this because I think it is important to remember that, while most picture book stories will follow the basic three-act structure, there’s a lot of room for variation within that framework.

Here’s a map that I use when I’m developing a picture book story. It’s a good guideline, but again, I find that some stories demand something slightly different. A great visual map, similar to this is on the website of author Marisa Montes (scroll to the bottom of the page).

Picture Book Map

14 or 15 visual spreads

Act 1: The Conflict

Spreads 1-3: Introduce characters; set the scene. The conflict should be clear by the end of spread 3.

Act 2: Attempts to solve the problem

Spreads 4-11: Character attempts to solve the problem. The stakes are rising.

Spread 12: Story climax – what’s referred to on Blake Snyder’s ‘beat sheet’ as All Is Lost/Dark Night of the Soul

Act 3: Resolution

Spreads 13-14: The conflict is resolved — character’s inner/emotional conflict as well as the external conflict.

I like to think of this as a rough, hand-drawn map. It’s not a GPS. It helps me understand the lay of the land, but it isn’t an exact template for every story.

Cause-and-Effect Action

Another favorite point from my most recent reading of Chapter 9 was the example of the difference between cause-and-effect action and incidental action. I have written many stories where my main character attempts to solve her problem in 3 different ways, then finally hits upon a solution. But without cause-and-effect, these don’t feel satisfying and feel like incidents contrived by the writer. A great litmus test, as Ann Whitford Paul points out, is whether the events in your story could be rearranged in any order. If so, they are incidental and have no cause-and-effect relationship.

The best recent example I’ve read of cause-and-effect action is the book CHICO THE BRAVE by Dave Horowitz, which I reviewed in January.

Story Endings

Chapter 11 on story endings begins with a quote from Jane Yolen that says it all:

A book should end with the unexpected expected.

The subheadings in this chapter are a good reminder of how important endings are, and how much they must accomplish:

  • The ending must not be predictable
  • The ending must solve the presenting problem
  • Everything you’ve written relates to that ending
  • The main character solves the problem
  • The main character changes in some way
  • No lucky coincidences influence the outcome
  • No extra characters materialize to aid in the resolution
  • All characters play an important part in the story
  • The ending comes at the end of the book
  • Loose ends are tied together
  • Delete any moral or message
  • The ending doesn’t have to be happy, but it must give the audience hope

Oh yeah. And you have to do all that in four or maybe five pages.

I often find endings difficult. I’ve recently noticed that my stories that have the best endings are the ones where I thought of the ending first, and had a clear idea of where I was heading the whole time I was writing.

What do you find most difficult to write. Beginnings? Middles? Endings? All of ’em? And if you are reading along with me, what nuggets from section 3 spoke to you?

Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – Story Openings


Chapters 7 and 8 of Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul deal with story openings and first lines. This is good news for me because I frequently find that I have trouble with openings. Sometimes, I get so hung up on my original opening that I can’t bring myself to rewrite it, even when the story that follows has changed so much that it no longer works well. Other times, I think my opening works but it takes too long to get to the story problem. And sometimes, my opening just plain doesn’t work.

Today I thought I would look at a few story openings from recently published books and see how they work, and specifically how they include the 6 W’s that Ann Whitford Paul outlines in chapter 7.

I decided to use for this because many books include a preview of the first 4-5 pages. This was a helpful way to study openings for books I hadn’t read.

this_is_not_my_hatTHIS IS NOT MY HAT by Jon Klassen

Preview this opening

This hat is not mine.

I just stole it.

I stole it from a big fish.

He was asleep when I did it.

And he probably won’t wake up for a long time.

[Note, in the illustration, we see the fish’s eye is open. He’s awake.]

I haven’t read this book yet, but based on the opening, I’d like to.

Who is the MC? We don’t know exactly, but probably a fish (based on the cover illustration). We do learn some things about the main character – he steals things. He’s probably small, since he calls the other fish ‘big.’ He sounds a little cocky.

What does the MC want? A hat. We know what the conflict is going to be because we can guess that the fish is going to want his hat back.

When and Where is the story? When is not important; where is in the ocean.

What is the tone? The story is told in short sentences without a lot of detail or flowing description. We almost feel like we are on the run with this little fish.

What is the WOW factor? A small creature has just committed a crime against a much larger creature – definitely a topic of interest to kids! I especially love that the opening leaves the reader knowing something that the main character doesn’t know (yet) – that the big fish is awake. That makes for an irresistible page turn. We want to find out what happens when that big fish realizes his hat has been stolen.

oh_noOH, NO! by Candace Fleming

Preview this opening

Frog fell into a deep, deep hole.

Ribbit-oops! Ribbit-oops!

Frog fell into a deep, deep hole


Frog fell into such a deep hole, he couldn’t get out to save his soul.

Croaked Frog, “Help! Help! I can’t get out!”

“Oh, no!”

[Note, a tiger is creeping near the hole.]

Who is the MC? A frog, introduced in the first two words.

What does the MC want? To get out of a hole. There is a sense that frog has fallen in accidentally while cheerfully hopping through the jungle (“Ribbit-oops!”)

When and Where is the story? When is not important; where is in the jungle.

What is the tone? The language is very rhythmic. The phrase “Oh, no!” which is repeated throughout the story is introduced here for the first time.

What is the WOW factor? Someone small (a frog) is stuck someplace and can’t get out no matter how hard he tries. Kids can relate. We also see the tiger creeping closer, so we are compelled to turn the page and find out what happens next. If the frog gets out, will he get eaten?

king_arthurs_very_great_grandsonKING ARTHUR’S VERY GREAT GRANDSON by Kenneth Kraegel

Preview this opening

On the day Henry turned six years old, he woke up early, ate a large breakfast, mounted his trusty donkey, Knuckles, and went out in search of adventure.

He had heard of a fire-breathing Dragon lurking far out in the hills, so into the hills he went.

When he found the terrible Dragon, Henry announced himself loudly:


The Dragon drew in a long slow breath…

[Aren’t you just dying to know what happens? I have read this story, and as it turns out, the dragon does not want to fight. And neither do any of the other ferocious mythical creatures that Henry accosts.]

Who is the MC? Henry. We know that he is six years old, loves adventure, is related to King Arthur, and is a little bloodthirsty.

What does the MC want? Adventure. And a fight. And maybe to live up to his heritage as King Arthur’s greatgreatgreatgreat(etc.) grandson.

When and Where is the story? It seems like the story is in the present-day because we know Henry is distantly descended from King Arthur. The story setting is somewhat a mixture of fantasy (where King Arthur and dragons exist) and reality.

What is the tone? This sounds like an adventure story. There’s lots of action. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek when we hear Henry’s over-the-top speech to the dragon.

What is the WOW factor? I love the idea that a small boy would ride out on his own and challenge a dragon to a fight. We’re left wanting to know what happens to Henry.

These are three very different stories and very different openings, but they all succeed in drawing us in and making us want to read more. And they all include most of the “6 W’s” that Ann Whitford Paul mentions in her book.

Can you think of picture books that have particularly strong openings? Leave a note in the comments – I’ll be seeking out some good examples in the next few weeks as I work on my opening.

The plan is to check in next week about section 2 – Structure of Your Story. That’s the plan. Just sayin’.

March Madness Thoughts – and a Poem

Madness2013BlackBlueThe March Madness children’s poetry tournament continues over at Think Kid, Think but…without me. I was edged out in the first round by a wonderful and witty poem from my critique group partner, Penny Parker Klostermann. Thank you so much to everyone who read and voted. I had a great time preparing for the tournament and writing my poem. If you have time and want to read more, visit Think Kid, Think today,where round 2 voting is underway.

Ed DeCaria the (evil) genius behind March Madness has also launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for his next idea: turning the March Madness poems into a book, and a game.

In the meantime, I thought I would share one of my “outtakes” from the tournament. My assigned word was ‘parse’ and I came up with two poems for this word. I agonized over which one to send and ended up choosing “Notes on an Eighth-Grade Breakup” as a topic with more kid-appeal. The other I give you below. My loose inspiration for this was Mr. Collins, the insufferable clergyman from Pride and Prejudice who seemed happy to pass judgement on everything and everyone around him. Yeah, this guy: mrcollins


And speaking of passing judgement…best of luck to my critique group partners, Bill, Penny, Renée, and Liz, who are competing in round 2 of March Madness. I’ll be reading (and voting) for you!

March Madness (and How to Write a Poem)

I’ve recently been posting on Tuesdays about my experiences reading WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul, but today I’m going to take a break from picture book thoughts to focus on the other genre I dabble in: childrens’ poetry.

Madness2013BlackBlueThis week, I’m participating in the March Madness poetry tournament over at Think Kid, Think. Sixty-four writers, each assigned a word, go head-to-head (pen-to-pen?) and compete for votes — YOUR votes. The word assignments for the first flight of the first round were released last night, and range from the rather mundane ‘potion’ and ‘mesh,’ to fun-but-challenging ‘abscond’ and ‘herculean,’ to the completely, mind-bogglingly, stupefyingly challenging ‘anthropomorphization.’ My word will be assigned Tuesday night, with my poem due (and voting to start) on Thursday morning.

I’ve been so focused on other things lately that this challenge has been a fun way to get back into writing some shorter pieces, and has also got me thinking about my process. Some of my poems come to me based on a phrase that I’ll hear — maybe something one of my kids will say, or something I say to them, or a phrase from a book we’re reading. Other times (not as often) I’ll think of a character I want to write about, or a joke I want to tell, and will come at the poem that way. But it can be a haphazard process. I’m not such a master of words, rhyme, and meter that I can always say exactly what I wanted to say. Sometimes words and ideas shift so much in the process that the result is far from my original intent.

I came across an old Sesame Street video a while ago that captures what the writing process is sometimes like for me. It features Don Music, that head-banging composer. Kermit acts as his one-man critique group. As a kid, I thought Don Music was funny but now, having been through this writing process myself, I find this flat-out hilarious. I relate to Don’s highs and lows — the joy when he realizes he can rhyme ‘pony’ and ‘macaroni;’ the despair when he realizes the resulting story makes absolutely no sense. I laugh as Kermit patiently makes suggestion after suggestion, and talks Don off the cliff (as only a good crit partner can do). And finally, I love how Don takes his ideas and Kermit’s suggestions, and creates something that is wonderful and totally his.


Special good-luck wishes to my critique partners who are participating in the March Madness tournament with me: Penny, Renee, Bill, Liz, and Gayle. Good luck!!

Craft Book Read-Along: My Problem with Animals


I’m plowing ahead into section 3 of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul but before I do, I want to go back and talk about a point mentioned in chapter 5, about animal characters.

When is it a good idea to use animal characters instead of people?

Animal characters give your listeners an opportunity to distance themselves from the characters, especially when they are dealing with issues that might be too threatening and scary.

Brilliantly stated. And so true. Imagine the Three Little Pigs as a story featuring three children and a scary adult who is chasing them. That would be frightening for a 4-year-old…and maybe even for the mom reading the story.

I would go a bit further and add that animal characters enable a writer to put her main character into situations that real children don’t (or shouldn’t) experience, and to come up with solutions that real children couldn’t (or shouldn’t) carry out. An animal main character can strike out on her own, converse freely with strangers, go to the store and home again, all on her own without adult supervision or help.

Confession: I have never written a story with an animal main character.

I didn’t realize I had a hang-up about animal characters until I read chapter 5. I enjoy reading books with animal main characters. Many of the books I’ve reviewed on this site feature animals. But for some reason, I have never written one.

However…I have occasionally gotten ‘stuck’ in a story, when I can’t think of an interesting and also realistic way for my child MC to solve his or her own problem. Some of my stories have too many parents hovering in the background, politely making suggestions, or at least supervising the goings-on, and kids who are too hampered by the confines of their own abilities and the necessity of staying safe in the world. If you’re a real kid and you get lost in the woods, you stay put until your parents find you. Period. End of story. If you’re an animal…well, maybe you climb the tallest tree you can find. Maybe you ask a gang of crows for help. Maybe you take up with a couple of woodchucks and live in a burrow until spring.

Maybe it’s time to not only get rid of the parents, but get rid of the humans altogether.

What about you? Do your stories feature humans, animals, or both?