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.
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.
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?