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?

11 thoughts on “Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – Section 3 Check-in

  1. Yvonne Mes says:

    Another awesome well though through post! I like your link to Marisa Montes’ website, thanks. I seem to have to most difficulty with my beginnings, I am never quite satisfied with them and it is the part I take the longest to get just right.

  2. Tina Cho says:

    I think endings are the hardest to write, just as your ending checklist shows,there are many things to consider to have a great ending. I like your info that the 3 tries the mc goes through must be cause and effect. Great reminder. Thanks!

  3. Barbara says:

    This is SO very interesting to me – thank you for your comprehensive review of this information. Writing fiction just baffles me but I’m intrigued by the challenge and this helps a lot!

  4. bjleepoet says:

    You’re way ahead of me in your reading, Carrie! I guess endings are the hardest for me. Sometimes it’s hard to work a ‘twist’ into the ending. BTW, thanks for the link to Marisa Montes’ website.

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