Updated: Mar 29
(in 7 easy-to-follow steps)
Please remember that this is only advice, not set in stone rules on how to write. We all find ways that work for us and through my experience, I’ve found this works for me. It could work for you, but you may find other ways too. And that is brilliant!
The great thing about creativity is that it’s as individual as you are.
1. Come up with an idea/hook.
That’s easy peasy, right? Actually… no.
In many picture books, there is a message, the heart of the story. Read some of your favourite picture books and spend some time thinking about what the message is.
Can you identify it?
Is it a bedtime story about helping children not to be scared of the dark or of their nightmares?
Is it a fun story about self-discovery?
Is it just simply a rollicking silly story with no message?
Your idea will need to be original. Well, as original as can be.
Most stories have been told over and over, but… it’s YOUR voice, YOUR characters, YOUR imagination and YOUR experiences that will make YOUR story original.
There are lots of bedtime stories out there, lots about monsters and nightmares, but you can make it original.
I recommend reading the amazing Wolves in Helicopters, to see Sarah Tagholm’s original take on a successful and commonly used bedtime story hook.
Photo Copyright: Sarah Tagholm, Paddy Donnelly and Andersen Press
So, now you have the idea…
2. Write a pitch Can you describe what happens in a 1 - 3 line short, punchy pitch or around 80 words or less? Sounds tricky? It sure is.
A pitch is more often used when you start your querying journey, but… It’s a great way or seeing if your idea/plot works from the start.
Think: CHARACTER - PROBLEM - RESOLUTION - I’ll use one of my stories as an example here.
DancersaurusTM As the only dinosaur in the world, Dancersaurus is used to adapting to smaller surroundings, but when he auditions on a world-famous TV show, he isn’t able to show his best moves – the ballroom is too small! So he finds a way to help the world adapt to him.
HOOKS - DINOSAURS (they will always be popular) DANCING & INCLUSIVITY
Who is the character? - DancersaurusTM
What is their problem? - He is unable to dance in the dance show setting
What is the resolution? - Inclusivity - He finds a way for the show to meet his needs
Now you know your idea works…
3. Structure your story idea
I am going to say it, and I am sorry. Aim for a picture book of around 500 words in length. Of course, there are lots of picture books out there that are sooo much longer, but for a debut, 500 or less is the sweet spot. Rhyme very often is longer, but aim for less than 700, but still as close to the 500 bulls-eye as you can.
Picture books are usually 32 pages in length. This can differ depending on author and publisher, but very often for new authors this will be the length of your debut book. However, this does not mean you have 32 pages of a story. Or 16 pages of spreads. A spread is the 2 illustrated pages you see when you open the book.
This is an example of a typically structured picture book:
When you open the book, you may have ‘This book belongs to…’ on the inside cover and an illustration in line with your story on page 1. The first spread (pp. 2 & 3) is usually the start/end papers. Those beautifully illustrated pages which most likely have no story. The next spread (pp. 4 & 5) is the dedication and copyright page on the left-hand side, and the title page on the right-hand side. Now your story begins… The next 12 spreads (pp. 6 - 29) are all for you. The next spread (pp. 30 - 31) is the end papers. Again, that beautifully illustrated double spread, very often identical/similar to the opening end papers. The last page (p. 32) may have an illustration in line with your book, or sometimes it may show some other book titles from the publisher. Using this template, you, as a writer, have 12 spreads to play with. Yes, you can have 14 if your story absolutely needs it. But as a debut writer, publishers are unfortunately less likely to spend more money than what they need to on you, especially at the moment in 2023, with the cost-of-living crisis. It sounds awful, I know.
So, let’s break those 12 spreads down into a 3 act structure using a ‘typical’ solving a problem picture book structure. There are others, but this structure is the most commonly used and is still going strong.
Spreads 1 - 3 The Beginning. Introduce your character and the hook as early as possible. On spread 1 if you can.
Make us fall in love with your character. Make them likeable. Or, if not likeable (maybe you’re coming from a villain’s POV) make us, the readers relate to them.
Give them a flaw, so we know they aren’t downright evil. So that we want their villainous plan to succeed. Or that we want them to find ‘good’ in the end.
Or make us invested enough so that we want to read on to see if they get their comeuppance.
By the end of spread 3, make sure your character is fully developed, likeable, and their problem/conflict is clear.
Spreads 4 - 9 The Middle
This is where all the excitement happens. The problems, the things going wrong, the escalation of suspense.
Throughout each spread, make the problem/the conflict worse and worse… and worse! Use page turns…
Stop a sentence, a word, mid-way if you need to. This will create even more suspense as the reader flicks through the pages until they reach the…
CLIMAX POINT (around spread 8/9) - The low point – The nothing is ever going to work point - The all is lost moment.
Make it emotional. Make it pack a punch. Whether it’s a happy/sad/excited/fear/worry/love emotion, it needs to be shown.
Make sure the main character (MC) has agency - that they are the ones going through this journey, they are the ones making the mistakes and learning (hopefully) from them, that they are the ones active in solving their problem or deal with their conflict.
Don’t give this agency to another character. Don’t let the Fairy Godcharacter or whoever, come in and make it all better for them. Children reading will relate to the MC, they will feel what they are feeling and if their agency is taken away, children won’t feel empowered themselves.
We’re here to empower children, so they can see themselves in our stories and we want to give them every tool to know they are good enough themselves.
I am not saying they can’t have help, nor that they need to do everything all by themselves. A child realising that they can’t solve something and asks for help is them having agency, them empowering themselves and them seeking the help. The help isn’t suddenly coming in from an outside source. They are actively seeking it.
Spreads 10 - 12 The Ending Here is where you want your character to have the realisation, to find the answer to solve the problem.
Make sure it’s not coincidental that the MC has suddenly had this realisation. It needs to be shown, to be building throughout the story to get to this. The reader should not be totally shocked, wondering how on Earth the MC came up with the means to solve the problem/conflict. Also, don't make it that they've just remembered something out of the blue. Also, don't use... It was all a dream. Nope. Nope. Nopity nope!
Have you ever watched a film, or read a book and just been so disappointed by the ending?
I recently read an adult fiction novel, and the ending was someone else coming into the story and basically finishing the MC’s tasks for them. It was a huge letdown. Don’t do it.
Tie up any loose ends. - If you had a character, let’s call him Bob, earlier on in the story, make sure we’re not left thinking, ‘What happened to Bob?’ And this is especially important if, say, Bob is the antagonist. If your MC solves their problem/conflict despite Bob, maybe we want Bob to have a little comeuppance, or give him a fun plot twist.
Don’t leave Bob hanging.
So that is it, right? Your story is written….
4. Think about the illustrations
The words are only half of the book. Your picture book story is 50% yours and 50% the illustrators. That is, if you are not an author/illustrator like me. It’s called a picture book, because there are pictures, so let them do the talking too. We don’t need to know the colour of someone’s dress, if someone looks sad, if a grey goose lay on it’s back in a murky lake. This is impossible, but you know what I mean.
If, at any time, you feel you are telling the reader what to see and it’s not pushing the narrative text forward, either leave it out or think of it as illustrations.
However, use illustration notes only if 100% needed to tell your story. If colour, texture, description of a setting, characters having visible emotions, or anything else you feel is important and absolutely NEEDED for your story to make sense, then add an illustration note (in a different colour font (not red)) at the start of each spread.
E.g. If it REALLY matters that a grey goose lay on its back in a murky lake, then add a note that a grey goose is lying on his back in a murky lake. If it doesn’t matter if the lake is murky or the goose is grey, then simply say – [Notes: a goose is laying on his back in a lake] And if it doesn’t matter at all about the goose, but you like or maybe LOVE that scenery, then I apologise in advance, but you need to get rid of the goose.
On every spread you write, think about the illustrations. You don’t want every spread to look the same. Something different needs to be happening visually on each spread to hold the reader’s attention.
5. Have fun with language.
Kids love to shout out the fun words in books. Instead of saying –
Shut, say slammed.
Ran, say scurried/hurried/bolted/zoomed.
Broken, say smashed – you could go on to say, smashed and crashed and… bashed! Even if it’s not a rhyming book.
Use the thesaurus! It’s amazing. Either book or computer form. You can highlight the word in word.doc, right click and go to synonyms, then click on thesaurus. Easy peasy.
Use onomatopoeia - which involves verbalising the sounds of a thing or action it represents (buzz, hiss, smash, zoom, snort, boom).
Don’t be afraid to have a whole double page spread saying BOOM! Or CRASH! For example. If you’ve built up the story for that brilliant page turn.
A one word or even no word spread can work!
Let’s talk about rhyme…
If you want to write in rhyme. Write in rhyme.
A question I get asked and see asked a lot is: Are agents/publishers still taking on rhyme?
Yes. Yes, they are. But, the rhyme and meter MUST be perfect.
Meter is the pattern of stressed syllables in a sentence. If you were to say, ‘the puppy sat upon my lap,’ you would naturally put an emphasis/a stress on a certain part/syllable of those words.
Can you pick out what parts are stressed?
Now read it out loud and see if you can hear where you emphasise/stress a word or part of a word. .
. The parts here in bold are the stressed parts: The pup/py sat up/on my lap
Learn as much as you can about meter if you’re not familiar with the subject and perfect it. Experiment with it until you find hearing/noticing stressed syllables come easier to you.
If you choose to write in rhyme, pick a meter and stick to it.
Picture books are meant to be read out loud and if they don’t have a steady and predictable rhythm, the reader will stumble on your sentences/couplets and the flow of the story will be lost.
Very often, picture book meter/rhyming patterns go like this: Unstressed / Stressed / Unstressed / Stressed / Unstressed / Stressed / Unstressed / Stressed
Unstressed / Unstressed / Stressed / Unstressed / Unstressed / Stressed / Unstressed / Unstressed / Stressed / Unstressed / Unstressed / Stressed
There are other patterns, but these are the most commonly found in picture books.
There is so much to learn about writing in rhyme, and it isn’t just about meter. I’d suggest checking out the amazing Catherine Emmet. She has her own Write Rhyme course with the amazing organisation – WriteMentor. Also, go to YouTube and follow the Lyrical Language Lab. Also, read, read, read and read all the rhyming picture books you can find and see if you can recognise the style of meter they use. A few tips: * Perfect your meter * Keep to the meter * Clap/Tap along to the beat – If you find yourself speeding up a word or two or slowing down to keep to the beat, your meter is most probably out * Use perfect rhymes (no half-rhymes, forced rhymes) * Don’t let the rhyme lead the story * Don’t say the same thing twice or have a sentence that isn’t pushing the narrative forward – Every line in the story has to be there for a reason.
* Read it out loud
* Ask someone else to read it out loud
* Use the read aloud option on word.doc if that’s what you use
6. Just write it already
That’s it. Go ahead, have fun. Put your story to paper, to word.doc, to google.docs, to Scrivener, to whatever way works for you. Just write it.
I am a terrible edit-as-I-go person, but if you’re happy to edit later, then go ahead. Write in any way that works for you.
Just get the story written and finished, with an all-ends-tied-up satisfying ending.
7. Have others read it
I’m sorry, but I don’t just mean your partner, best friend, parents from the school, children… but other children’s picture book writers. Although, for reading out loud purposes, all those people can most definitely help.
But, what I mean is join a critique group, or a local writers’ group if you have one.
Gaining feedback on your work (I will not lie, at first, it can feel soul-destroying), is where you’ll learn the most.
I honestly believe that if it wasn’t for the communities and critique groups and writer friends who read my work from the start and still do to this day, I wouldn’t have got to where I am now.
They are worth their weight in gold.
Now, get writing.
A little about me...
Arden is a working class children's author represented by Molly Jamieson at United Agents.
She offers her own tailored picture book mentoring service, picture book critique service and lots more. Please do check out her author services to help you get your picture book to shine.