Picture books are fairly formulaic.
Most picture books have 32 pages of which around 24 pages make up the story. In theory up to 30 of the pages could be used for the story.
There are also 24 page picture books (these are usually baby board books) with 16 pages for the story. These books have a very simple premise and art style and tend to be for 1-3 year-olds.
As a starting point, aim to create a standard 24-page story or to use the industry lingo, 12 double page spreads.
A standard structure
- The main character should be introduced on the first spread. (If not, let it be for a very good reason!)
- The problem/challenge/question should appear on the first or second spread.
- The character’s problem escalates – ACTION. Does the character get what he’s after or not? What does he do about it next? … ESCALATION until…
- Spread 8 or 9, when there should be a twist or pace change CRISIS MOMENT
- The story climaxes on spread 10 – EXAMINE FEELINGS
- Resolution follows on spread 11 – SOLVE PROBLEM
- End note or final twist on spread 12 – EMOTIONAL RESOLUTION
When you get used to drafting a story to this outline, it does highlight plot holes or over complicated plots – they just won’t fit.
Picture books are simple. There tends to be one very clear theme. If you have more than one theme and many characters, the story naturally lengthens and the number of pages and words increase.
About word count…
I keep hearing from agents and publishers: “under 500 words.”
Why is this?
– Parents don’t want to read very long bedtime stories (sadly!)
– Books with fewer words are easier and cheaper to export and translate and publishers rely on co-editions to make a profit.
– Most importantly, picture books with minimal words empower children to interpret the story for themselves, use their imaginations and ask questions. Thus the story is more involving than if it were told to a child and the child is more likely to pick the story up and ‘read it’ again because they feel empowered to do so.
Picture book writers need to view themselves as story creator’s not just writers. It’s hard as writers to have the confidence to put zero words on some pages and let the pictures do the telling. But you know the saying… a picture speaks a thousand words… absolutely, it does.
Take a look at the spreads of a picture book best seller where a story climaxes or resolves. Often this is where there are the least words. The story creators know this gives the maximum impact. A spread with no words shouts, ‘STOP AND TAKE THIS IN, SOMETHING BIG IS HAPPENING.’
Dummy Book & Illustrations
The best way to structure a picture book is to create a dummy with 24 blank pages. You will probably have a few key scenes in your head, hopefully the problem and the climax of the story. Using the outline above as a guide, scribble where these should go in the dummy and build the story around them. Don’t worry about the exact words at this point. Worry about getting a good scene-by-scene flow to the story. Either, write illustration notes as you go or sketch how you imagine the illustrations might work with the text. Everyone can draw stick figures. This exercise will reveal where you need to adjust the plot and how the pictures could tell the story. Think about creating anticipation and revelation with a page turn.
Illustration notes should be brief and only include what is not obvious from the text. E.g. setting, basic character information, action and most importantly irony (where the picture tells a different story to the words.)
An illustrator determines the illustration style, creates the setting and develops the idiosyncrasies and detailed actions of the character. The writer is often not consulted and your illustration notes may be ignored. The publishing editor and layout designer have the final say.
It is really important to understand how illustrators think and work. YouTube has some great video clips posted by picture book illustrators. I recommend Lynne Chapman.
Developing Picture Book Ideas Part Two
Getting creative – the picture book writer’s tool kit.