The Making of a Picture Book Part One: PLOT

This is part one of a series called ‘The Making of a Picture Book’. Over the course of one week (five posts) I will attempt to break the creative process down into its constituent parts – plot, characters, language, illustration, and a magic ingredient which I’m going to call synergy. Today we shall have a look at plot.

Manny, Fran and Bernard Black - the characters in the sitcom Black Books

Have you ever seen Black Books, the quirky British sitcom set in a bookshop? In my favourite episode, ELEPHANTS AND HENS, the foul-tempered bookshop owner Bernard Black and his assistant Manny set themselves to write a bestselling children’s book in a weekend. Their first draft is a weighty tome set in Stalinist Russia. Manny feels the manuscript is not quite right, and he offers a couple of suggestions:

MANNY: Instead of the, um, academic and the journalist’s daughter, um, perhaps it could be about an elephant.
BERNARD: An elephant?
MANNY: That’s right.
BERNARD: I see. What’s your other suggestion?
MANNY: Well, um, instead of the Stalinist purges and the divorce and the investigation, um, it could be about losing a balloon.
BERNARD: An elephant who loses his balloon?
MANNY: That’s it.
BERNARD: But, but it would still be my story in essence?
MANNY: Oh, yeah.
BERNARD: My vision?
MANNY: Completely.
BERNARD: Yes, all right! Let’s do that, then!

And they do. Several hours of hard work later, they have in their hands the following gem of a book:

There’s the elephant.
He’s happy with his balloon.
OH NO! It’s gone!
Where is it? It’s not behind the rhino.
Look in the alligator’s mouth.
It’s not there either!
OH! The monkey’s got in the tree!
He brings it back. They all drink lemonade.
THE END

The fantastic Youtube clip of Manny and Bernard proudly reading their finished oeuvre is followed by dozens of comments hailing THE ELEPHANT AND THE BALLOON as the best picture book ever!

Classic.

Some children’s authors will tell you that writing a picture book is just as hard as writing a novel. I wonder to what extent this is a knee jerk response to people like Bernard and Manny who are convinced (until they try it) that writing a picture book is the easiest thing in the world.

In refuting Bernard and Manny, let’s not overstate our case. The truth, in my experience, is that writing a picture book is much easier than writing a novel. It’s true that finding a Good Idea for a PB can take time, and that you will need to do several drafts and that all the words need to be just right. But all those things are true of novel-writing as well, even if you’re not Flaubert. So let’s face it, the main difference between writing a novel and writing a picture book is that the picture book is a hundred times shorter, which in turn means that you can do your first draft in a day rather than in three months.

It’s easier to write a picture book than a novel. I’m sorry, but it just is. Okay, rant over.

My favourite picture book as a child was THE SLIMTAILS’ NEW HOUSE by Mary Chell. It was about a family of mice moving home. If I remember correctly, the mice had a pet weevil called Edwin who appeared on almost every page. There were great pictures, simple text and a dash of surrealist humour courtesy of Edwin. I loved it.

I remember liking THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR by Eric Carle as well. My favourite bit was the surprise of Saturday’s menu after those five fruitarian weekdays.

On Saturday he ate through one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon. That night he had a stomach ache!

Josh Lacey, in his excellent article The Perfect Picture Book, selects THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA as his all-time favourite PB, and has this to say:

What makes a great picture book? It should have wonderful pictures, of course, and an immaculate fusion of images and text. A memorable narrative, an interesting theme and some good jokes all help too. But the real sign of a great picture book is that you can read it again and again (and again and again) without going nuts.

How do you come up with a memorable narrative? I know I have raved before about Christopher Booker’s masterpiece THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS. And since this post is supposed to be about plot, I think the time has come to rave again.

There are a limited number of plot ‘types’ in human storytelling, and this applies to picture books as much as any other genre. THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR is a classic ‘Rebirth’ story. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT are both ‘Voyage and Return’. WE’RE GOING ON A BEAR HUNT and THE GRUFFALO are ‘Quest’.

the Goggle-Eyed Goats by Stephen Davies and Chris Corr picture book PB
Click to enlarge

In Booker’s terms, my first picture book THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS would be classed as ‘Comedy’ because it is fundamentally about loss and reunion. This puts it in the same category as ARE YOU MY MUMMY? and a thousand books with titles like THE LOST TEDDY (And also, come to think of it, as THE ELEPHANT AND THE BALLOON. In a sense, Bernard was absolutely right: insofar as THE ELEPHANT AND THE BALLOON follows the same loss/reunion arc as his epic novel about the academic and the journalist’s daughter and the Stalinist purges, it can indeed be the same story, the same vision!)

In THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS, the bones of the story are as follows. The beloved (but chronically naughty) goats are taken to market to be sold (loss) and some children mount a rescue effort to get them back (reunion). If you are writing a picture book, make sure that you can sum up the plot in one sentence like that. If you understand the guts of your story, you are more likely to tell it well.

Christopher Booker demonstrates how each of the seven basic plots consists of a ‘Dream’ stage followed by a ‘Frustration’ stage, followed by a resolution. (Usually the resolution is good, but in the case of one of the basic plots – ‘Tragedy’ – the resolution is unpleasant. I have been racking my brains for an example of a tragic picture book, but with no success! I suppose HUMPTY-DUMPTY would count if it were a standalone picture book. Wait, here you go: ORANGE PEAR APPLE BEAR by Emily Gravett is a Tragedy. It follows an unswervingly tragic story arc, with three of the characters ending up being eaten by the fourth. Anyway, this is all tangential. My main point is that tragedy is an unpopular plot type for the under-fives!)

In THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR the ‘dream stage’ is a wonderful week of constant eating. The ‘frustration stage’ is stomach ache. The resolution is the caterpillar’s exquisite rebirth. In THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS, the dream stage is the pastoral idyll in the first spread, but the dream is short-lived. The Frustration stage encompasses the outrageous naughtiness of the goats, the fateful decision ‘The goats have got to go’, and the children’s epic journey to Mopti market to make their plea on behalf of the naughty goats. The resolution? Dad doesn’t sell the goats after all. (But that’s not all – there is a twist in the tale).

Once you have the germ of a picture book idea (Balloon lost, balloon found; or Goats lost, goats found), you need some good characters. And that means names, character tags and catchphrases. Good characters are the subject of Part Two.

Some questions for you to ponder and to comment on:

1. What are some of your favourite picture books, past and present?
2. Do you agree with the Black Books Youtube Crowd that THE ELEPHANT AND THE BALLOON is the greatest children’s book of all time?
3. Can you think of any tragic picture books?

Continue to The Making of a Picture Book Part Two: Character

Published by

Stephen Davies

Children's author: picture books, chapter books and YA novels

3 thoughts on “The Making of a Picture Book Part One: PLOT”

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Abie. I shall look out for it. I see that Andersen Press have just published a collection of cautionary tales by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross titled ‘Sticky Ends’. The cover shows a seated elephant with a little pair of child legs sticking out from under the elephants bottom. Definitely tragic!

  1. Hi Steve,
    I just stumbled across your blog when searching for tips as to how to write/illustrate a good picture book. This post (and the ones on illustration, characters, etc) is great! I’ve got my own blog (www.hobbytrials.wordpress.com) where we trial various hobbies and report back on them. I’m currently trying to create a picture book as a present for my niece’s christening, and would be thrilled if you had any tips on how to make it better? I’m worried it’s a bit samey…
    Thanks,
    Sarah

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