Picture Books B

PICTURE BOOKS 2: Narrative Structure: 

Picture book creators make a mock-up of their project, known as a dummy, for submission to publishers.
These days picture book dummies tend to be digital, but in order to learn how picture books work I think it helps to actually create a dummy using the traditional method.
When I’m working on a picture book I usually work with paper dummies, as they can be glued together and then taken apart in order to give a really good feel of how the finished book will look.

Due to the expense of the printing process picture books are usually made in standard page lengths––usually 24 or 32 pages. We are going to Make a 24 page dummy. Ultimately you can Make a 32 page book if you like, but for the purpose of this exercise let’s stick with 24 pages.

The result can always be scanned into a computer and turned into a digital pdf at the end of this process if you wish––and I can help you with that if you need help.

This illustration shows how close your 24 page dummy is to a printed 24 page text block.

Once we’ve made the blank dummies we’re going to put them to one side, and turn our attention to what is going to go inside them.

First let’s just look at a 24 page layout to get an idea of the shape of the finished product
This example is for a book with end-papers, the other alternative is to have self-ended book, but just to keep things straightforward let’s do a 24 page picture book with endpapers.
As you can see, the story doesn’t begin on page 1. In fact it might begin on page 3 or 4.

Let’s look at the text, and we’ll begin by looking at some ideas about the structure:Screen Shot 2018-09-10 at 2.04.47 PM.png


Act 1. 1: Who is the protagonist?

2: What is the setting?

3: What is the external story problem (plot)?

4: What is the internal story problem (sub-plot)?

5: Act 1 ends when the protagonist is irrevocably committed to solving the external problem?

Act 2: Follows the protagonist’s attempts to solve the main story problem.

Attempts to solve the story problem might succeed and bring the protagonist closer to a solution, or fail, and move the protagonist backwards.

Think: Chutes and Ladders (Snakes and Ladders).

Act 3: Shows the now-transformed protagonist, and deals with the sub-plot. 

Screen Shot 2018-09-10 at 2.08.19 PM.png

What things need to be in a story?

Character, Quest, Conflict, Choices, Complications, Crisis, Conclusion, and Change.

Let’s apply this to the Grimm’s version of Little Red Rding Hood.

Character: Little Red.
Quest: To deliver food to sick grandmother.
Conflict: Little Red tends to disobey instructions.
Choices: Little Red chooses to speak to the wolf.
Complications: The Wolf eats the grandmother (who was the reason for the journey in the first place.
Crisis: Little Red gets eaten by the wolf.
Conclusion: A Kindly woodcutter rescues Little Red and her grandmother, and kills the wolf.
Change: Little Red learns a lesson about obeying her mother….plus the sick grandmother is fed.

What else is there?
According to Aristotle’s Poetics:

Catharsis: The reader should feel fear and pity. The reader identifies with the main character, and so undergoes the same trials and tribulations as that character.
In the end the reader will feel the same sense of completion as the character––at least that is the ideal.
Anagnorsis/Discovery: Throughout the narrative, the main character discovers things to her advantage or disadvantage.
Opsis/Spectacle: The experience of reading the story should be a rich visual experience. Do you want the events to take place in somewhere mundane, like a school, or a domestic kitchen––or do you want to take us somewhere amazing? There’s no right or wrong answer; it just needs to be a rich experience.
Perepeteia: Dramatic reversal. You are going to lead the reader to expect one thing––but then the opposite happens. This is the joy of stories. This is why we love them; or why we cannot live without them.
We can be so overtaken by stories that we expect peripeteia in real life. Fortunately––even though events usually don’t work out quite the way we planned, peripeteia is not an element of real life 
(Although some strategists have used human expectation of perepetiea to their advantage. When going into battle, the great Mongolian General, Ghengis Khan, would launch a devastating attack on his enemy––then pretend to run away. The enemy army would then thin they had won, break ranks and chase after Khan’s cavalry. At a pre-arranged moment the cavalry would wheel around and attack again, and defeat the enemy. What’s surprising is not the fact that this strategy worked once, but that it worked time and again––and still works, over and over again).
Harmatia: The tragic flaw in the main character (literally ‘miscalculation’). Perepeteia is strongly connected to Harmatia. In stories pride often goes before a fall. Extreme Harmatia is known as Hubris in Classical Greek––literally the impertinence to challenge the gods themselves. In the classic Grimm’s tale of the fisherman and his wife, the fisherman catches a speaking fish. The fish begs to be spared, so the fisherman throws it back. The fisherman returns home––to their hovel (the Grimms actually refer to the fisherman’s house as a ‘pisspot’) empty handed. His wife tells him that the fish is magical, and to go back, re-catch the fish, and demand a nicer house for them. The fish obliges, and gives them a nice house. But the wife isn’t satisfied. She next demands a mansion, then a castle, then a palace. Finally she demands to be made into a god…and they end up back in a hovel.

Melos/ Melody: Very important in picture books. This is the poetry of the text, and we’ve already talked a good deal about this.

Let’s go back to Little Red Riding Hood.
Do we feel fear and pity for the Main character?
What rich images do we experience, especially at the climax where Little Red is sitting by her grandmother’s bed, mistaking the wolf for her grandmother.
Dramatic Reversal: A happy and simple walk in the woods suddenly becomes a lethal misadventure.
Discovery: Little Red discovers that her grandmother is really, in fact, the wolf. Does she have time to realize that this wolf is same wolf she met on the path? Possibly not. Could be an opportunity for a fractured fairy tale.
The tragic flaw is Little Red’s tendency to try to think for herself.
Melody: The Grimm’s version is full of consonance and assonance: Little Red Riding Hood; Little Cottage; What big eyes you have!?…and so forth.

What should not be in a picture book text?

Avoid concepts that a child would not understand––this could include anything about sex.
Sadness and tragedy are fine, but you should probably have a happy ending.
Unnecessary violence: a picture book should be a warm and happy experience. Don’t terrify the child (this might exclude subjects such as being eaten by a wolf).
Parents: Parents do not need to be in the book, but if they are they should probably be nice parents––however don’t set up unrealistic paradigms. Parents do not need to be perfect.
Morals and lessons: you can have a lesson in the story, but do not preach. All children are suspicious of people trying to sell something, especially codes of conduct.

Step 1: Choose a picture book, and transcribe the text (by hand into your journal).
These books are very short, so this should not be too arduous. It is simply the best way to see how picture books are written.
Include the page numbers.

Example from STOP THAT PICKLE by Peter Armor:


  1. It was lunchtime when Ms. Elvira Deeds waddled into Mr. Adolph’s deli.

  1. “I would like a pickle please,” she said. 

“Why certainly,” said Mr. Adolph, wiping his hands. He unscrewed the lid on the giant pickle jar and looked inside. There was only one fat pickle left floating in the brine.

  1. Mr. Adolph tried to spear the pickle with a long fork, but each time he did the pickle swam to the other side. 

This pickle did not want to be eaten!

  1. Mr. Adolph was rather embarrassed by this turn of events, and he began to dig around in a drawer for some tongs. As he was doing this, the pickle climbed out of the jar on his little green legs, darted across the counter, and ran out the door. 

“Eeek!” said Ms. Elmira Deeds.

and so on….

Step 2: Write your own story.

Some tips:

  • Give your main character some kind of personality flaw (this could be the internal problem). Aristotle believed that the main character in a tragedy is better than we are; and the main character in a tragedy is worse than we are.
    Do you think this is true? 

  • Give your character a situational problem (this could be the external problem).

  • Establish the external problem by page-turn two, or three. Make the problem clear but simple!

  • Have one main character. Characters do NOT have to be children, or even human.

  • Use poetic or rhythmic language—but try to avoid using end rhymes.

  • Use dialogue to bring the story to life. 

  • There should be action on every page.

  • Limit adult involvement (unless the adults are your child-like main characters).

  • Your story can have a moral lesson, but don’t overstate it.

  • Leave out visual descriptions that will be seen in the art, unless the visual detail is of UTMOST importance, OR if the text is in ironic opposition to the illustration.Story Problems: Internal and External:

Little Red Riding Hood:

Internal: Ignores mother’s advice. External: Gets eaten by fox.

Internal problem leads directly to the external problem.

Jack and the Bean-Stalk:

Internal: Dire poverty. External: Might be eaten by giant.

Internal problem sets in motion that lead to the external problem––which in the end provides a solution to the internal problem.

Three Little Pigs:

Internal: Unprepared for life in the wider world. External: Might be eaten by Wolf.

(We’re starting to see a pattern here…). Internal problem sets in motion that lead to the external problem––which in the end provides a solution to the internal problem.


Internal: Unfairly treated like a menial servant. External: Prevented from meeting the prince.

Internal problem does not lead directly to the external problem, but solving the external problem, solves the internal problem.

Rising Action: How each step brings the protagonist closer to the crisis.

Snow White: Each of the stepmother’s attempts on her life get closer and closer to success.

Goldilocks: Protagonist progressively damages the bears’ home and possessions.

Princess and the Pea: Each mattress will surely reveal the Princess as an impostor.

Rapunzel: Protagonist is first taken from her parents, then imprisoned, then exiled to the wilderness.

The Emperor’s New Clothes:  Surely not! He can’t! He won’t! Someone must tell him! I can’t bear to look!