Pick and commit: Choosing a picture book structure

I’ve read a lot of picture book manuscripts — written by current and aspiring authors — during the past year.

Some have been from conference critiques I’ve done, some from contests I’ve helped judge and some from mentorship programs or writing seminars I’ve been part of. And, recently, as I thought back on all the stories I read, I had a revelation.

Structure is way more important to writing a successful picture book than I had realized.

I’d always focused more on other things — heart, clarity, pacing, plot. And those are, undoubtedly, still important.

But, as I read mountains of manuscripts during the past 12 months, the ones that really stood out were ones where the authors knew exactly what they were trying to do with their story structure, and THEN WENT ALL IN.

As I say, you have to “Pick and Commit.”

I think many writers, myself included, start writing a picture book manuscript based on a general idea or vague concept and let the story fall out of their head, onto the page, in a way that seems sort of picture-bookish without asking themselves some vital questions, like:

  1. What’s the best way to tell this particular story? (Because you can tell the same story a ton of different ways. Some writers forget that.)
  2. What is this story really trying to do? (Is it supposed to be funny? Heartwarming? Educational? Poetic?)

Why is it important to answer these questions?

Successful picture books use an economy of words to tell a powerful story. Using a defined structure provides a framework for your story. It helps you know where to start and where to end and what goes in the middle. It also helps you know what to leave out.

There’s always so much that COULD go into a picture book, and having a defined structure encourages you to take out anything that’s not needed or distracts from what you’re trying to do. You might have a funny joke or a beautiful line or an interesting tangent that doesn’t fit your structure. And, if that’s true, it shouldn’t be in your book. No matter how funny or beautiful or interesting it is.

The right structure puts more power behind your story’s punch. It helps you focus on hitting your story out of the park instead of swinging at every wild pitch that comes by.

There are tons of possible picture book structures. The one beginning writers hear about the most is the classic picture book structure. It goes something like this:

  • There’s a main character with a specific problem.
  • The main character tries to solve the problem and fails.
  • They try again and fail.
  • They try a third time and fail.
  • There is a moment of deepest despair.
  • They try another time — usually in an unexpected way — and succeed.
  • There’s a twist at the end that somehow ties back to the beginning.

This format works best for character-driven picture books. Examples of this structure include: ZOMBIE IN LOVE. DANDY and AMY WU AND THE PERFECT BAO. And, it’s a perfectly acceptable structure.

But, there are so many other ways to structure a picture book. You can structure a picture book as a:

  • List. Such as, 17 THINGS I’M NOT ALLOWED TO DO ANYMORE, 100 THINGS THAT MAKE ME HAPPY and TEN RULES OF THE BIRTHDAY WISH.
  • How-to guide. Such as, HOW TO READ A BOOK, HOW TO PUT YOUR PARENTS TO BED and HOW TO BABYSIT A GRANDMA.
  • Cumulative story. Such as, OHANA MEANS FAMILY, THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON and THE CAZUELA THAT THE FARM MAIDEN STIRRED.
  • Dialogue-driven story. Such, as ALMA, CLAYMATES and SNAPPSY THE ALLIGATOR.
  • Lyrical poem or poems. Such as, BLUE ON BLUE, LAYLA’S HAPPINESS and A PORTRAIT IN POEMS.
  • Variety of viewpoints. Such as BORIS AND BELLA, DEAR DRAGON and SAME, SAME BUT DIFFERENT.
  • And more. So many more.

So. Which structure should you choose?

You might find you need to try telling your story using several different structures before you find the right one. Because, remember, there’s always more than one way to tell the same story.

I’ve done this.

My book with Melissa Crowton, IN OUR GARDEN, coming next year from Putnam, went through 24 drafts before I found the structure that worked best for the story. That’s OK, and that’s why being willing to revise is so important.

But, once you find the right structure, it’s important to “Pick and Commit.”

I’ve read lots of manuscripts that try to do two different things in one story. Like, be a classically structured picture book and a how-to guide. Or, be an absurd, over-the-top, never-could-really-happen story AND a factual list story.

I can see how this occurs. A writer completes a first draft and shares it with writing friends or a critique group. Feedback comes in. “I like the humor here. You should amp that up throughout.” “What if you added informational sidebars?” “I’ve heard your character has to try and solve their problem three times. Yours doesn’t”

None of these statements, on their own, are necessarily bad or wrong. The problem occurs when the writer doesn’t have a strong sense of what they’re trying to do with the story structure and attempts to respond to all the feedback. Then, you have a story that isn’t any one thing.

Instead, you, as the writer, need to Pick and Commit.

If you decide you want an absurd, over-the-top story, then commit to that, go all in and take out everything that doesn’t fit that vibe.

If you want a how-to story, then read lots of examples and hone your text until that’s all it is.

If you’re going for a factual list story, take out the random rhyming couplets that don’t match the rest of your text.

Now, I’m sure, somewhere, there are successful published books that are, as Donny and Marie Osmond used to sing, “a little bit country and a little bit rock-and-roll.” But, those books are few and far between and usually are done by very experienced authors who intentionally chose that hybrid structure, went all in and executed it well. It wasn’t a random occurrence.

It may be clear by now that I have a lot of thoughts on this topic. So, this will be a two-part post.

The next time I’m up, I’ll talk about a picture book with one of the most unusual — and effective — story structures I’ve seen. And, I promise you, the structure was very thoughtfully chosen by the author.

In the meantime, please let me know which picture books have a structure you admire.

Or, if you’re a writer, tell us how you choose the structure for your books.

40 Comments:

  1. Excellent post! I really enjoy experimenting with structure, though it’s generally within a pretty traditional narrative. I think using structural elements can enhance compare/contrast, show transformation, and all sorts of things—and by using structure in special ways, you eliminate some unnecessary words or sentences and strengthen aspects that will strengthen the telling. Looking forward to part 2!

  2. Fantastic post, Pat! I’ll be sharing this with my critique groups.

  3. Great post, Pat! Structure is the essential part of my story that allows me to start drafting. I’ve brainstormed and figured what I want to say as well as the the through line of the book (whether fiction or nonfiction), but I can’t put pen to paper without the structure. A couple of times where I didn’t follow this led to writing a ridiculous number of drafts. So I learned my lesson. Reading thousands of picture books has given me so many options for structures to use and excellent examples of wonderful writing. The Whisperimg Woods workshop by Jill Esbaum and Linda Skeers that I attended in the summer of 2015 trained me to do this. To prepare for that weekend, I read so many PBs while analyzing structure and other craft elements that I may want to use in my own work. I look forward to reading Part 2!

  4. Pat, you are a master storyteller and critique ninja! I’ve always loved to play with structure and it does take time to get the right one. I’m usually trying 2 structures at once. Now I recognize it! YES, PICK & COMMIT!” Thank you.

  5. An excellent post! Thank you for sharing your thoughts—this is exactly the problem with most of my picture book manuscripts!

  6. Thank you so much for a fantastic post! I know the focus was structure, but it’s also about being deliberate in our execution, and for that we must understand the structure we choose to execute it well. My two favorite picture book structures are dual narration, with things happening simulteniously to two characters and role-reversal.

  7. Timely for me right now, Pat. Thank you!

  8. Great topic! I had a bit of an aha moment when I read THE BEAR ATE YOUR SANDWICH. Its structure was so much like THE TRUE STORY OF THE 3 LITTLE PIGS, especially in the beginning. Love them both.

  9. A master class in PB writing in one blog post! Thank you! Now I know what I’m going to do this morning after finishing my coffee 😉

  10. A master class in PB writing in one blog post! Thank you! Now I know what I’ll be doing this morning as soon as I finish my coffee 😉

  11. Wonderful article! Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Pat!

  12. Pat, thanks so much for this. I needed to hear this! (And thanks for mentioning a certain title.)

  13. Thank you Pat! Excellent post. Thanks for the reminder. I am guilty of not trying out different structures in the beginning. My process is more organic where when I’m brainstorming I kind of have a feeling of what type of structure I want to use. I do commit to it. What I would love to know is what type of structures work well say for a humor or a heartfelt story. Just as we know the pros and cons of using 1st POV vs 3rd POV, I wonder what that pros and cons list is for story structures.

  14. Thanks for the great post. I’ll be more mindful of PB structures, for sure!

  15. Pat, excellent post on the variety of structures and to not make a mash-up out of them. Too often, I’m trying to have too much in one story and over and over, I’ve had to learn that less is more in PBs. Thank you for that reminder.

  16. I agree, Pat. Structure is key, and is especially important in works of expository nonfiction–it’s often the most difficult thing to figure out, with a lot of trial & error. Looking forward to Part II!

  17. A really informative post, Pat. Thank you! I sometimes follow too many suggestions from CP’s without really committing to the structure and asking myself what I’m trying to do with the story. This will help me “pick and commit!”

  18. Jilanne F Hoffmann

    Yes! This insight about structure is so helpful. And, perhaps not surprisingly, it can also apply to novels. We were just having a convo about this very thing in one of my critique groups that has several multi-form members. Thank you for explaining your reasoning so clearly here.

  19. Jilanne F Hoffmann

    Also, I tend to pick a structure for the first draft intuitively and then head to different mentor texts if it doesn’t feel like it’s working. I’ll also take a look at suggestions from critique group members and see which ones resonate and create a variety of drafts that funnel the story into different tracks.

  20. Lisa Frenkel Riddiough

    Love this, Pat. So helpful!!!

  21. What a helpful post, Pat! After studying mentor texts, I usually choose a structure for my first draft and stick with it. I love the idea of experimenting with different structures to see if others would be better. It would also be great fun.

  22. Pat, thank you for spelling out how important structure is to a PB. I’m usually a “fly-by-the-sear-of-my-pants” writer. I come up with an idea and put too many tangential things alongside the original idea because I like the “phrase sounds.” That’s probably why my critiques are often saying, “Not sure where this story is going.” or “Your character hasn’t changed in any substantial way from the beginning.” I look forward to your next post! You rock!!

  23. Thanks, Pat. I always enjoy learning from you. I’ve tried to write stories in all the structures you’ve mentioned to s-t-r-e-t-c-h and mix things up a bit.

  24. Great post, incredibly helpful. This is one of those that gets printed out and kept in my “refer back to” notebook. Thank you!

  25. Hi Pat, this was an eye opening post. And so timely for me. I am writing a lyrical text from the child’s point of view and I have been exactly wondering if the structure works. I didn’t follow the traditional structure you outlined (where the MC has a problem, valiantly tries to address it, fails, fails again, fails again, despair, resolution, twist). I wrote the story as it fell out of my head. There IS a hurtful issue that my MC addresses but this story’s structure is not traditional. It’s an unfolding of thoughts. Would there be an opportunity to ask for your critique perchance?

  26. This is fantastic! Thank you for this. I think THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY by Hannah Holt has a wonderfully unique structure that’s done incredibly well. One of my favorites.

  27. Pat, points well taken. I try not to give in to comments too easily. Thanks for the title suggestions!

  28. Thanks Pat! Structure IS so important and it’s one of the hardest things to master. It’s definitely a weakness for me so I love the idea of being intentional with structure before beginning a draft. Thanks for sharing!

  29. Thank you for this helpful insight and reminder to be more intentional about structure.

  30. Thank you for this excellent post, Pat! I think it’s exactly what someone I’m currently mentoring needs to see so I’m forwarding this to her. As well, it’s an excellent jumping point for a discussion in the Inked Voices workshop I’m taking right now.

  31. Thank you for this. You’ve given me a clue to what has been muddying one of my stories. I’m excited to revise my approach.

  32. Another great post, Pat! Can’t wait for your next installment.

  33. Terrific post Pat. Thank you! I generally start with the traditional structure for the 1st draft (Always a tad wonky!) As I receive feedback from my amazing cps, I often change POV and structure until I find something that speaks to me. I’m looking forward to Post 2!

  34. Excellent post & a much needed part of writing to ponder before I start a story. And thanks for sharing the personal, that it took you 24 drafts to find the right one! That’s one of my problems!

  35. Thank you Pat for this timely post. I am always conscious of creating a skeletal structure of my stories, before sitting to churn out the first bad draft. I write intentionally and try to edit my work a zillion times.

    The traditional structure impresses me and so does a How To. When a child explains to an adult, how to do something right, it makes for a fun read.

  36. I’m working on a story that has been through numerous drafts, critiques and revisions. I’ve lost count. You’ve given me new structures to try. I cannot wait for your next post.

  37. Great post! I like picture books that keep me reading, no matter which one that is. I usually let the PB idea tell me which structure to use, but I know I need to work on this…be more intentional about choosing and playing with structure to make my ideas the best they can be.

  38. What a meaty post. Thanks for your words of wisdom, Pat. You always share practical tips and examples.Looking forward to Part 2.

  39. Thank you for these insights shared with clarity.

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