Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Picture Book Plotting 101

By Sarah Frances Hardy, @sfhardy2

Part of the How They Do It Series 

JH: One of the great things about story structure is that it works for stories of all shapes and sizes. Author/illustrator Sarah Frances Hardy (no relation) takes to the lecture hall today to show us how universal plotting can be.

With a juris doctorate cum laude from the University of Mississippi School of Law, a Bachelor of Arts in fine art from Davidson College, and subsequent studies at Parsons School of Design in New York and Paris, Sarah Frances Hardy took an early retirement from practicing law to redirected her creative juices towards writing and illustrating books for children--picture books as well as middle grade and young adult novels.

Her first book PUZZLED BY PINK which she both wrote and illustrated was published in April of 2012 by Viking Children’s Books. Her next book PAINT ME! about a girl who begins the day painting a portrait of her dog and ends up painting everything she comes across, was published by Sky Pony Press in May of 2014. Watch for her next release DRESS ME! in Spring of 2015.

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Take it away Sarah Frances...

Hi all! Thank you Janice for having me here today.

In a few weeks, I’ll be teaching an outreach class through the University of Mississippi here in Oxford called “So You Have an Idea for a Children’s Book”. (Here's the registration link for those close by who would like to sign up)

I decided to teach this class because I’m often approached by people who have an idea for a children’s picture book, but they don’t know how to take the next step...or even what the next step is. And no, the next step isn’t to tell me your idea and then ask me if I’ll write and illustrate it for you. :-) The next step is to do the hard work of creating a story.

I love this blog (blows kisses to Janice), and Janice is an absolute master of plotting. And guess what? You use the same structure that you use in novel writing when plotting a picture book. When I talk to students about writing in any genre, I tell them that one of the best ways to understand plot is to deconstruct a few picture books and see what makes them work. Since picture books are short (these days 500 words or less), it’s a great way to see the big picture. You can dissect the structure of these relatively short stories and see where the writer introduces character, conflict and resolution.

So back to my original question ... How do you turn an idea into a book? Well, you make sure that your idea can support an entire story arc that includes character, conflict and resolution.

First, I start with CHARACTER.

I spend a lot of time getting to know my main character (and the important secondary ones) and I ask lots and lots of questions:
  • What’s her favorite color?
  • What does her lunchbox look like?
  • What’s on her nightstand next to her bed?
  • Where does she go when she’s sad?
  • Does she have a secret?
  • Is she the oldest? youngest? middle?
  • Does she have a pet?
  • Has she ever had stitches?
  • Has she ever been in a play?
  • Who is her best friend?
  • What does she dream about?

Keep going with these questions and try if you can to get really weird. The goal is to create a multi-faceted, interesting character. All of these things that you discover about your character from answering the questions may or may not make it into the text of your manuscript, but these personality traits will give you the clues as to what your main CONFLICT should be.

And even though you’re writing a picture book for precious little snuggly children, your story must have conflict. Otherwise it will be boring.

The British author John le Carre’ explained it perfectly when he said
“The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.”
See? You really need some conflict or tension for a compelling story.

So here’s what you do ....

Take that perfect little character you just created, look at all of those questions you answered, and figure out what is the one thing that is most important to that character.

Then you take it away or you break it or you smash it or you make it impossible to get. Yes. That wonderful little person or bunny or dinosaur? You have to wreck his world.

In my first picture book PUZZLED BY PINK, the main character was kind of a Wednesday Addams little girl who loved spiders and attics and ghosts and shadowy black things. When I asked myself what would wreck her world, ruin her day, make her really upset ... my answer was “something PINK”!

Voila! Conflict.

In PAINT ME! my main character wanted to paint everything and go crazy with creativity. So what happened? She got a little out of control with her creative messiness.

Oh nooooo!!!!!

And once you have your conflict, all you have left to do is answer the question “Now what?” This is your resolution. How does the problem get resolved? Does the mess get cleaned up? Does everyone become friends?

Or (if you’re Jon Klassen) does your main character die?

Actually, I don’t recommend that you kill your main character in a picture book.

So go forth and create a fabulous picture book character and plot his or her demise. Happy brainstorming!

Sarah Frances Hardy

About Dress Me

A young girl makes her way through a variety of career possibilities—dancer, doctor, superhero, plumber—in a variety of costumes. She can be graceful, creative, brave, caring, silly, and even scary. She can wear braids or glasses, a crown or a beret. No matter what she chooses, her puppy is twirling, painting, and hammering right beside her, often with an accessory of his own. The story is simple and yet suggests infinite, limitless opportunities and the little girl’s right to choose who and what she wants to be. The message is one of exploration, choice, and self-expression. And ultimately another option for the little girl is to be “just me.”

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  1. Fantastic post!! Kisses to you both :)

  2. The main character in I Want My Hat Back doesn't die :) Sure, sure, he kills another character, but that's different, right?

  3. Terrific post. Getting right to the bones of if. Very helpful.

  4. Your paragraph right after the list of questions for a character hit home with me. Never before has this happened despite the fact that I've read similar paragraphs on this subject. I'm not a plotter, however. Still, knowing the characters, at least the major ones, is something I find helpful. Until reading this post, I've been forming my characters as I write. This shows how I can do this before the writing. Thank you.

  5. Oooh! Great post. Sharing.