26 June 2010

Children's Picture Books and Plot

Uma Krishnaswami, former child writer who now writes for children, and teaches writing in the MFA/Writing for Children and Young Adults program, Vermont College of Fine Arts,  asked me to take part in her blog book tour for her newly released picture book for children: Out of the Way! Out of the Way! and illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy.

Uma knows what I do with plot. We have worked together in the past and she interviewed me for her blog Writing with Broken Tusk a few months ago.

After receiving Uma's book from her publisher, I read her engaging picture book. Then I read it again. Then, several times more. 

I couldn't find the plot. 

Rather than admit my failure to her, I asked Uma to tell me a bit about her process when it comes to the plot and structure of her picture books.

Uma: I never begin by thinking of picture book structure, but without it, I'd never finish. 

My first step is often to write the draft once through, however it shows up in my mind. Most often, it shows up as a big mess: snatches of words, a rhythmic beat or two, something visual, the beginning and middle and end all tangled up together, the wrong things highlighted, the important things shadowed. I write it anyway, trying to be uncritical at that point.

Then I break it up into scenes on a rough storyboard, with the lines scribbled in and a stick-figure sketch of what I think the scene is. I should state for the record that I can't draw to save my life, but I do it anyway just to force my mind into visual mode, so I don't get carried away in the lovely drift of words that often waits in the wings to tempt me. 

Since I mostly write for the US market, I use a format of roughly 15 spreads, or 14 and a single which is what you have to work with. I rewrite, this time with approximate page breaks. Then I keep repeating the process until I've got something that seems to have some energy. 

When it's time to send it out to an editor, I take out all the page breaks and send it in traditional manuscript format, double-spaced with 1 inch margins. But by then I have enough on the page that there is some sort of arc forming and a solid unifying throughline in place. This is the first time I let myself begin to think of theme, by asking the question, "What's this story really about?" If I ask that too early the story curls up its toes and refuses to cooperate. But if I never ask it, I won't ever be able to see the bigger picture.

Somewhere along the way, my goal is to gain clearer vision: to see what's missing, and where excess words are getting in the way. I can also see where I have too much going on, or too little. Because the editing for this book simplified the storyline, I was able to get rid of a few extra scenes where I'd really overplotted, and then it fit nicely into the 12 spread/24 page container we needed.

I do believe that picture books can teach us a lot about story structure. I sometimes use picture books like The Stray Dog by Marc Simont or Waiting for Mama by Tae-Jun Lee, in a talk about crafting scenes in a novel. A finely crafted picture book has the art of the scene nailed, in my opinion, just in a very different idiom from the ones novelists tend to use. Studying picture books liberates us from the tyranny of the word so we can look at the bones of a story more clearly.


Wow! Uma is one terrific writer. I love the beauty of her language and the images her words evoke:  "If I ask that too early the story curls up its toes and refuses to cooperate." "Studying picture books liberates us from the tyranny of the word so we can look at the bones of a story more clearly."

I am no expert on children's picture books. Though all the picture books for children I have read and the children's literature I continue to analyze for plot workshops for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) confirm what I already know about the universal story. 

I mulled over Uma's story for so long, I missed the blog tour day assigned to me.

Finally, however, the time spent pondering the plot of Uma's picture book Out of the Way! Out of the Way! and reading about her process paid off with a new slant on one of my trusted and deeply valued plot lines = thematic significance. I've gotten some heat over the years for including thematic significance as one of the three major plot lines in stories: 
  • Dramatic action plot
  • Character emotional development plot 
  • Thematic significance plot 
Thanks to Uma's picture book, I feel even more strongly about the validity of including theme. 

I typically see these three plot lines as intertwining and supporting each other for the ultimate character transformation. I live by the belief that when a character is changed at depth over time by the dramatic action over time, a story means something. 

In Uma's story, the three plot lines do intertwine. Rather than individually and distinctively separate, the three meld into one sweeping thematic significance plot that also encompasses cultural and industrial and environmental elements.

Dramatic action plot is physical and concrete. 
Character emotional development is emotional and sensory. 
Thematic significance plot is cerebral and abstract. 

To give justice to Uma's story, I had to surrender my lust for literal character transformation and dig a bit deeper.  

Uma uses theme like an abstract art form. 

Thank you, Uma, for the opportunity to develop an even deeper appreciation for the value of theme in all genres and stories.

Click for the free Plot Series: How Do I Plot a Novel, Memoir, Screenplay on Youtube. (includes information on writing children's books and books for middle grade and young adult).