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Josh Funk's Guide to Writing Picture Books

I previously discussed my disgust of the word was (in all its incarnations) and how it diminshes picture book quality. But that’s just the first of many lifeless words to avoid in picture book writing. And while it’s important to show instead of tell, sometimes just showing isn’t enough. You've got to show how. But how do you show how?

Write with Active Emotion

Let’s look at an example:

Marty walked down the hallway so he wouldn’t be given a tardy slip.

But how did Marty walk? Did he creep or sneak? Did he skip or trot? Did he trudge or slink? Did he rush or skitter? All of those words show more than walking … and most add a bit of an emotional charge … without using the frowned-upon adverb.

And since Marty is the main character, let’s treat all actions in relation to Marty (which also eliminates was‘s sneaky friend be). We don’t want Marty to be given something. Marty gets. So how about:

Marty crept down the hallway to avoid receiving a tardy slip.


We even cut that sentence down by two words!


Another thing to remember is that the pictures in picture books are not moving pictures (at least in paper form). Let’s try another:

Marty got into the time machine.

The static illustration for this line will be one of three things:

  1. Marty outside of the time machine.

  2. Marty inside of the time machine.

  3. Marty half inside and half outside of the time machine (possibly with some motion lines showing movement).

My reaction to the line of text with regard to each of these possible illustrations is as follows:

  1. I’m confused. I thought Marty got into the time machine.

  2. Boring! I can see he’s in the time machine. You don’t need to tell me, the illustration shows it.

  3. Wow! What a great picture of Marty diving into the time machine! Why is it described so blandly?

I see two possible resolutions to make the text better:

  1. Don’t bother telling the reader that Marty has gone from point A to point B. We can see it in the pictures, so it’s possible to assume Marty got into the time machine. Tell us the next action, but say “In the time machine…”

  2. If a transition is needed to get Marty into the time machine, rewrite with a more active and emotive verb.

Marty dove into the time machine.

Wow! Marty diving matches much better with illustration #3. Now you try. 

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