Josh Funk's Guide to Writing Picture Books
I’m not a huge fan of writing stories that are overly traditional in nature. But I think it’s important to understand the basic
Story Arc Components
To be clear, I’m not discussing all components of the picture book story, just those relating to the arc. The traditional arc components would be:
Wink to the reader
The opening (1) should be quick and concise, brief and succinct. In short, it should be short. Set the scene, introduce the character(s), and inform the reader of the conflict. But don’t forget to show not tell.
The best advice I have is that you should start by deleting the opening sentence/line/page. “What?” you ask. That’s right. Start on page 2. Take this example:
Annie was so excited for today’s basketball game. She had been practicing all week. She shot 100 free throws a day and dribbled in every room of the house. What else could the shortest kid on the team do to prepare?
“Annie! Are you ready for the game?” asked Mom.
If you simply start with Mom asking the question, you can show who Annie is throughout the story (rather than showing her basketball prowess here). The illustrations can show a small child in a basketball jersey while holding a ball. And Mom’s question pulls you in much more actively than the telly first line.
To steadily increase the tension (2), I don't necessarily adhere to the traditional ‘rule of 3′ – that being the rule that the main character should fail three times before eventually succeeding. Some people love it – it makes them feel warm and fuzzy, and I don’t begrudge those who feel that way. I just prefer to be nonstandard and find different ways to increase the tension.
But whether tension rises through multiple failures or some other mechanism, the reader needs to see the main character at the lowest of low (or shortest of short?) points before ultimately succeeding. If the main character doesn’t hit rock bottom, the final success will not be satisfying. And without a satisfying conclusion, the story will fall flat (or air ball).
Once your main character succeeds (3), it should happen quickly and the story should be over. Don’t drag it out. When Annie scores the winning basket, sum it up with a single line or two and end it. Don’t drag it out for 5 pages, because after Annie's team wins, there will be no reason for the reader to turn the page. The only page turn that should occur after success is the all important …
Wink to the reader (4). This is where you make a little joke and give the reader something to continue thinking about once the book is over. It’s like the post-credits scene in a movie. The story is over, but here's one more joke for you.
It's the line that turns the previous 31 pages upside down.
Or leaves the book open for a sequel.
Or that promises that the next lesson about rhyme might surprise you!