Before we get into the guts of the third post of the series, I’d like to say hello and welcome to 2017. I took a well-earned break over the festive season and now I am back, fresh and ready to write.
So, let’s go. Let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of crafting a story.
I am going to condense the manifold intricacies of craft into one blog post and offer a few simple points to consider. This is not because I undervalue craft. On the contrary, craft, I believe, is queen. There is nothing — nothing — like reading a book (or an email, or a blog post …) written by an author in command of their craft. No, the reason I am writing only one post about this behemoth of a topic is because there are a zillion excellent resources already available — online and in books — to those who wish to learn, as well as plenty of writing courses out there, for those who are particularly keen. These resources and courses delve far more deeply and expertly into craft than I have room for in this series. Besides, this 12-part guide is designed to share information about the writing and publishing of children’s books not readily available. Much of this information I have learned first-hand through being an author, editor and book designer, and much of it I wished I had known at the beginning of my journey.
So, what is craft? The craft of writing a story is somewhat different to the story itself. The story is the compelling idea at the core of your book, be it a novel, a short story or a children’s picture book. It is the sequence of events that make up the story; in other words, the narrative. The story is the tale you want to tell. The craft, on the other hand, is the mechanics of writing that story. It is the elements of writing that you employ to tell your story the best way you can.
You may think craft is less relevant to the writing of children’s picture books than, say, to the writing of a work of literary fiction, and I have certainly read some books that seem to support your belief. However, I would say that if the story is the heart of a book, the craft is its spine — the scaffolding that keeps it upright. A beautifully crafted piece of writing without a strong story will likely leave you feeling flat; and a great story written without consideration of craft is a story badly told and likely to collapse. Together, story and craft shine. If you think of some of the most memorable children’s picture books around, it is probable they comprise a great idea (story), deftly told (craft), however few words are used to tell them.
Let’s now look at some of the elements of the craft of writing — but do remember, these are only some. As I have already mentioned, the craft of writing is a vast topic, so I will only attempt to touch on a few of the elements essential to writing a children’s picture book.
Simply put, characters are the people or creatures in your story. A children’s book typically has one, or sometimes two, central characters around which the story unfolds, or who tell the story. A story is usually created with a character in mind; although, sometimes a scenario or theme is conceived first, and a character is later created to suit the situation. Your main character needs to be fleshed out. Characters need names and forms — are they humans, animals, monsters, aliens, machines or something else. They need physical characteristics, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, greatest hopes and deepest fears. Write down as many attributes as you can think of about your character. And remember to create a character we care about; the reader needs to grow to love (or love to hate) your character.
The two main types of characters are the protagonist — usually the hero or heroine of the story — and the antagonist — someone or something that blocks the path of the protagonist. The antagonist need not always be an enemy of the protagonist; rather, the antagonist may well simply represent the protagonist’s fears. Overcoming or even befriending the antagonist may mean the protagonist has, through the journey of the story, overcome their own fears or limitations — a powerful anecdote for children, or any of us, really.
Having an overarching theme in mind helps writers create a cohesive and engaging story. What is it your want to say to your readers? Do you want to deliver an empowering message? Perhaps you’d like to teach children about kindness, for example, or another positive value. You as the writer need to consider the underlying theme or themes of your story, and then write the story with your themes in mind — without being didactic. Though it may be tempting to think you need to spell your message out, don’t. Nobody, not even the very young, likes somebody preaching at them. Children are generally very intelligent, curious beings who will read more deeply into your story than you may imagine. Also, and it must be said, a good theme makes for a great marketing angle. You want your book to sell, right?
The basic tenet of a good story is that the plot must contain conflict. Without it, nothing happens. Your story will most likely bore your readers, be they little people, big people or both. To create an irresistible story, you need a central conflict — the protagonist needs to be presented with a dilemma and, in resolving the dilemma, they must undergo a change. Consider writing your character into a situation in which they must face their fears or where they must overcome obstacles to get what they want or need. This is known as dramatic or narrative tension, and tension makes for an interesting story.
The central conflict can usually be summed up in one sentence by something called a dramatic question, and this question is often asked on the back cover of a book. For example, a line from the back-cover blurb of my book Sylvia reads, ‘But Sylvia is just a small snail in a gigantic garden, so how can she get him to notice her?’ That one question outlines the crucial dilemma of the story.
A good storyteller knows the power of the dramatic question and the value of creating suspense by throwing obstacles in the protagonist’s way. Even if the reader can already guess the ending — usually a happy ending, in the case of children’s fiction — they will relish in the journey.
Speak to your readers — usually young children — in language that will appeal to them. This does not necessarily mean using simplistic language and exploring uncomplicated concepts. On the contrary, children love to learn, they are ready to be challenged, and they enjoy reading stories that utilise such literary devices as rhyme, alliteration, imagery, repetition and rhythm. Craft your sentences and remember to make each word count. There are usually very few words in children’s picture books, so choose your words wisely.
Rhythm — in rhyming stories or in prose — is essential. When writing your story, read it aloud and listen to your rhythm. Reading aloud will expose any flaws, and there’s no room for rhythmic hiccups in a well-loved picture book. Do remember that it is likely your story will be read aloud by older readers to younger ears, and you want your story to be delightful to read aloud again and again and again.
I’d encourage you to sharpen your writing skills by learning more about the craft of writing. Do your own research, find books about the topic and study them. And, rather than just reading about craft, carry out some writing exercises to practise your newfound knowledge. Sharpen your saw. Whet your knife. Hone your skills.
If you found this post helpful, you may like to read the upcoming posts in the series: My 12-part guide to writing and publishing picture books for children. I will publish the 12 posts over the coming weeks and announce them on Facebook and Instagram, but if you want to make sure you don’t miss a post, subscribe to my newsletter for free.
My 12-part guide to writing and publishing picture books for children:
Part 1: Know and love your readers
Part 2: Ideas and inspiration
Part 3: Character, theme, rhythm and rhyme, and all of that writing stuff
Part 4: Who’s who in the zoo (writer, illustrator, editor, designer, publisher)
Part 5: Storyboarding and editing
Part 6: Illustration
Part 7: Traditional publishing or self-publishing
Part 8: Submitting your manuscript — the slow business of traditional publishing
Part 9: Contracts, advances and royalties
Part 10: PR — book launch, web presence, book talks and more
Part 11: Who are you and who do you want to be?
Part 12: Resources