Words are vital to communication.
No matter our native languages or nationalities, we all have a pool of words we pull from to communicate with each other.
We have thoughts, ideas, opinions, and viewpoints inside our head, and in order to relate those to other people we have to choose the best options from our pool of words, and arrange those selections in the best way we can in order to form sentences that are written or spoken. Other people then read or listen to those sentences, and if we’ve done a good job of selecting and arranging, they will understand what we wanted to tell them.
If they didn’t understand, we try again, with new selections and different arrangements. And keep trying until we’re understood.
Whether writing or speaking, we need to understand what words mean, and which words will best communicate our thoughts.
Sometimes words can be industry-specific, and, as I’ve been writing blogs and articles to help self-publishers, I realized that I was using terms and phrases that maybe most folks wouldn’t be familiar with … so we added a Glossary!
It’s accessible from any blog or article on this site at the very top of the side bar menu to the left, or at the top of the Helpful Info or Freebies pages. There’s a fly-out tab that will get you where you need to go with just a click, and my wonderful web people have it cross referenced with links to related terms and the occasional article or blog where a term is discussed. New entries will be added as they come to mind in future articles and blogs.
Hopefully it will be helpful to self-publishers who are learning their craft and trying to communicate with the companies who produce their books. Now when they hear words like “bleed” and “stripping” and “burn”, they’ll know for sure there’s no murder or immorality involved. This is a family-friendly site!
But just knowing a word’s meaning or how to spell it correctly or even how to use it in a sentence isn’t enough … we need to know how to arrange words in the best possible way in order to communicate clearly the messages we’re sending.
The thoughts, ideas and purposes of written pieces are as varied as the individuals who wrote them, but, based on which words they chose and how they used those words, a reader knows immediately if it’s a newspaper article or a sweeping novel or an online blog or a children’s book. Readers expect those different genres to have different tones and feels.
The real challenge for writers is to not just choose words that are merely adequate, but to choose exactly the right words and arrange them in such a way that will carry the story – and the reader! – along. You can “arrange words” and end up with a grocery list or best selling novel! Or maybe a terrific children’s book!
Arranging Words Into Stories – The Basic Formula
There’s more involved in a picture book than colorful illustrations and an inviting cover. No matter how beautiful the book is, skillfully choosing and using the words you write will determine if you’ll end up with a potential best seller or just another ugly baby gathering dust on the bookshelf. Ugly babies can be either well written stories in poorly designed books, or beautifully designed books with poorly written stories. Both have to be done well … for now, let’s talk about the writing part ...
Workshops and classes that teach fiction story writing, guide students through the same basic story formula:
1. Introduce your main character, the hero of the storyThis includes getting to know them, the situation they are in, exposing their strengths and flaws, meeting other characters in their life and what the relationships between them all are like.
2. Bring in some kind of conflict or difficult-to-reach goal for the main characterThis can be an adversary in the form of a personal enemy, a tragic accident or illness, an unjust cause, or even some flaw within the main character … any thing, person or circumstance which causes problems in the main character’s life and needs to be overcome or defeated in some way.
3. The main character struggles and fails to overcome the conflict or reach the goalThe conflicts and goals you give your main character need to appear impossible to overcome. The more improbable a solution is, the more satisfying it will be when it happens.
4. The main character searches for answers outside of himselfThis is where other characters and circumstances can be allies that will support, encourage, and supply information and resources for the main character to draw from. These are supporting roles and must not take focus away from the main character.
5. The main character is strengthened to the point where he at last succeeds in overcoming the conflict or reaching the goalIt’s very important that the main character is the one who is victorious and saves the day … don’t allow another character to step in and win the day. For instance, in children’s stories, it would be okay for a parent to support and encourage a child, but not step in to fight and win for him. Your hero is totally irrelevant if he doesn’t see the battle through to victory on his own!
6. Close with a satisfying endingThe story began with your main character being and thinking a certain way. Now, after all he and the other characters have gone through, they are all different than they were at the beginning of the story. Especially the main character, who should have grown, improved or changed in significant ways. This is what a character arc is … a character with a flaw, weakness, or a problem that was holding them back or impacting them or their world negatively, has now gone through tough challenges and come out victorious on the other side with new strength, new confidence, new growth, and a changed life. Sometimes the changes are internal. Sometimes the changes show on the outside. But at the end of a story those changes need to be positive, important, permanent and oh, so satisfying!
Specifics for Picture Book Writers
Writing is a lot like conversation in that when a particular topic is being discussed, something might be said that sparks other thoughts and ideas that get commented on and soon you find out that you're talking about something entirely different from the original topic. Chasing rabbits, it's called, and it can happen in writing, too.
Rabbit chasing in story writing is never a good thing. If you're writing an 80,000 word novel, there might be a bit of room to fudge just a little. But not so in a picture book that needs to be well under 1,000 words and has to fit, along with illustrations, in less than 30 pages.
A little pre-planning is in order.
Artists pre-plan drawings by blocking in shapes to define and set parameters like sizes, shapes, arrangements, etc. In this blocking out stage problem areas will stand out and be adjusted, like if a head is too large for a body, perhaps the perspective of distant objects is off, objects and figures are too close or too far apart. Adjustments are easily made in the simpler, blocked in stage. Then when details are added later, everything ends up exactly where it needs to be.
Writers pre-plan by making an outline which maps out where they want their story to go and defines the steps to get them there. Start with a very broad outline:
• The beginning: Who/what is the story about?
• The conclusion: What's the goal or pupose of the story? Where do you want your story/characters to end up?
• The middle: What's got to happen to move your story/characters from that beginning to that end?
Now you can get more detailed in your outline by describing your characters and their personalities, the conflicts they'll encounter, how they'll arrive at solutions, how they might get tripped up along the journey, what surprises might pop up along the way, etc.
Adding more details to the outline can expose unexpected issues ... if your main character is shy and quiet, but later in the story you need him to be making a long, loud important speech ... that won't work. Or ... was that part of him changing and learning to be bolder? If that's the case, then he needs to go through situations that will toughen him up and cause him to be bolder. There must be a logical reason why he changed.
So in this outlining stage, you can work out problems like that.
Good Story Outlines Begin with Good Questions
In the Picture This article I showed how asking the right questions will give you the answers you need to end up with terrific illustrations. Asking good questions will also work for outlining and writing.
Specific stories need specific outlines, of course, and that means specific questions. It would be impossible to cover every situation here. But below are some general questions and thoughts to get you started ...
1. Who is the target audience?
This is really important in children’s literature, especially with younger children, because just a few years can make a big difference in what they are reading or what is being read to them. Very young children need very simple stories that read well when read aloud. As children age and the stories get more complex, there will come a time when they’ll be reading alone, but even through their grammar school years, many picture books will be read aloud in classrooms or libraries, and writers need to keep this in mind. Have someone cold-read your story out loud to you to see if it’s interesting to listen to and if it could hold the interest of your target audience’s age.
When writing, picture that one kid listening or reading and write directly to them.
2. Who will tell this story to the reader?
- Will the author narrate the story, through his own voice or through a character?
- If told in first person through a character, watch out for letting them relay information to the reader that they couldn’t possibly know … like telling another character’s thoughts that haven’t been expressed out loud. Remember that the story is being told through their own perspective which may be different from the other characters.
- Perhaps no one will tell the story, and the actions and conversations of the characters will move it forward.
3. What kind of personalities and points of view do your characters have?
Believeable stories must have believable characters. Get to know your characters inside and out. Know their backgrounds and history. Know what they like and what they hate. Knowing their background will help you understand their particular points of view and how they will likely respond to and engage other characters and situations. Real life people don't walk up to you and and say, Hi, my name is John, and I love people and love talking to them! No, what will happen is that you will meet him and after interacting with him for a bit you will just know that he likes people and he likes talking to them. People in real life don't tell you who they are, they show you through their mannerisms, actions and speech. And your characters will do the same when you know them inside and out.
4. What is the setting of the story?
When writing about particular places or times in history, make certain that is reflected in details like speech patterns, clothing, technology, etc. Out of place objects and conversation are rattling to readers and will kill the tone and mood of the story.
Be wary also of the narrative in these stories. If you're writing in a setting that's 500 years ago, and the reader is absorbed in that – which is where you want them to be – then suddenly you add commentary that brings the reader back into the present, that will ruin the experience for them. If there are important points that need to be made like that, put them in an intro or an afterward, not in the middle of the story. Maybe even footnotes, but I personally think those are a bad idea, too, in a fiction story.
5. Be mindful of the passing of time during the story
When characters are interacting and the story is moving along, pay attention to the passage of time. If years pass, the characters will age. If they are involved in some activity early on a Saturday morning, then suddenly they're chatting away in a family conversation at dinner time Tuesday evening, you'll need to account for the passage of that time. Jumping too abruptly will confuse your readers.
6. What kind of tone or mood will your story have?
A suspenceful mystery will sound/feel different than a funny, tall tale which will sound/feel different than a tragic story or a horror-filled ghost story. The writing style should be appropriate for each. Don't literally tell the reader "this is a ghost story" ... let them just feel it and know it.
7. How will it all wrap up in the end?
The number one sin that writers commit against readers is letting them down on that last page. How many dead authors would we have if disappointed readers could get their hands on them!? Don't do it! Here's a short check list of what needs to be completed before that book is closed:- Did the main dilema/conflict get resolved in a satisfying way?
- Was the main character/circumstance changed or improved in good and significant ways?
- Were all the loose ends tied up nicely? No unanswered questions? Do we now know what happened to Mr. Jones and his dog who popped up on page 10, and were never seen or heard from again despite all the questions he raised?
- Is the reader left saying, Ahhhh! or Grrrrrrrrr!!!!!
Sometimes endings need to be left a little open, like when a book is part of a series and there's a next installment. It's a good thing when a reader wants more from their favorite author. So go ahead and stir up some anticipation for what comes next. Just make certain that what they're reading now gets all wrapped up in a satisfying conclusion.
But I have a book of POEMS!
Not all books fall into the fiction category, of course. Maybe you've written a book about astronomy. Or origami. Maybe a cook book with yummy recipes ... let's eat! Or even a collection of poems that you'll assemble into a book.
The key here is good presentation and logical organization. You also need a beginning, a middle and an end. Think of the book as a single whole unit, and not just a collection of items.
- The beginning needs to be inviting and should draw a reader in for a closer look.
- The middle needs to be interesting enough to hold the reader's attention.
- The end needs to feel final and complete.
Teaching, instruction, and reference books are not generally read straight through, beginning to end. A reader is likely to jump around looking for particular points of interest. Well organized Indexes and Tables of Contents with good cross-references will help them find their way around. These books generally begin with information about any needed equipment, supplies or tools, then start with elementary steps and build up to more advanced steps.
For books that are collections, like short stories or poems, try to arrange them in a logical order. Unify them in some way. What do they have in common? Is there an overarching theme that connects them? Perhaps group the ones with similar themes into different sections like chapters. Use short introductions and afterwards to soften the openings and closings and keep the book from beginning or ending so abruptly. Tell about the origins and the author(s), or perhaps a very brief story of how someone was influenced by one of the stories or poems, or what inspired the author(s) to write them.
Let the writing begin ...
Every writer has access to the same amount and selection of words … but will it be a masterpiece or an ugly baby?
Along with being an astute observer of life around you and being an avid reader, experience and lots of practice will make all the difference! Here I've given you the basic structure of a story to help you plan and outline your own. But there's not much here about the actual writing.
I'm at a loss as to how to even approach that ... the best way to learn to write, is simply to write! The four blogs of October 2021 contain some of my thoughts about that. The last three of those blogs particularly have some practical exercises you might try to get you going on your writing journey.