We’ve all heard the idea of “pantsers” and “planners” when it comes to writing. Pantsers are those who simply write the story as it comes to them (writing by the seat of their pants). Planners are those who plot out the story before they start the actual writing (planning the story’s main plotpoints in advance).
Well, I seem to have fallen on both sides of this idea, but when it comes to writing a picture book I tend to fall on the “planners” side. Why? Because picture books are formatted to fit within a specific number of pages, most typically 32. This means that within the standard 32-page picture book format, there will be 14-16 page spreads available for the actual telling of the story (the number of page spreads depends on the publisher and editorial decisions). The rest of the pages in the book are for other information, such as the title page, the publishing information (publisher, copyright, etc.) and sometimes back matter (additional information for the reader).
Why the crash course in picture book formatting? Because I often see new picture book writers tell their story without understanding this. And it often results in a manuscript with paragraph after paragraph of narrative and descriptive text (which doesn’t work for today’s picture books!). As a picture book writer, when I read a PB manuscript, I tend to look for page turn moments. When I finish reading the story, I sit back and scan the overall story and visualize how it might break down into 14-15 illustratable scenes. And this is where many new writers fall short. Their piece feels more like short story or a magazine piece when it lacks distinct scenes and strong page turn moments.
How can you resolve this problem? As you can see from the title above, storyboard your work! What does this mean? It means you plan out the story’s main events or scenes in advance of writing the book. In other words, you break down your story into 14 bite-sized pieces to give yourself a general roadmap BEFORE you start the actual writing. This can help with pacing and force you to think visually, so you see what’s happening in the story FIRST (and picture books are all about the pictures!). You can do use words (from one to a few) or if you’re more visual, sketch out what you see happening (I’ve even used stick figures).
It’s not as hard as it might seem and you have choices in how to do it. Here are a few:
Bookmap: The amazing Carol Heyer (illustrator of my bedtime book, Mother Earth’s Lullaby) shares how to storyboard your picture book AND she’s generous enough to post a printable bookmap. WOW! Thank you, Carol.
Post-Its: If you’re more of a kinesthetic thinker, perhaps using Post-Its on wall or mirror would work for you. It’s simple enough—count out 14 pieces, place them on a wall or mirror and start thinking about your story—what are the highlights? Where would they occur? Do they build to a climax? Here’s a photo of a ms I storyboarded in my bathroom (I’d laid it out by pages, not by scenes but you get the idea!).
Thumbnail sketches: What I find myself doing most often (admittedly because it’s the easiest for me), is to take a legal pad and draw 14 rectangles on it, spaced evenly. This is like Carol’s bookmap, without having to print it out (yeah, I’m that lazy sometimes!). Then I start visualizing my story, trying to pace it out, writing keywords for each scene and sometimes drawing stick figure sketches.
Book dummy: Making a book dummy is another way to plan out your story. Here, you make a dummy out of typing paper. The advantage to using a dummy is that you experience the physical turn of the page, which can help you “see” where the best page turn opportunities are in your story. That said, I usually save this tool for after my first draft. It’s invaluable for pacing, determining page turns and figuring out where the text is too wordy because I’ve “told” something that’s already in the art.
Regardless of which method you choose, I highly recommend storyboarding your picture book. It can help streamline the writing process once you begin! Good luck and happy writing!