Storyboarding: Why and How

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).

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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.

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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!

What Are Picture Books?

Children’s author Mem Fox says of reading picture books, “As we share the words and pictures, the ideas and viewpoints, the rhythms and rhymes, the pain and comfort, and the hopes and fears and big issues of life that we encounter together in the pages of a book, we connect through minds and hearts with our children and bond in a secret society associated with the books we have shared. The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book and the person reading.”

Yes! Picture books spark the fire of literacy. They’re importance in the life of a child cannot be understated. But when someone begins thinking about writing a picture book, there are some basic considerations about the genre that are important to understand. That’s what this post is about…

What is a Picture Book?

Picture books are books in which words and pictures tell the story or concept. Unlike most other book forms, a child must look at the art and listen to the words to follow the story (except for wordless picture books, which would only require looking). The typical picture book audience is 2-8 years old, but there are also longer picture books written for even slightly older audiences (readers of older picture books can typically read the text themselves).   

A picture book usually tells the story with a 50-50 balance of words and pictures (although there are exceptions). This is critical to understand as a picture book writer because you must “think in pictures” and consider the potential artwork as you write. Author Anastasia Suen, in her book, Picture Writing, discusses how writers first see a story as pictures in our minds; then translate those images into words on the page. I completely agree! The trick (especially for non-illustrating picture book writers) is to keep considering those images as we write, envisioning what might appear on the page, so we don’t “over tell” the story with unnecessary details. I personally think this is one of the hardest aspects of picture book writing to achieve—the ability to “see” the art as we write and consider how the art can help tell the story. 

Last, the picture book length ranges from zero to 1500 words or so, although current editorial needs indicate the ideal length to be around 500 words (or less!). If you’re writing a book for a younger audience (ages 2-5); then 500 words or less works best. If you’re writing for an older audience (ages 4-8); then aim for 500-800 words. And if you’re writing for a much older audience (ages 8-10, typically nonfiction); then aim for 800-1500 words. Note: these are not rules, but good guidelines to follow! 

Types of Picture Books

Picture books can fall into one of two very broad categories: fiction and nonfiction. What topics are covered within these two spectrums? Everything! You could write either of these types of books in prose or verse, covering a vast range of topics from a lost duckling to the first day of kindergarten to being homeless. The possibilities are virtually limitless. But for folks who like lists, here the most common types of picture books:

Fiction: These stories typically feature a character who faces some sort of obstacle to overcome in order to get what he/she wants, often using the classic 3-Act story structure. Within the fiction realm, there are various types of stories that exist, from fairy tales to contemporary stories. A classic example is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

Nonfiction: Nonfiction books are based upon facts. These include biographies, how-to’s, narrative nonfiction (which uses traditional story-telling elements), expository (books that explain things), or photo-essays. Some examples are You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! by Shana Corey (biography), See What a Seal Can Do by Chris Butterworth (expository), All the Water in the World by George Ella Lyon (narrative nonfiction). An excellent website to learn more on the topic is Melissa Stewart’s Celebrate Science.

Concept: These books (either fiction or nonfiction) introduce children to an idea, concept or theme such as the alphabet, counting, colors or shapes. They sometimes tell a story using a character or can be a simple straightforward concept. A classic example of a straightforward concept book is Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Bill Martin Jr. An example of a concept book that uses a character to drive the story (along with the alphabet) is Kelly Bingham’s Z is for Moose.

Poetry: Poetry picture books fall into three groups: poem collections written by a single author, anthologies (themed poems written by various authors), and a narrative story written in rhyme or some other poetic device. I should note that poetry is an extremely hard market to break into and writing in rhyme and meter are challenging (but rewarding!). Examples are Winter Friends by Mary Quattlebaum (single-poet collection), A Poke in the I compiled by Paul Janeczko (anthology), and Hummingbird Nest by Kristine O’Connell George (story told through poetry). An excellent online article about this is Dori Chaconas’s Icing on the Cake.  

Physical characteristics

Picture books also have common physical characteristics. Most are 32-pages long (this is due to how printing presses are set up) but variations occur (in 8-page increments, again, due to the printing press set-up). Picture books have parts to them:

Cover: The front of the book, which features eye-grabbing art along with the title, author and illustrator’s name.

Back cover: The back of the book, this sometimes features “sell copy” (a brief synopsis of the story), publisher information, a barcode, ISBN, and price.

Spine: This is the part that faces out when the book is shelved (it hides the book’s binding). It usually holds the title, author and illustrator last names and the publisher’s name or logo.

Endpapers: Perhaps the best definition of endpapers comes from L. R. Sipe who wrote, “These are the first pages one sees when opening the picture book and the last pages one sees at the end of the book before closing it. Endpapers are like stage curtains, framing the performance of a play.” You’ll notice that not all picture books have endpapers though. Paperback editions often lack them. Sometimes the endpapers are glued onto the front and back covers so they are not free to turn. In recent years, endpapers have been used in more creative ways, even being used to carry out the storyline.

Title page: This page gives the title, author, illustrator, and publisher.

Front matter: This page comes before the story text begins (some publishers put this page at the end of the book). It gives the publication information, including title, copyright, and table of contents, introduction, dedication, and other acknowledgements.

Pages: These are the papers on which the story and art is printed. Pages occur in increments of 8, usually with 32 pages.

Double-page spread: This term refers to an open, full page-spread of the book. Quite often, a double page-spread is used to show a single scene in a picture book. This is important for writers to know because it means that in a typical 32-page book, the writer needs at least 14-16 distinct scenes to tell the story.

Becoming Familiar Picture Book Writing

One of the best ways to familiarize yourself with the picture book genre is to read as many books as you can, but I always recommend taking it a step further. If you find a book that really speaks to you, where you say, “Yes! This is the way I want to write!” then I recommend typing out the text. Show where the page turns occur (leave a blank line or use some other marker).

Seeing a text typed out (sans illustrations) is one of the most informative exercises a picture book writer can do. It will SHOW you the sparsity of text, how an author uses the illustrations to help tell the story, and little description is needed when you have the assistance of pictures. I highly recommend it!

For more information on writing picture books, I recommend Ann Whitford Paul’s book, Writing Picture Books. If you’re ready to take a step further, UCLA Extension Writers’ Program offers a variety of on-campus and online courses on writing picture books.

Unexpected Delights!

One of the fun things about being is writer is seeing the unexpected turns your book can take. This is why a few weeks ago, when the nice folks at The Returnity Project contacted me, I was delighted to hear that they wanted to include MAMA LOVES YOU SO in their new “Returnity Kit,” a kit available to help moms who are returning to work after taking maternity leave.

Here’s a photo they sent me showing the kit. I know they chose the book because they loved how it’s a beautiful way to bond with your little one, but really, doesn’t the color palette of the cover look amazing in the kit?