Children’s Writing Weblog

Children’s Book Fiction: Don’t Lose the Plot!

Posted on: December 6, 2009

I’ve read several picture book manuscripts recently that don’t have plots. They have terrific ideas, charming scenes, even unique characters. But these particular manuscripts were missing that thread of story that starts on page one and tugs at the reader to continue turning the pages until the end. The events weren’t connected–they may have involved the same characters, but there was no cause-and-effect relationship that made one event logically follow another.

When writing children’s book fiction, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a plot point and an incident. Incidents stand alone; they may lend themselves to vivid scenes, but they have no connection to what came before in the book, and have no effect on what happens on the next page. A plot point, on the other hand, couldn’t exist without everything that preceded it, and if you remove that plot point from the story, everything that happens afterwards wouldn’t make sense. Each point is a link in a chain. Break one, and the whole thing falls apart.

Incident stories also tend to lack conflict and tension. That’s because these books are more about conveying a mood, a place, or a point in time. They show a day in the life of a particular child, what a bunny sees on his first tour of the backyard, the comforting bedtime routine of a toddler. Many picture books of previous generations were actually incident books, and in fact this type of story is still being published today as books for children up to age three. But for the mainstream, hardcover picture book crowd–those kids ages four to eight–incident books won’t cut it anymore.

You can blame television, publishing conglomerates concerned with making money, or large bookstore chains that only want titles that fly off the shelves, but the bottom line is if you’re a first-time author writing a picture book, it needs to have a plot to sell. And let’s face it, plots are a good thing. They allow children to become emotionally invested in the story, wondering what’s going to happen next. They hold kids’ attention (even before television, young children didn’t have the longest of attention spans). They invite rereading, and retelling, over and over.

If you study newer picture books, you’ll see that some of the plots are very subtle. David Shannon’s Duck on a Bike, for example, seems at first glance like an incident story. Duck finds a bike on the farm and slowly rides past all the animals. As he passes each animal, it comments on the sight of a duck on a bike. This pattern is repeated several times until suddenly a bunch of kids come down the road on their bikes, park them by the farm house, and go inside. The next spread is wordless, showing all the animals staring at the bikes. The following illustration depicts all the farm animals careening around the barnyard on bicycles with silly grins plastered to their faces. As the story ends, the animals return the bikes to the house, And no one knew that on that afternoon, there had been a cow, a sheep, a dog, a cat, a horse, a chicken, a goat, two pigs, a mouse, and a duck on a bike.

The repetition of Duck pedaling past each animal on the bike paved the way for the story’s climax. It couldn’t have happened without all the scenes that came before.

Oh sure, you say, but what about a book like Ian Falconer’s Olivia? That’s a series of incidents in the life of a spunky girl pig. Yes, it is, and this popular book proves that for every rule there’s an exception. And though it doesn’t have a conventional plotline, it does have emotion (What child hasn’t seen him or herself in Olivia, and laughed at her approach to life?) and tension (Will Olivia get in trouble for drawing on her bedroom wall? Will she convince her mother to read her four bedtime stories instead of two?). It also has exquisite illustrations by the author (if you can write and illustrate, and do both well, you’re given a bit more room to stretch the rules). But most of all, it has a strong main character. Olivia is real, multilayered, and charming. The author took the time to develop the character first, so the reader will immediately identify with Olivia and be interested in the incidents that make up her day.

If you’re just starting out as a children’s book writer, or are writing your first picture book, do yourself a favor and create a story with a plot. But before you begin, develop your main character. If you have a real character with emotions, strengths and weaknesses, that character will inevitably want something. How that character goes about getting what he or she wants will lead you to your plot. It’s really that simple.

Now all you have to do is write the book.

Interested in learning how to write a book and send it to children’s book publishers? Come on over to The CBI Clubhouse for audios, videos, insider writing tips and much, much more!

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