It’s been awhile since I’ve discussed picture books or books for early readers in my posts, but since I’m in the midst of developing one right now, it’s been on my mind. Today I’d like to look at a few of the more popular ways of structuring or organizing a picture book.
1. Letter or number sequencing–Letter sequencing most often takes the form of a standard alphabet book, whether the letters are from A-Z or from Z-A. Alphabet books can either be nonfiction or fiction, but nowadays there needs to be some form of story involved. Gone are the days of simply listing words in alphabetical order, even if those words all center on a certain theme. The alphabet books most liked by publishers are those that take the reader on an adventure where he just happens to encounter things that begin with letters in alphabetical order along the way.
Number sequencing can be straightforward counting or maybe counting in a pattern–by 2’s or by 5’s, for example. Again, it’s helpful to organize the book around a story. Maybe a child is packing a bag to go to the beach and is taking 1 towel, 2 buckets, 3 shovels, etc. Then, when he gets to the beach he meets a friend who has the same things but in different amounts. They add the items together one at a time to see how many they have altogether. Then when it’s time to go home, they count their things to put them back in their bags but discover that a couple of the items are missing (conflict). You can organize counting by counting up, down, or in patterns. You can have your character count just about anything or have him count things he discovers along his journey. In this case, the story is the journey, and the counting is an incidental by-product of it.
2. Time–PBs organized by time may include using hours, days of the week, months, or seasons. Again, tell a story–fiction or nonfiction–that focuses on events that may happen during the course of a day/night, week, etc. Have your reader walk with your character as he makes discoveries of the different things that happen each month (certain holidays, for example) or each season. Seasons in particular lend themselves well to writing about nature. You can discuss what happens to trees, plants, or animals as they grow and rest in each of the seasons. If you’re writing about hours, you can count down with time, having your character race against the clock to get something accomplished. There are a lot of fun ways to get creative with time-structured picture books.
3. Destination stories–These are stories where you take your reader on a journey via your main character, and your character ends up in a different place from where he started. To make your destination story successful, you must build anticipation for the journey, have your character (and reader) discover some really cool things along the way, get into and out of conflict, and successfully reach his destination in the end. These stories don’t have to be complex. The destination may be a play date with a friend, an overnight trip to Grandma’s, or an adventure through a neighborhood forest. These are especially effective if you use repetitive objects or phrases along the journey.
4. Full Circle–PBs that are organized using a full-circle structure also reach a destination–but the destination is the beginning. In these stories the character will ultimately end up where he started. So, using the above example of the overnight trip to Grandma’s, the story wouldn’t end until the character left Grandma’s the next day and returned home. In order for the full-circle effect to work, there has to be a compelling reason why you don’t just stop once you reach your destination. Another means of structuring in full-circle style has nothing to do with storyline, but rather the particular words and phrases used. Whatever phrasing you use to begin your story, bring it back around at the end so that you can finish your story with the exact same phrase–or perhaps a slightly different one because of something the character learned or discovered during the story.
5. Cause and Effect–When a story is organized by cause and effect, every action of your character results in a reaction, either by that same character or another character, producing a domino effect. A perfect example of this is the If You Give a Pig a Pancake book (and its counterparts). Each of the pig’s actions resulted in a different action having to be taken by the girl in the story. When the girl reacted to the pig’s actions, it caused yet a different reaction from the pig, and so forth throughout the story. The entire book was based on this cause-and-effect sequencing. Cause and effect stories can be great fun to write, mostly because you never know where exactly they may end up!
These are just a few of the many ways you can structure your picture book. Have fun and get creative deciding where you want your story to go! Stop back next week when I’ll take a look at some definite picture book must-haves and provide tips for making your PB the best it can be.