I’ve been writing and illustrating picture books for over a decade now, and I wanted to share my experience. I’m not going to say that I’m an expert children’s book author by any means; I want to help you get a better idea of what goes into writing a picture storybook.
Picture storybooks are a combination of images and words. Picture storybooks lean on both the picture and the words to tell the story. Both are very important and should work together.
Figure out what your topic is. Here are some tips to spark an idea:
- Talk to children. Especially the age range you are targeting. Find out how their day is and what’s on their mind. If they can remember their dreams, even better. That’s a gold mine.
- Read books that interests you or books you want to write about. If you’re not interested in the story, you’re not going to be motivated to finish it.
- Think about stories you’ve heard in the past that still resonates with you until this day. I chose to bring a Lao folktale to life; It brought many memories of the time spent with my father, the storyteller and teacher.
- Go to plays, movies, and most importantly read.
Ideas can come from anywhere; carry a small notebook with you to jot them down. The crazier the idea, the more unique it will be.
Research the subject
Once you have your idea, start by doing some research. Research might not be the most elegant part of the process, but it will help you to narrow your ideas down. A lot of great fiction is based on reality. The main thing is to make your world believable. Have some frame of reference. The more you research your subject, the better and more grounded your story will be.
The story is the most crucial part of the book. Obviously, without a story, you have no book. There are three types of story structure (classical, minimal, and surreal); the classical structure is the most widely used in fiction. Classical story structure gives audiences the greatest emotional response. It has been proven through thousands of years of literature. Classical stories usually show a change in the character or have learned something new.
The main thing to keep in mind for children’s books is to entertain—don’t preach; Show, don’t tell.
A hero on a “quest” stories are the most basic to write. It’s a “hero” who wants “something,” but “things” get in the way. The “hero” could be anything or anyone you want to be. They are what the story revolves around. The “things” are the conflict, problem, or antagonist trying to prevent the “hero” from getting “something” they want. It could be a toy they wanted, but dad wouldn’t get it for them. It could be that they were naughty and couldn’t get their supper because they were sent to their room.
When you understand this essential “hero on a quest” principle, your story will pretty much fall into place.
Structure the story into three parts; The beginning is where you introduce the location and the main character; The middle is where the action or problems occur; The ending is where the problem gets resolved. Keep the story simple. Try not to introduce too many elements or move within too many settings. Linear-moving stories are easier to follow.
Choose your words wisely. Make every word count. Every sentence should carry the story. Don’t put any word in that you don’t need to move the story forward. Generally, children’s books are about 300-600 words for ages 4-8. Trim and refine often. Make sure it’s clear. Most of all, have fun with the story.
My eight ingredients for great children’s stories:
- Conflict: What is the conflict or problem that needs to be resolved.
- Pacing: Keep the pacing in line with the situation of the story; Faster pace for anxious situation, slower pace for a more relaxed scene.
- Word Play: Use fun sounding words, words with double meaning.
- Location: The setting should also have some personality.
- Twists: Surprise the audience about how the story gets resolved.
- Heart: Show some empathy for the characters.
- Relationship: Make sure the main character or situation is relatable to the audience.
- One Theme: Focus on one problem, setting, or solution. No subplots.
After you’ve written your story, it’s time to think about the illustrations. Picture storybooks are 32 pages in length. Layout your story and make sure each page makes sense. You might need to tweak the story again.
Remember, the picture carries the story as much as the words do. Try not to repeat what’s going on in the scene. It should be clear what’s going on in the picture without the words, and the words should help emphasize the picture.
There’s more to it than what I’ve described, of course. If you’re interested in improving your illustrating skills for children’s books, check out my class on the Principles of Visual Storytelling.