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Writer's Room => Picture Books (PB) => Topic started by: victoria-wirkkala on November 03, 2016, 03:30 PM

Title: Using an outline to start a PB
Post by: victoria-wirkkala on November 03, 2016, 03:30 PM
Hi All,
I have a story that I've been working on. In the past i've just taken pen to paper and gone for it. I did that for this particular piece as well, but feel it would benefit from an outline and rewrite. It's a very important story to me and something that I want to come across just right.
Do you have any advice on using an outline and possibly some templates you could share for a PB outline? Most of what I keep finding are more for longer books and novels.

Thank you!!!
Title: Re: Using an outline to start a PB
Post by: JodyJS on November 03, 2016, 04:41 PM

If you google "picture book outlines," you will get more information than you want about the subject! But, in short, many PBs follow an outline like this:

MC has a problem
She tries to solve it once.
Three times (all unsuccessfully). Each attempt gets harder for her.
Finally, she succeeds in solving her problem, using creativity and smarts.
Bonus points if you can tug at heart strings.

Hope this helps.

Title: Re: Using an outline to start a PB
Post by: victoria-wirkkala on November 04, 2016, 02:50 PM
Thank you! That helps a lot. I had tried the Google route, but was finding the outlines all to be very in depth. Your simple one is exactly what I was aiming to find.

Title: Re: Using an outline to start a PB
Post by: alan-jordan on November 05, 2016, 12:32 AM
The trouble with a simple outline like the one Jody suggested is that it may produce a ho-hum manuscript.

May I suggest that you find three PB books that you really like that sold well.  (There's a thread where authors share their favorite PBs) and you type the words, exactly as they are into a blank file. Use @@@ to indicate a page break and === to indicate a spread break.  [Include a brief description of pages with only illustrations in brackets.]

When you've finished looking these, you're liable to discover a design pattern that appeals to you.

Good luck and best of skill.


Example from Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast by Josh Funk:
Deep in the fridge and behind the green peas,
way past the tofu and left of the cheese,

up in the corner, and back by a roast,
sat Lady Pancake beside Sir French Toast.


The leftover friends were as close as could be,
until they heard news from their neighbor, Miss Brie.
“The syrup is almost completely all gone!
Just a single drop’s left! Just a drop!” she went on.


“The last drop is mine!”
Lady Pancake conversed.
But French Toast replied,
“Not if I get there first.”


Title: Re: Using an outline to start a PB
Post by: dinalapomy101 on November 05, 2016, 07:04 AM
Jody and Alan both have good ideas! The "rule of three" is a very popular one, and execution is of course everything no matter what "outline" you use. I'd say don't worry if your first draft is "formulaic" just to get the pattern down; that is what revision is for. Good luck!!!
Title: Re: Using an outline to start a PB
Post by: RebeccaL-G on November 05, 2016, 07:28 AM
Deena is wise!  In early drafts it's about getting the plot down and a formula often serves well.  I certainly use it, even when writing non-fiction picture books.  One thing that's very helpful for picture books is making a dummy to help you see where the page turns are and look at pacing.
Title: Re: Using an outline to start a PB
Post by: victoria-wirkkala on November 05, 2016, 08:09 AM
Thank you all! This is all very helpful.
Title: Re: Using an outline to start a PB
Post by: Mindy Alyse Weiss on November 05, 2016, 12:36 PM
You've received lots of great advice, Victoria!

I use a few different methods for picture books. One is very similar to what Jody suggested! I agree--bonus points for tugging at heart strings, and it's also great to come up with an ending that's funny and has some kind of 'wow' factor. You want kids to reach the last page and immediately want to dive back into the book again and again.

Alan mentioned that an outline like the one Jody suggested may produce a ho-hum manuscript. I can see why it might look like that in this simple form, but this is just the bones of the manuscript--add an incredible character and your own creative magic on top of it, and you can have an amazing picture book!

One thing that might help with the problem and attempts to solve it is getting to know your main character as much as possible--know him or her as a fully fleshed out character, not one defined just by the problem in the book. I love interviewing characters! I find it incredibly helpful. Even though a lot of that info doesn't make it into the book, the character is much more 3D because of it. It also helps me to brainstorm the worst thing that could happen to the character. One way to do that is to know what the character's main flaw is and challenge that. Then, it's easy to see how much the character has changed or grown throughout the story.

I'm also a big fan of Joyce Sweeney's Plot Clock. I use it for picture books and novels (both before the first draft and again when I want to see if a manuscript can be strengthened even more). If you sign up for her mailing list, you can view the Plot Clock webinar for free:

My local SCBWI recently offered an online picture book class using WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul. She has amazing exercises at the end of each chapter that can help you with your rewrite. One of the chapters discusses how to create a dummy, which was a fantastic suggestion from Rebecca. 

I also find critiques priceless! They're great for seeing issues once I've revised a manuscript as much as possible on my own all the way through polishing it enough to be submission-ready. 

Title: Re: Using an outline to start a PB
Post by: Schriscoe on November 06, 2016, 12:41 AM
Hi Victoria,

You've already gotten some great advice here.

I wanted to echo what everyone else said about it being the execution that counts. The formula that Jody refers to has a proven track record for working in PBs. This isn't to say that if you do A, B, and C, you'll automatically have an amazing PB. It takes so many more variables to make that PB stand out. As Mindy says, this is just the bare bones of it to get that first draft down which imo is always the hardest.

Interviewing your characters is another great way! I've done that often. As is Alan's suggestion for using mentor texts.

Page breaks and pacing are also key factors in PBs. I find myself looking for rhythm whether it's a rhymer or not, every PB still has a rhythm that keeps the book flowing and the reader wanting to turn to the next page.

While it is true that not all PBs use the 'rule of three' formula and not all PBs even have a huge defining conflict, there still has to be a certain 'main character needs to do this and how does he get from A to Z' in every book to make it work.

For example: In Race Car Dreams, Race Car doesn't really have a problem per se, he's simply sleepy and prepares for bed. From point A he's at the race track, by point Z, he's taken his bath, filled up with oil, and reads his book, (see still kind of the rule of three---not attempts and fails, but it's still there) and is finally snoring and dreaming. Many other quiet books follow this pattern too.

The example Alan gives is a great one. I love that book btw! Josh is a master rhymer! I've found that when I first start creating a new book that mentor texts are SO helpful. And yes! I do usually choose three that have the rhythm and pace that I want for mine. I'll read them over and over and study them. Then, once I have the rhythm I want to use (which is usually a combo of the three or an entirely different one) I let the idea mull around in my head for days, or even weeks. I write down thoughts I have. Lines that stand out that I hope to include. And any character flaws, quirks, or conflicts that need to go in the book. THEN I start on my first draft. Which is usually pretty stinky.  :lol4 But! It's solid words written down for me to mold into a book. And yep! What Mindy says, those critique partners are golden.

Oh! one last thing. Tara Lazar also has a great blog post about Picture Book Dummies. You don't have to be an illustrator to create a dummy. Dummies are fantastic in helping you with pacing and page turns.

Hope this helps! And  :goodluck
Title: Re: Using an outline to start a PB
Post by: Schriscoe on November 06, 2016, 12:47 AM
And one more thing! As Jody suggests, tugging at the heart strings is an added bonus, as is if you can throw in an unexpected twist to your ending. If your ending can make an editor sit up, take notice, laugh, cry, say "WOW!" these are awesome reactions that will most definitely help you in getting that contract.