One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received came from author Candace Fleming. This advice transformed my picture book process and made my writing much stronger. What was it? Look at your book as a series of scenes.
When I’ve discussed this light-bulb moment with illustrator friends, they look perplexed. They naturally see their stories as a series of scenes—perfectly illustrated in full color, of course—and assume everyone else does too. Sadly, my author brain doesn’t work that way.
So what is a scene? Most of us are familiar with the idea of a movie scene, or a scene in a play. But if you’re not an illustrator, you may have never considered scenes in a picture book. Here are a few basics.
To determine if your scenes need work, try paginating your manuscript or making a dummy. This will help you more clearly assess them. If you have trouble figuring out where to add page breaks, your scenes may need work. Another trick is to make a list of the scenes in your story. Summarize each with a sentence. Can you boil your story down to 12-14 sentences?
Once you get the hang of seeing in scenes, you’ll look at your picture book in a whole new light. Give it a try!
Lisa Amstutz is the author of 100+ children’s books. For more about her books, mentorships, and critique services, see www.LisaAmstutz.com.
by Lisa Amstutz
Does your picture book lack that spark that pulls the reader from page to page? Do people keep saying it feels like an article? If so, I have three words of advice: MAKE A DUMMY.
I critique hundreds of picture book manuscripts every year, and often advise making a dummy because IT WORKS!
1. It forces you to think visually. There’s an interplay of art and text in picture books that isn’t present in any other book format. As you create your dummy, make sure each spread is a separate scene, and that there is enough variety of scenes in the book to make it visually interesting.
2. It tightens your prose. Look at your text again, and take out anything that will be shown in the art. When you finish, read it aloud to yourself or a child. Does it read like a picture book? Make sure the language is sparse but strong.
3. It forces you to think through page turns. Add transitions or suspenseful language so the reader MUST find out what happens next. Study current picture books and note how the author entices you to turn the page. This doesn’t happen by accident!
4. It helps with your story’s pacing. Look at how many words are on each spread. Have you devoted at lot of text to one scene and very little to the next? Also keep in mind the age and reading level of your audience. How much text can they handle without getting overwhelmed?
A picture book dummy is easy to make. Simply fold eight sheets of blank paper in half and staple them in place. Leave the first and last spreads blank to leave room for the title page, author’s note, etc. That should leave you with 13 spreads. Cut out and paste your text onto the dummy or write it out by hand. Sketch out scenes to go along with it. Stick figures are fine.
If you don’t want to staple pages, use an online template. At the very least, paginate your manuscript.
Sure, it takes time. But it’s worth a try. It may just take your story from drab to dramatic!
Lisa Amstutz is a freelance editor and the author of 100+ children’s books. For more about her books and editorial services, see www.LisaAmstutz.com.
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