PICTURE BOOKS: Plot Like a Pro by Clare Helen Welsh

Following my last #WriteMentor post about finding original and marketable ideas, (If you missed the post, you can read it here) I thought it might be useful to take a look at plotting. What’s the best way to get your picture book down on the page, in a sequence that your reader will find satisfying again and again?

The truth is, plotting is a very individual process. How you work might even vary depending on the kind of project you’re working on. But it might be useful to hear what I’ve learned about plotting since I began writing in 2013.

As a newbie, I was very much a panster; a writer who ‘flies by the seat of their pants,’ meaning they don’t plot, or plot very little. Put simply, I had the nub of an idea, but not a lot else! I strapped myself in and held on tight for the ride.

Not wanting to think or plot too much in advance, came from being afraid that my original idea might lose its sparkle or become ordinary if I did. I wanted to be led by my characters, to see what surprises they had in store. I still love the excitement of letting a story unfold naturally, not knowing where it will take you. Personally, I am more likely to be original and different when I work this way.


…if you haven’t internalised a structure and/or thought enough about your story before you begin, I’ve found that this isn’t always an efficient way of working. How can I ensure my character’s actions tie together and build up to a satisfying conclusion if I don’t know where they are headed? It is possible to edit your story afterwards, of course, but being objective at this concept level is sometimes very difficult. It’s the age-old adage of being able to critique other people’s texts… but being blind to things in your own. Put simply, we’re often too close. Leaving your story and coming back to it several months down the line can help, but every writer knows that feeling of not being able to see the wood for the trees. The risk of working this way is that you end up with a manuscript that doesn’t have a clear thread and where individual acts don’t contribute to the overall plot, albeit beautifully written.


So, what’s the answer?

How do you plot a picture book without losing the sparkle?


As my creative process has evolved, I’ve learned to see the benefit in plotting out an idea before I begin. Yes, I’m a plotter! Of sorts, anyway. I don’t know all the when and how details, but I do have notes about the who and why. At the very least, I know where my story starts and how it is going to end (Hint; these are usually the opposite of one another). To do this, I decide on the key plot points of my stories, and I do this in spreads.

It is generally considered good practice to plot your story into double pages, called spreads, when you submit to publishers. A 32page book will have roughly 12 double page spreads available for text. Some publishers work on more, some less, but aiming for 12 is a good place to start.

In most picture books you will find the following;

Spreads 1-2


The first couple of spreads set the scene. Introduce the main character, setting, tone, genre.


Spread 3


By spread 3, we know the conflict. We also see the inciting incident. The combination of these forces the character into a journey.


Spreads 4-8


These spreads tell the main bulk of your story. (It wouldn’t be a story if your character succeeded straight away. Consider stacking the odds against them, so that they fail and fail and fail again, before eventually succeeding).


Spread 9


This is the climax of your story. It can also be called ‘the rug pulling moment’ or ‘the ninth beat.’ It should be the ultimate low for your character.


Spreads 10 and 11


The problem you introduced in spread 3 is resolved here. All loose ends are wrapped up.


Spread 12 Recap what has changed and what your character has learned. Your ending might leave us laughing, crying or with a warm, fuzzy feeling. Whatever you choose, make it memorable.

*Remember this is only a guide and there is room for flexibility.

**Don’t forget, you don’t have to do all this in words alone. Illustrations are the magic that bring a story to life, so do leave room for them to tell some of the story.


Generally speaking, these are the rules of picture book structure and it can be efficient to stop and think about what will be happening on each spread of your story before you begin. Getting feedback on this before you start writing is also useful. It doesn’t have to written down; it could be pictorial or a discussion with a critique partner. Once you know your plot is engaging, suspenseful and has the potential not only to wrap up all your plot points, but to also leave the reader feeling fully satisfied, there’ll be no stopping you!

There’s more!


Writing a picture book text in spreads is also useful because;

  • Its helps to ensure pace throughout your story
  • You can check that visually the pages have enough variety
  • You can tell when there isn’t enough story action to warrant a double spread
  • You can use the spread of the text to your advance and for effect. Think ellipsis, page turns and wordless spreads.

You can always take out the numbered spreads when your text is finished and ready to send.

However you work, however much you plan, there’s no harm in switching it up from time to time. Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter …or something in-between, it’s more important to find a method that works for you. Like me, your strategy might evolve over time!

Clare is a children’s writer and primary school teacher from Devon. She writes fiction and non-fiction picture book texts – sometimes funny and sometimes lyrical. Her first book was published in 2015, and she currently has books in development with Little Tiger Press, Quarto, Andersen, Nosy Crow and MacMillan.

Clare also runs a manuscript critique service. Please see her website for more details: www.clarehelenwelsh.com @ClareHelenWelsh

Clare also runs our Online Picture Book course and is our Writer-in-residence, running workshops and webinars for our Hub members.


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