Examples of Structures
Whilst plotting might feel like a huge undertaking, there are some typical structures and structural tools we can use to give us direction on our writing journeys.
Remember, a plot needs conflict. Conflict creates tension, surprise, excitement and makes a plot compelling, and if you can surprise us, we will re-read your story again and again. The conflict could be:
- Conflict with oneself: the main character needs to overcome a struggle or flaw
- Conflict with others: your main character’s problem centres around another character
- Conflict with society: your character has issues with a group in the community
- Conflict with nature: the character battles something in their natural environment
*It is possible to write books without conflict (or with a slight conflict) but these are hard to pull off and much less common.
Once you have decided upon a conflict, you can start to form your structure around it. There are many different types of picture books structures. Unhelpfully, there’s a differing number depending on who you speak to. But consciously choosing the shape of your story before you begin, might help you organise your ideas, gluing your text together in the most effective and satisfying way. Here are a few of the most common ones;
This kind of picture book arc is much more common than any other. It’s kind of a Classic Picture Book Structure and it’s the most popular way to frame a story. Traditionally, these arcs have an Internal and external conflict, a journey and a character that experiences a change. The idea is that if a character changes between beginning and end, we can connect and relate to the transformation, helping us learn from the character and feeling empathy for them, too. Examples, Solomon Crocodile (Catherine Rayner) When Sadness Comes to Call (Eva Eland) You’re Safe with Me (Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry) Barry the Fish with Fingers (Sue Hendra)
In a transformational arc, the tension can have an increasing or decreasing trajectory. In Stuck! by Oliver Jeffers, the tension increases as more items get stuck in a tree and the problem builds and builds to a crisis, to exasperation, to an explosion of emotion.
In a text with decreasing tension, the problem gets worse as it gets smaller and dwindles. For example, in The Smartest Giant in Town by Julia Donaldson and Axel Schefler, begins with the giant’s new clothes but he gives them away, one by one, until nothing is left. There’s a real emotional low and he’s the scruffiest giant in town.
Either works well – what’s important is to know that in both cases the tension builds to a crisis, which leads to a change. Organising a story around a character’s journey can be an effective way to tell both fiction and nonfiction stories. The journey could be more on the physical or emotional (remember last week’s post about internal and external conflicts). The overarching goal of these types of stories is always the same: to reach the destination/ to have made a change.
There are other ways a story conflict can be framed (some of these are types of transformational arcs), including:
CIRCULAR STORY: The character leaves a set of circumstances, to go on a journey of transformation, then return having learned something… or not! These circular stories might also begin with a certain phrase and end with that same phrase, or with a slight change of the wording. It brings wonderful closure to a piece of writing. Some good examples are the books by Laura Numeroff who created the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie series.
CUMULATIVE STORIES: Each time a new event occurs, the previous events in the story are repeated, until the whole structure topples under its own weight – usually with humourous results. Example; Green Eggs and Ham (Dr Seuss) There was a Wee Lassie who swallowed a Midgie (Rebeca Colby, Kate McLelland)
MIRROR STORIES: The second half of the story echoes what occurred in the first half of the story. Example, We’re going on a Bear Hunt (Michael Rosen, Helen Oxenbury) A Sick Day for Amos McGee (Philip Stead, Erin Stead)
PARALLEL STORIES: This kind of arc isn’t based on one character transformation, but two. In a parallel story there are two storylines taking place at the same time. The reader must track both and the author must make sure the ending resolves both arcs to give the text that satisfying pay off. Examples, The Troll (Julia Donaldson, David Roberts) The Suitcase by Chris Naylor Ballesterous.
FLAT ARC CHARACTERS
Do you always have to have a character that changes or experiences a transformation? In short, the answer is NO.
There are other types of story structure: some where the characters don’t change or where the change isn’t as important to the story. They aren’t as easy to pull off and certainly not as common, but It’s good to be aware of other ways of doing things.
For example, in a story with a flat character arc the protagonist might not change but the world around them might, or a friend or society or another character. A good example is ‘I am a Tiger,’ by Karl Newson and Ross Collins; Mouse has BIG ideas and believes he is a tiger. He convinces Fox, Raccoon, Snake, and Bird, too. The main arc in this story is the arc of the secondary characters, whilst Mouse, who is the protagonist, remains self-confident and sure of himself. Although like all great books, there’s a twist at the end! But the character stays the same throughout the book and it’s the world around them that changes.
If you’re writing, a picture book with a flat arc character, it’s important to make sure that you still have conflict. Without tension, you’ll find it hard hook your reader and keep them turning pages. Challenge makes a story interesting. The stakes need to be raised. We need to test the character – we need to wonder will the main character still stay the same despite the challenges they face (e.g. even when they meet a real tiger!)
CONCEPT BOOKS; Books can be structured around a single topic or category, such as the alphabet, counting, colours or something else. However, most publishers would also want such texts to be led by a narrative; a strong characters and some tension. Example, Ten Little Pirates (Mike Brownlow, Simon Rickerty)
You may also find the Three-Act Structure helpful:
Three-Act Structure for Fiction:
- Act 1 – introduce the character, problem, and an inciting incident that moves the reader from the first to the second act.
- Act 2 – the main character takes action, more action, and even more action to solve their problem; often culminates in a low point when all feels lost.
- Act 3 – the problem’s resolution, including a tying up of loose ends
Three-Act Structure for Non-fiction Picture Books:
- In nonfiction picture books, Act 1 usually introduces the subject, Act 2 explores the subject, and Act 3 reaches a conclusion. Creative non-fiction picture books are a relatively new genre and some publishers are wary. The feedback I have had is that the text still needs a strong narrative to engage readers – as strong as if the text was strictly fictional. Having said that, it’s an exciting new genre of children’s literature if you’ve got the ideas!
Whether you like to plot in advance or not, at the very least, I’d recommend knowing the arc of your internal conflict. E.g. the emotional state of your character at the beginning middle and end. You might not know all the details of how they overcome this conflict, but you have the bones of their emotional journey, and crucially… you know the end.
Another tip is to write out all the things you want to happen in your story on post it notes. Then order / reorder these in the most satisfying way. This is your plot!
MORE EXAMPLES OF PLOTS:
There is a lot of information online about types of plots.
I quite like this link; https://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com/basic-plots.html
If you want to equip yourself with a hard copy of something, I find this book useful; 20 Master Plots (Ronald Tobias) https://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/write-first-chapter-get-started/20-master-plots
It’s not specific to picture book writing, but categorises types of stories and it’s especially useful if plotting isn’t your strong point, like me!