Show not Tell

A picture book might only have 300-500 words, so make every word count. They should be the very BEST words. 

But it’s not all about the words. 

When setting up your character, (including their strengths, their flaws, their goals) the writing needs a balance of showing and telling. If you haven’t heard the phrase ‘show not tell’ before it will become your best friend (or worst enemy until you master it). 

The idea is that we don’t want to be told about the action, we want to experience it alongside the protagonist. Don’t tell us she was embarrassed, show us that she was blushing and shuffled her feet. Josh Funks has a good example on his website. 

Rather than telling us; 

The mice pulled the biscuits into the garden. 

Show us with active emotion; 

They hauled and heaved and towed and tugged. where were they going? 


The good news is that picture books are different from any other genre of children’s fiction because you can use the illustrations to tell some or part or all of the story. Leaving room for illustrations to add to the action, plot and character development, is a great way of showing. For example, if the illustrations show the penguin has a purple rucksack, we don’t need to read this in the text as well. The text and illustrations should not be saying the same thing. Make your words work harder and tell us something new, something different, something we don’t already know. Thinking visually and allowing for this interaction means that; 

– the reader has space to interpret the story 

– the words can tell a story that the pictures don’t (…and vice versa; pictures can tell a different story from the text) 

– the pictures can add another layer of humour and detail 


It is possible to use illustration notes to explain to an editor where the story relies on an illustration. These should be at the top or bottom of a spread, in italics, square brackets and in a different colour. Think minimalist and essential stage directions. If your note tells the reader something about the entirety of the text, you can add it after the one line pitch, before the first spread. 

e.g. [Barry is a wild boar] 

However, a word of caution! It is possible to take out too many words. A busy editor will need to get a feel for your story without reading between the lines. Some agents and editors don’t look at illustration notes on the first read. So, you will need to make sure the text gives a good sense of the characters and plot without them. As a general rule, after a picture book is accepted, words are often edited out anyway. But your story might not make it through the slushpile if it doesn’t make enough impact on the first read. It is perhaps better to overwrite a little than take out too much. You don’t want the whole story in the illustration notes, unless that’s your aim and the pictures and words are in contrast with one another. 

Here are some questions to consider when using illustration notes: 

Does the reader need to know that the penguin is carrying a purple rucksack? It is important for character? 

Does it take the story to another level? (e.g. there’s something significant about the fact that this penguin is carrying a bag and that it is purple and not any other colour. Perhaps the bag grants magical wishes, for example. 

If it’s none of the above, and this is just a nice colourful detail to your story, you probably don’t need an illustration note. 

Illustrators are hugely talented and imaginative beings. You don’t want to stifle their creativity by being too specific. They can add a whole other layer to your story given the freedom. 


When creating compelling characters, it might be worth thinking about your favourite characters. Which ones are the most memorable? Which ones are your favourite and why? Unpicking what makes your favourite characters compelling, might help you develop similar qualities in your protagonists.