Writing in Spreads

Picture books are usually somewhere between 300-700 words, formatted into twelve or thirteen double pages called spreads. Below is a breakdown of a typical picture book in spreads, with what should happen and when. Consider roughly plotting out your storyline before you begin. This could be pictorial, written as numbered paragraphs, a spreadsheet… it doesn’t even have to written down – it could be in your head or in discussion with another writer. Please see below what should happen when and some examples of plotting. 

Spreads 1-2  The first couple of spreads should set the scene. Introduce an interesting main character; what they are great at and what is there one major flaw, that will prove crucial in the text. Also set the tone, genre. Are you writing funny, lyrical or something else? 
Spread 3 By spread 3 the reader needs a clear idea of what the internal and external conflicts are. What is the inciting incident or main problem? What is going to force our character into a journey and why is the journey one we should want to read about? 
Spreads 4-8  Use these spreads to tell the main bulk of your story. It would be a story if your character tried and succeeded straight away. Consider stacking the odds against your character so they fail, and fail and fail again before they eventually succeed. If you haven’t heard about the power of three.
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 and all loose ends are wrapped up. 
Spread 12Recap what has changed and what your character has learned? Your ending might leave us laughing, crying or with a warm, fuzzy feeling. It might just be an illustration note, a twist or a humorous punchline, but do make it memorable. 

Whilst this is a familiar and widely accepted structure, there are (of course!) many exceptions, so don’t worry too much about straying from this if it suits your story. The idea of the layout above, is that it can be used as a guide or template, as opposed to being something rigid. At the very least, it’s a starting point to get you going, that you can stray away from at a later date. 

There is, unfortunately, no formula for the perfect plot! 

My story How Rude! follows a typical-ish arrangement. The repetition of the phrase ‘How Rude’ gives the tea party setting structure. The problems escalate in size and tension, culminating at the climax of the text. The end echoes the start, referencing what has changed since the opening. The breakdown below shows how the text might have looked if I had written out the structure in advance: 

Duck shows up at Dot’s tea party and is increasingly rude. How will Dot react to such rude behaviour? 
Spreads 1-2  Dot sets up a tea party. Duck arrives. Dot isn’t impressed with Duck’s behaviour 
Spread 2-7Three incidences of rude behaviour from Duck, increasing rudeness and chaos. 
Spreads 8-9  The party has been destroyed. There is only one cake left. 
Spread 10Duck learns his lesson, getting a taste of his own rude behaviour. 
Spreads 11-13 The tea party is ruined. The pair apologise to each other. 
Spread 14The pair play happily together. 

In a post for Picture Book Den, Chitra Soundar analysed the structure of her story with Kanika Nair, Farmer Falgu Goes on a Trip. 

a) Spread 1 sets up the problem. Jumping straight in, there was no setup for who Farmer Falgu was and where he was – because that’s what the pictures will do. 

b) Spread 2 shows us the inciting incident – Farmer Falgu sets off on a trip to be away from the problem. Hence the title

c) Spread 3 – shows character – Farmer Falgu is kind and compassionate despite his troubles. But this spread also sets up a future problem. Every action must have an equal and paying off reaction in fiction. 

d) Spread 4 shows the problem caused by spread 3. 

e) Spread 5,6 & Spread 7,8 make the problem worse. And they add to the problems. 

f) Spread 9 – Farmer Falgu is rid of the new problems caused by his kindness. But he hasn’t yet solved his original problem. 

g) Spread 10 – False hope. Farmer Falgu thinks he has achieved his goal. 

h) Spread 11 – Nope! He was wrong. 

i) Spread 12 – Farmer Falgu ponders over his original problem and he thinks about the problems over the rest of the spreads. He has a final epiphany. Yes! He has solved his problem. 

j) Spread 13 – He returns home with a changed mindset. Nothing in his farm has changed. But Farmer Falgu’s realisation over the course of his journey has changed his attitude. 

You can read Chitra’s full post here: http://picturebookden.blogspot.com/2020/08/a-heros-journey-with-farmer-falgu.html 

Roughly plotting out your story in advance can help establish if: 

– Your beginning is too long 

– You take too long to get to the inciting incident 

– You have started the story in the right place 

– The ending satisfying and not too rushed 

I’ve written a more detailed post about using spreads to format a picture book in a guest post for #Writementor, here: https://write-mentor.com/2019/11/03/picture-books-plot-like-a-pro-by-clare-helen-welsh/ 

Here’s a post about setting up the action so it builds in an effective and satisfying way.