Novel Scene Description

Scene description tends to flummox many a novel writer. The devil is in the details, you’ve heard. Well, it’s possible to have too many details, and also too few. Then there are static details. Ack! How to walk this fine line when crafting your own scene description? Read on.

What do you want readers to see? How to write novel scene description that’s just right.

The Ideal Balance of Scene Description

Scene setting exists to not only bring your reader into your story, but give mood to each scene, and do world-building. A 1950s kitchen will be very different from an alien world. The issue is, many writers don’t know how much scene setting is too much, or how much is too little. They don’t know where to put it in their prose. They struggle with its overall arc as the novel progresses. Here are some thoughts for achieving that ideal balance.

Considerations About Reader Attention

When you write scene setting, you are directing reader attention. You are either highlighting a place, or downplaying, according to the amount of description you choose to include.

Yes, it’s possible to get bogged down with description, and, as a result, scene setting. We’ll talk about that in a moment. It’s also possible to skip scene setting altogether and end up with a strangely ungrounded project.

Remember this when you write: How much you describe something directly ties into how important a reader thinks that something is. As you decide how to describe a scene, how much, and when, keep this in the back of your mind.

You can describe a scene more liberally the first time a character visits. This is their introduction to a place, after all, and you want readers to create it in their minds. But don’t do a few big paragraphs of description at the beginning of every scene. This will be a pattern readers grow tired of. Instead, think of places to pause and insert description throughout the scene that takes place in a certain setting.

Once that groundwork is done, future visits to that place can do with less scene setting. But you don’t want to abandon it completely.

Too Few Scene Description Details

If you suffer from too little scene description, pick some evocative details of each scene. A big problem in novels without setting is that scenes often turn into talking heads. Just dialogue and human motion. These tend to read very quickly and readers won’t feel grounded. Can you pick evocative details, maybe that match the emotion of the scene? Pepper them on pages where you see a ton of dialogue and little action.

Maybe three or four details will be all you need. Maybe you’ll sit and start thinking about the room and be inspired to describe it more. As a good rule of thumb for you, try a few sentences of scene setting at the beginning of each scene that your characters enter. Then, when they go back to a location, note any changes or comment on how the setting might feel different because of all that has happened since the characters’ last visit there.

Too Much Scene Setting

Indulgent scene setting is an opposite problem. Usually, writers lavish the first page set in a specific scene on description. This can stop action cold. Redundancy also becomes an issue, especially if description is ongoing, even though a character has visited a place many times.

Think of a new scene or a new chapter as an invitation to the reader. You are asking them to join you for the next installment of story. If you immediately bombard them with colors, smells, the various textiles and appointments of a room, the vibe in the air, the music drifting in, and all of these other small details—that’s a lot to keep in mind. It makes the beginning of a scene, which is ideally a light and inviting thing, seem heavy and too complicated.

If you struggle with this issue, limit yourself to three significant details and three more specific details. And don’t introduce all of them when a character first enters the scene. Pepper them throughout.

How Scene Description Changes Throughout

Think of the scene setting in your novel as having its own arc. You will be doing more scene setting at the beginning of a novel, simply because you are introducing readers to a world and its environments. They have never been to each place before, they will want to see the big picture and a few evocative details.

But as the story moves forward and the settings become familiar, don’t drop your scene setting. Simply shift your focus. Is the diner dreary on this foggy day, as the character goes to sulk over a milkshake? Does the brilliant sunshine over the field cheer the whole place up? As characters go through a story, they will develop relationships to the places they have been. These relationships can change the character’s viewpoint of a place. They can add emotion to the place.

Pick three locations that your character visits a lot. Can you give them an emotional “tone” every time the character goes there? Add some specific scene setting description that teases out a sense of arc? Even more neutral settings can contribute to story with a few well-chosen descriptions.

Work with me as your developmental editor and we can address your questions about scenes, arcs, and writing description in a focused encouraging one-on-one setting.

Avoid Long Sentences in Colloquial Writing

I work a lot with voice, especially colloquial writing, with my editorial clients. Aside from dry voice, which is a topic in and of itself, I have been battling long sentences quite a bit recently. I write this post as a reminder to all writers: Bigger isn’t necessarily better. (Cue my thirteen-year-old self giggling.)

long sentences, colloquial writing
Today’s voice favors colloquial writing and eschews long sentences. Especially for young readers still finding their reading confidence.

Long Sentences Are Hard Work

There are two common ways in which writers elongate sentences unnecessarily. One is via the semicolon, one is by stacking action. Unless you are British or from another Commonwealth country, the semicolon is largely leaving modern trade fiction. (An interesting anecdotal study done for The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer found that semicolon use is inversely proportional to commercial success. Plus, not a lot of people use semicolons correctly.)

I personally encourage clients to avoid them because they create awkward long sentences that drag on. They are especially undesirable in picture books, early readers, and chapter books, and some early middle grade because those readers are not yet comfortable with complex sentence structures.

Another tendency I see is the stacking of action, especially by using “as.” I encourage writers to limit a sentence to three actions, for example:

She shut her laptop, sipped her coffee, and stared absently at the wall.

(This happens to be my favorite activity…)

Here’s what happens to the sentence, which is long enough already, if “as” comes to the party:

She shut her laptop, sipped her coffee, and stared absent at the wall as the cat prowled for puzzle pieces along the hallway and the mail carrier knocked at the door.

It’s too much for one sentence to do comfortably. (Also, my cat can’t be the only puzzle enthusiast out there, right?) Your work shouldn’t be, well, work to read. When you’re tempted to use a semicolon or “as” to keep something going, consider either zooming out and conveying less action (because you might not need such detail) or breaking up the sentence.

Reading Long Sentences Aloud

Another trick I love to use, especially for picture books, is to read the work aloud. Not only will this help you get a visceral feel for colloquial writing and voice, but it will absolutely indicate which sentences are too long. Why?

People need to breathe. And if you need to breathe in the middle of one of your sentences, it’s too long. Especially in dialogue. We tend to speak in shorter sentences than we’d use for narrative and description. If you have characters speaking in 50-word sentences which are exactly the same as your narrative writing style, that’s an issue. Speech should have its own cadence.

Read your work aloud to focus on long sentences and either eliminate them or break them up. Colloquial writing is here to stay, and shorter, more energetic sentences are going to help you a lot on the voice front. A win for you, and a win for your readers!

If you struggle with voice, I can step in as your manuscript editor and guide you in the right direction with personalized, encouraging feedback.

Character Development Questions to Ask and Answer

Perhaps this is a contrarian approach to character development, but I don’t care what your character’s favorite flavor of ice cream is. I don’t necessarily want to know what sport they played, or what their spirit animal is (unless these factor into the plot, of course). A lot of character development that writers are coached to do doesn’t really translate into great story. So what should you focus on? Keep reading to find out.

character development, character development questions
“If you were an island, what color would your sand be?” Huh? Ask significant character development questions instead.

Why Ask Character Development Questions?

A lot of writing books suggest getting to know your characters. Act like you’re interviewing them. Ask them questions. This, the logic goes, will lead to deeper and more nuanced character.

But you have to ask the right questions! I have seen spreadsheets that writers have created of a character’s hometown, favorite TV show, etc. None of these things move the needle. A key part of writing character, in my opinion, is creating vulnerability. Inner struggle is crucial to character and story. Those are the deeply human elements that are going to reel your readers into the heart of your characters and stories. If you’re not asking these types of questions, it’s never too late to start.

Things to Consider When Doing Character Development

Here is a list of character development questions I wish more writers would ask their characters or about their characters:

  • What is your deepest conscious desire?
  • What is your deepest unconscious desire?
  • What, if anything, is preventing you from achieving either of the above?
  • What do you want from yourself?
  • What do you want from other people?
  • What, if anything, is preventing you from achieving either of the above?
  • What’s your most positive and supportive relationship?
  • Is there any conflict to it?
  • What’s your most negative relationship?
  • Is there any positivity to it?
  • If there were no obstacles, what is one thing you would do in a heartbeat?
  • What obstacles (internal and external) are preventing you from doing that?
  • How do you feel about yourself on a good day?
  • How do you feel about yourself on a bad day?
  • What does an ideal life (referring to the character’s own life and situation) look like, to you?
  • What does an ideal world (referring to society at large for the character, his or her loved ones, and people in general) look like, to you?
  • What three experiences from the past defined you in the present?
  • Where do you see yourself in three months? One year? Three years? Ten years?
  • What is the inner wound or inner struggle that keeps you up at night?
  • What is your ugliest side? How do you manage it? Does it ever overtake you?
  • What is your most noble, best side? How do you encourage it? What’s keeping it from shining more often?
  • What does it feel like to you when you’re stressed? Bored? Angry? Proud? Happy? Excited?
  • Is there any friction between how you see yourself, and how others see you? If so, what is preventing you from closing that gap?

These questions aim to address a few crucial (I believe) components of character development: What are the inner struggles? How does the character deal with adversity? How do they see themselves in their mind’s eye and in relation to others? How do conflicts and tensions affect them?

The rest of the decisions you make about their favorite subject in school and what kind of cake they like … those are fun but fluffy. Here, I aim to drill down to the very real. Why? Because these are the relatable things that your readers will connect to on a deeper level.

What to Actually Use

One big mistake I see is that writers do all of this character development, and then shoehorn all of it into their manuscripts. They can’t bear to leave any behind. But some of those spreadsheet ideas need to stay in the spreadsheet. The purpose of doing any kind of “getting to know you” work with your character is that you sit down and do the work. You get to know them. You plan them out.

Invariably, some of that work will end up on the “cutting room floor.” It’s for you, it’s not for the reader. Though you’ve developed it, you don’t necessarily have to use it on the page. And you don’t want to be terribly overt with the answers to the above questions, either. Avoid putting these things on the page. Real people don’t walk around saying, in dialogue with others, “My childhood wound is that I wasn’t loved enough.” But if this is true, it drives a lot of their behavior anyway.

Think of it as homework, not necessarily something for the final product. Focus on what’s really important when it comes to character. Leave the rest for your spreadsheet.

If you struggle with character development, you might want custom, actionable advice from a novel editor. I can help take your protagonist, and therefor your story, to the next level.

Choosing Your Main Character

Some writers don’t have to decide on their main character, the protagonist has been in their imagination forever! Others, though, struggle with the choice or protagonist. These writers having big casts of characters, multiple POVs, or small, tightly knit ensembles. If you find yourself struggling to define the main character in your story, read on.

If you have trouble selecting the best potential main character for your manuscript, you’ve come to the right place.

main character, protagonist, novel hero, picture book main character
If you have trouble selecting the best potential main character for your manuscript, you’ve come to the right place.

Choosing Your Main Character

One question I’m asked a lot is: Does a character have to change from beginning to end? This is otherwise known as a character arc. My answer has always been a resounding yes. Unless you’re writing an antihero (a tough proposition, especially for younger readers), a character’s change arc is going to be one of the more interesting parts of your story. Whether your character learns something by solving a problem (common in picture book) or undergoes a fundamental identity shift (as seen in MG and YA), their potential for change is a big determining factor in who you should select for a main character.

Remember what readers want. They read to care and feel. That’s it. Change is messy, it’s emotional, it’s usually very gratifying. The character who changes the most is also the character who has the potential to connect most with your reader. If this isn’t currently your main character, you might have a decision to make.

Main Character and Emotion

One of the cornerstones of my teaching philosophy about writing is interiority, or access to a character’s thoughts, emotions, reactions, and inner struggle. The character with the biggest change arc usually also has the most potential for emotional scenes. The character is going through a lot, they feel deeply, they aim to learn or grow … readers will want to see this on the page. By choosing this dynamic character, with deep, nuanced feelings, for your main character, you will be putting more emotion into your story. The scenes of your plot will have more feeling to them. What you write about will seem to matter more to readers. If your character floats along, not changing, not really feeling that much, do they have enough potential to be a true protagonist?

The other thought here is about  novel theme. Every book has something that it’s about, in a big picture sense. Character will often be tied into your theme, meaning that if you want to write about loss, then maybe a good protagonist in that type of book is grieving. So when you choose your protagonist, and you think about their journey, and their potential for emotion, you’ll also want to think about how all of these things align with your bigger picture. If your book is about self-acceptance and your main character spends most of the story in denial, while their friend plays a supportive and emotionally vulnerable role, maybe you’ve chosen the wrong point of view. Let the lens of the character match the thing you want to do or say with your project.

Special Consideration for Picture Book Main Characters

I was speaking to a client this weekend who has this problem with a picture book. He has three potential candidates for the protagonist. In addition to all of the thoughts, above, I gave him the following advice:

Since it’s generally a bad idea to use adult or teacher characters to dispense picture book lessons, the main character in a picture book should be the character who realizes the moral of the story themselves. Which character here can realize the strongest solution to the problem, and present it to readers in a kid-friendly and realistic way? That should be your main character.

This client had one character who would’ve been a good mouthpiece of the message, which was about dealing with change (a perennial picture book theme). But there was another character who was actively going through a change. I counseled this client to pick the character who was experiencing change, because readers would be much more receptive to hear from that particular character about how to deal with it. That character would be speaking firsthand about the topic, rather than giving a more passive lecture.

In summary, follow the change, follow the development, follow the emotion. Connect these back to your theme. The person who hits as many of those points as possible is your book’s main character, and if they’re not, they should be.

Struggling with creating a relatable protagonist? I can be your developmental editor to help you create the necessary depth and nuance.

How to Avoid One Dimensional Character

Too often, one dimensional character translates to predictable fiction. Flat character descriptions have the potential to sink your novel before it really gets off the ground, especially in children’s fiction. Picture books suffer from caricature as well. Here’s why one dimensional character is harmful, and how to avoid it.

one dim
If I’ve read your character many times before, you have a one dimensional character. But how to fix your sheeple, er, people?

The Danger of Flat Character

One dimensional character is, basically, quite boring to read. A lot of manuscripts I’ve seen over the years pick an attribute for a character (“the brave one” or “the shy one”) and then … that’s it. The Brave One can always be found doing something brave, the Shy One is always hanging in the shadows without speaking, and the whole manuscript proceeds along these lines.

It’s as if the writer has boxes they feel they need to check, and various attributes they want to include, and that’s it. But these caricatures aren’t true characters, and they’re no fun to read. They’ve also been done thousands of times before … the definition of flat character. This goes for protagonists, secondary characters, antagonists, even the helpful librarian (I’m talking to all of you  middle grade mystery writers!). The kid who loves adventure (shout out to my picture book people).

Every type of characters deserves nuance. Something to make them surprising, something to make them relatable, something to make them complicated. So take your thumbnail sketch of the character you’re writing and thrown in a few wildcards. The thing is, nobody makes sense all the time, or plays to “type” consistently. And if they do, there’s something wrong.

How to Fix One Dimensional Character

Throw a surprise into the works. Does the Shy One come up with a bold idea? Add struggle. Maybe the Bold One hates being the daredevil, but they’re overlooked in their large family if they don’t stick out–sometimes with disastrous results. What’s something the reader can’t tell about your character at first blush? What’s a secret your character is keeping? An unexpected desire? A rebellion against their identity, or what others think of them?

Imagine a scene in your manuscript that will make readers change their opinions of your character. Maybe it’s after your character says or does something controversial, dangerous, tame, or “out of character.” Write this scene. Aim to change not only the reader’s mind, but the minds of other characters who think they know the person in question. You’ll have a flat character no more!

You may find that you like playing with impressions and expectations. You may uncover a character attribute that you will then incorporate into your manuscript. How does what you learn change your character’s arc? Objectives? Motivations? You may be inspired to do this “second impression” scene with your other important characters.

Surprise yourself. Surprise your characters. Make sure you never suffer from the one dimensional character pitfall again.

Character is the window to story for your readers. If you’re struggling creating a compelling, multi-layered protagonist, I can offer customized advice and feedback as your developmental editor.

Character Objective and Writing a Strong Protagonist

Writing objectives for your characters creates strong protagonists with nuance and drive. Remember, you want to focus on writing a proactive protagonist into your novel. Character objective is a top notch way of doing that. Here’s what I mean by that, and how you can use this powerful idea to move your story forward.

character objective, writing objectives
Strong goals and reasons for them form the foundation of compelling character objective.

What is Character Objective?

Character objective is easy to understand: It’s what a character wants.  Objective also goes hand-in-hand with character motivation. The reason why a character wants something. If you don’t know this about your protagonist, you are in deep, deep trouble. Writing objectives should be top of mind. Why?

All characters should want something. Wanting is universally compelling, we can all relate to it. When I know what a character wants, I am that much more excited to root for them. When I understand why they want it, that feeling only grows. (Making a reader care is one of the cornerstones of how to hook a reader, after all.)

Writing Objectives That Compel Readers

The act of writing a character objective is a bit more tricky. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Establish the objective ASAP. Don’t leave readers hanging. Within the first chapter, make sure the character has at least an initial objective that they’re pursuing. This can tie into their bigger picture want and need as a person, or it can be something short-term. But let’s show them wanting something.

Make the objective specific. “To feel happy” is a very vague objective. It is too broad, and doesn’t have a clear way to know whether it has been achieved or not (since “happiness” is so nebulous). “To help Mom get her job back by impressing her boss” is much more specific.

Let your character imagine the possibilities. Add nuance to the objective by letting your character think about the ramifications. What happens if she does get Mom’s job back? How does she plan to impress the boss? What happens if the gambit fails?

Add stakes. Create a sense of ramifications for success and failure, and don’t forget to add nuance here, too. Maybe if Mom gets her job back, that will solve a lot of problems, but then she’ll be away from home. If Mom doesn’t get the job, maybe the family will fall into dire straits, financially. What might all that mean for your character and plot?

Weaving Character Objective Into Story

Finally, let objective translate into a larger sense of story. This is where the rubber of writing objectives meets the road. Let the character come back to the objective often, mentally. Dream about it. Worry about it. Take action toward it. The latter should then translate into plot.

Start with a strong sense of objective and let the character work toward it. Make it important. Give it layers. Not only will this help your character be more compelling, but your entire narrative as well.

Still struggling with character, objective, motivation, or creating a truly three-dimensional protagonist? Hire me as your novel editor and get in-depth, personal advice from an experienced publishing professional.

Authorial Voice and Third Person Voice

I got a great question the other day about authorial voice and third person voice from an editorial client. He was writing in alternating close third POV chapters with a cast of several characters. Basically, he was telling his story in third person from several character perspectives. Even though everything was in close third person, he was still dipping into different character heads per chapter. Would that influence the voice? Basically, he was wondering what the difference was between authorial voice (his natural voice as a writer), the third person voice of his overall narrative, and how (and if?) close third is influenced by character voice. A lot to unpack here!

authorial voice, third person voice, third person narration
What’s the difference between authorial voice, third person voice, and character voice?

Basically, it’s a balance. There is the author’s own voice, and then the narrative voice, which is informed by POV character, at least slightly. Or at least it should be. Because if your third person narrative voice is the same from Character A Chapter to Character B Chapter, then why bother segmenting the narrative into separate characters?

This writer made the choice to use different close third POV characters. The modern trend is to “flavor” your POV chapters with narration that reflects the POV character at least somewhat, even in third person. This obviously happens more conspicuously in first person because then the entire voice is assumed to be the characters’.

But in third person, you wouldn’t write a third person grandfather POV with the exact same language as you would their grandchild’s POV chapter. Overwhelmingly, I’ve heard agents and publishers comment about adding voice and style to close third person POV that at least takes the character whose chapter it is into account. The consensus seems to be that they should be able to open your book to a random page and know which character’s POV we’re in based on voice, even if they can’t see the chapter heading, and even in third person.

So let’s break it down further.

Character Voice

This is the voice of your character. In first person POV (“I said”), that is also the voice you’re writing in. In third person, it is widely preferred in contemporary fiction to let your character’s voice inflect the narrative, especially if you are writing in close third person on that one character. This basically means that you are writing in third person (“He said”) but only go into the experience of one character, usually your protagonist.

Other opportunities to express your character’s voice come in dialogue, where they are literally speaking, and interiority and direct thought, when you render their exact thoughts on the page. This is when you will want to think about voice, which words they’d choose, how they’d say them (syntax), and the content of their self-expression. It’s good to consider these elements for each character you put on the page.

Sometimes, the narrator him or herself is very intrusive and becomes a character in the story. The classic example is the narrator of the Series of Unfortunate Events, written under the pen name of Lemony Snicket, but really by Daniel Handler. There are people acting out the plot but the story is told by a first person raconteur character as well. This is yet another type of voice to consider.

Third Person Voice

If you are writing third person, you are either in close third (your POV is limited to one character), alternating (you hop from character’s head to character’s head but in a more structured way, like my client who asked this question) or omniscient (where you float around and “head hop” at will into the experiences of a wide cast of characters, like The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, but note that omniscient third is widely considered the most difficult to pull off and not a good fit for every market).

This means you are also now thinking about narrative voice, your baseline voice for telling the story. Unless you have a Lemony Snicket-type narrator, but in third person, to account for, your third person narrative voice is going to be more neutral. I would still recommend tinting this voice to share elements with your character(s) if you are writing in close third, alternating, or omniscient. Per my example above, a chapter in third person voice that focuses on a young child should not read like a chapter in third person that explores an older man’s more wistful or reflective (or bitter!) experience.

If the voice sounds the same on every page, even in third person, despite going into the experiences of different characters, this is an issue. You may not be exploring or inhabiting your characters deeply enough. They should affect your voice. Not as much as they would in first person, but enough to have some bearing on the writing.

Another thing to note is that narrative voice can change from book to book. Your snappy YA romance is not going to be written in the same voice as your coming of age MG. It just shouldn’t be. Those are completely different categories, character ages, plots, and reader expectations. So it’s important to realize that narrative voice, whether first or third person, changes according to the characters used and the story being told.

Authorial Voice

Finally, there’s authorial voice. This is the element that doesn’t change, your signature. Are you known for clever dialogue, like John Green? Froth and fun, like Meg Cabot? Heartfelt honesty, like Judy Blume? These are classic examples but when we read these authors, we know what we’re in for, no matter what the book. That’s because of authorial voice.

If you’re just developing yourself, don’t worry. Authorial voice is something you discover, not force into existence. It falls into place much later in the writing journey, and sometimes people can’t predict what their signature is until it emerges.

My client, though, was wondering if authorial voice should dominate the third person writing, or if he had to make allowances for character to creep into the narrative. Especially since he was writing in alternating chapter close third person, I told him that character had to lead the day. Authorial voice will emerge, but it should not be your primary storytelling concern. Especially if you are choosing to render multiple POVs.

The overall voice with be yours (authorial voice), and that sense of voice will get stronger, the longer you write. But I would encourage my client, and anyone reading, to add lenses of more stylized voice/narration that are going to be unique to each POV character.

If you are curious about POV and want more exploration and examples, I highly, highly recommend Writing the Intimate Character by Jordan Rosenfeld.

Struggling to develop voice? It’s usually the last writing and storytelling element to fall into place. With me as your novel editor, we can work toward your own narrative style together, in a focused, supportive, and actionable way.

Picture Book Format and How to Format Your Manuscript

Picture book manuscript format flummoxes a lot of aspiring children’s book writers because there is so much potential variety. In my career, I have seen hundreds of examples of picture book format. To help you stand out in the slush as polished and professional, I’ve developed a picture book manuscript template handout that I’ve used over the years to really streamline and clarify the process for writers.

picture book format, picture book manuscript format, picture book manuscript template, children's book format, childrens book format
Click here to download my picture book format handout as a PDF. Feel free to share!

Picture Book Format

Picture book manuscript format tends to vary WIDELY. Some writers have it down. Others think they’re paginating correctly if they allocate a separate manuscript page to each line, resulting in a 32-page Word document that contains 300 words. What if a picture book manuscript template existed? It would certainly streamline things. As is, some writers include illustration notes, others stay far away. How do you paginate a children’s book? How do you format illustration notes correctly? This resources answers those questions (and here are more thoughts on illustration notes in your children’s book manuscript).

I’ve put together a handout that answers all these questions and more. No conference or webinar attendance required! Click this link to download the PDF.

How to Publish a Picture Book

Remember that picture book format is just one small component of a successful children’s book submission. You also have your picture book query letter, and, well, the most important thing: an awesome manuscript! Don’t focus so much on picture book manuscript format that you lose sight of character, plot, and writing style. Those are going to take you a lot further than a nice-looking, polished file … but the latter certainly doesn’t hurt.

That’s why I’m offering this picture book manuscript template tool to help you cross this concern off your list.

As a picture book editor, I work with writers on all aspects of the picture book craft, from creating a compelling children’s book manuscript (in proper picture book format, of course!) to nailing the query letter. Contact me for personal, actionable advice on your project.

Picture Book Structure

There are quite a few ways to think about picture book structure. Here, I’m going to present a looser “Problem and Solution” structure, and a more specific

picture book structure, picture book writing, writing picture books, plotting picture books, picture book plot
Look at that masterful plot twist in Act II! Didn’t see it coming at all…

The Basics of Picture Book Structure

Keep in mind that you are working with 24, 32, or 40 pages for most picture books, with 32 being the hands-down favorite. Take three or four pages away because you need to accommodate front matter (like the copyright and title pages), and I’d say you have about 28 usable pages to work with.

When you are planning your picture book, imagine telling the story in individual pages (either the right or left side of the book, “profile” view) or spreads (both pages, “landscape view”).

How do you fill those pages? Spend five of them describing the character’s favorite ice cream flavor and how nice they are? NOPE. You need to dive right into story without wasting too much time. Preferably, you will jump straight into action. Here are two examples of common picture book structure that you can work with.

Picture Book Structure: Problem and Solution

When I was doing some speaking on picture books in 2012, I wrote a talk that incorporated simple Problem and Solution picture book structure. Basically, your character is introduced in terms of a problem they’re having. Then they make several attempts to solve the problem, before some kind of resolution. It looks like this, assuming that your book starts on page 4 because of front matter:

Page 4: Character introduction

Page 5 to 6: Conflict introduction

Page 7 to 8: Raise the stakes (establish why the conflict fights the character, what happens if they don’t get what they want, etc.)

Page 9 to 18: First two attempts to solve the conflict, story stakes rising

Page 19 to 26: Third and biggest attempt

Pages 27 to 29: Climax and success hanging in the balance

Pages 30 to 31 or 32: Resolution, reversal, final image (whether you go to page 32 depends on if you end the story on the right side of the page or after one more page turn)

Note: These page number prescriptions are a starting point for helping you map out your thinking, they are not a hard-and-fast rule.

Character Development in Picture Book Structure

Nobody cares what your character’s name is or what their favorite ice cream flavor is. Sorry. You do, but nobody else does. That’s not what makes them a character. Fancy Nancy was a character not because she liked poodles but because her whole driving passion in life was making ordinary things fancy. This is a characteristic that will fire up reader imaginations.

So once you’ve established a character with an objective (something they want) and motivation (why they want it), you can give them a conflict that grates against who they are. This makes the conflict more powerful, and gives them extra reason to want to solve it. Is also establishes stakes–what happens if they aren’t successful, why it matters.

Otherwise, if readers don’t understand why your specific conflict is a big deal for your specific character, your whole story won’t matter. But if you create a strong foundation that ties character to plot, their attempts to solve the conflict will be noble, and the classic Problem and Solution picture book structure will work well for you.

A Reminder About Preaching in Picture Books

But keep in mind something I mentioned above. Their attempts to solve the conflict. That means you’re writing a proactive protagonist who is going to drive the story.

Preaching in picture books is very tempting but a huge no-no. You need to empower your main character, rather than having wise old Grandma swoop in and solve everything.

Examples of Problem and Solution Picture Books

You can check out the following simple narrative books that may not hew to the page counts mentioned above, but which follow a relatively straightforward attempt/resolution structure:

CLICK, CLACK, MOO, COWS THAT TYPE by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin
A GARDEN FOR PIG by Kathryn Thurman and Lindsey Ward
LITTLE BLUE TRUCK by Alice Schertle and Jill McElmurry
TOAD ON THE ROAD: MAMA AND ME by Stephen Shaskan

Picture Book Structure: Symmetrical Paradigm

This idea for picture book structure comes entirely from Eve Heidi Bine-Stock’s HOW TO WRITE A CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOK: VOLUME I: STRUCTURE. Her writing on the topic of picture books is definitely worth investigating. I’ll summarize the structure here but won’t reveal several fine-point components, in fairness to their creator.

The Components of Symmetrical Paradigm Picture Book Structure

This is a looser wrapper and more applicable to different types of story. It has a lot in common with the Problem and Solution structure, but there are some nuances. Here’s how it goes:

Act I: the Beginning or the set-up, about 20% of the story or 5-7 pages

Plot Twist I: a plot twist that separates the Beginning from the Middle

Act II: the Middle, or the primary action, about 60% of the story

Midpoint: a moment in the middle where the story splits into a “before” and an “after”

Plot Twist II: a plot twist that separates the Middle from the Ending

Act III: this contains the resolution or the Ending, about 20% of the story, or 5-7 pages

What I really like about this Symmetrical Paradigm is that it inspires writers to carefully consider what separates the different sections of their book, the plot twists and midpoint, which provide emotional layers to the character and story.

Examples of Symmetrical Paradigm Picture Books

Bine-Stock cites many classic examples in her book, and her explanations are worth looking into. They include:

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE by Maurice Sendak
CHICKA CHICKA BOOM BOOM by Bill Martin, Jr., John Archambault, and Lois Ehlert
IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE by Laura Numeroff and Felicia Bond
GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd

Other Types of Picture Books

There are exceptions to every rule. While the above are good options for narrative-style picture books, those aren’t the only ones around. Non-fiction picture books are their own animal, and need to be organized according to the narrative structure of their subject matter (for example, in a picture book biography, the subject’s life is going to provide its own flow).

Concept picture books or picture books for very young readers often have their own structure, and it tends to be very repetitive. Alphabet books are obviously organized according to … the alphabet. And concept books like DUCK RABBIT by Amy Krause Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld follow a Problem and Solution framework but only insofar as there’s a question asked, and then variations on an answer (or question) are given over and over. If you examine that example, there isn’t really a resolution at all.

Let’s dig into your own picture book project. Hire me as your picture book editor and get advice customized to your manuscript.

Writing a Proactive Protagonist

Writing a proactive protagonist is one of the single most important things you can do to set your novel up for success. I feel like I’ve been giving this note over and over in my freelance editorial practice lately: Your protagonist is too passive. They do not drive the plot. They are passenger, not driver. What is this problem and how can you address it? Read on!

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Your character needs a strong idea of where they’re going. They should be someone the reader will be compelled to follow.

Active vs Reactive Protagonist

Novels are hampered when a “main character” takes a backseat to action. Higher concept plots are often vulnerable to this. (Because, remember, stakes in writing can be tricky.) If you have Ordinary Kid and you throw them into Extraordinary Circumstances, they are likely, a) not going to know what’s going on for quite a while, b) not going to know what to do, and c) going to rely on others for help.

You’ve perhaps made a plot that’s “too big” for your Everyman character. This thwarts them because they spend the entire novel either, a) learning the ropes, b) discovering their talents, and/or c) figuring out where they fit in.

Thematically, this makes sense, especially for a middle grade or YA novel. If every kid was self-assured at the beginning of their story, you wouldn’t have a relatable novel for tween and teen readers (who often feel incompetent or unsure). But it’s possible to make your character too impotent.

Take a look at your novel. Does your character spend a lot of time receiving instruction? Are there a lot of guide/mentor characters? Do events happen to your character, rather than your character making events happen?

You are in danger of having a passive protagonist. After a while, if the character doesn’t become “activated” and start acting with their own goals, desires, and agency, they are going to be the eternal backseat driver and their power to affect the story–and, more importantly, the reader–will evaporate.

Writing a Proactive Protagonist

No matter how unsure your protagonist is about their life, themselves, or their upcoming challenges, they still need to be a hero. For sure, this doesn’t have to happen immediately, or there’s no growth trajectory. But when you’re writing a proactive protagonist, you should at least the hint of some confidence/ability at the beginning.

Everyone is good at something. And even if a character is not good at anything (or just believes they aren’t), they have a secret weapon that you shouldn’t hesitate to deploy: their desire or need. This secret weapon can make all the difference between an active vs. reactive protagonist.

Use Desires or Needs to Motivate Your Protagonist

Desires and needs are universally relatable and everyone has them. They come together to form your character’s objective and motivation. The objective is what they want, the motivation is why they want it. I define desires as things characters want, which can be external. Whether a physical object or an outcome. A need is something a character, well, needs on a deeper level, so it’s usually an internal conflict. They desire to win the championship but they need the validation such a coup would provide, for example.

The best thing about desires and needs? They make us brave and they make us active. I may not usually be outspoken (Ha! Obviously not speaking personally…), but if my desire is on the line, I’ll act.

Too many times, a character arrives on the page without strong desires or needs. “Ugh, I’m so ordinary. Ho hum. If only something good would happen.” This isn’t specific. Sure, everyone can relate to being bored, but boring characters are … boring. Sitting around and waiting for “something, anything” to happen is a prime set-up for a passive protagonist. This leaves them wide open to anything that comes along, but not really pursuing anything.

Instead, give your character strong goals and wants. Let’s see them chasing after something right away, even if it isn’t yet their central objective. And when the plot does kick in, solidify their objective, motivation, desire, and need. That way, even if the plot sweeps them along on a wild ride, they are always able to take proactive steps, they always have their eyes on the prize.

Better yet, the plot might threaten their objective. Then the stakes rise. They can’t lose X. They can’t sacrifice Y. They only have one shot at Z. Or else what? They go unfulfilled, because their deep need isn’t being met. If you have your character actively chasing, no matter what else happens, you give the impression of a hero.

Secondary characters and subplots help in terms of making your protagonist active rather than reactive. A character can do things for others, or do things that dovetail with another plot thread. Ideally, all of these actions serve their core need (not every need should be 100% selfish, but you should always have strong personal reasons for selfless actions, too). If the primary plot puts your protagonist in a passive position for a moment, is there anything they can DO for anyone else?

Give Your Characters Enough Info to Act

Finally, too many writers hamstring their characters by not giving them enough information. Why? The misguided urge to save everything for a huge reveal at the 70% mark of the plot. Well, guess what? If readers aren’t compelled by a character or story right away, they won’t even get to the 70% mark. Too many writers withhold too much information, stalling until “the time is right” for a reveal. Instead, give your protagonist information earlier. Empower them. Allow them to act with some of the facts in hand. Otherwise, they’re sitting on their thumbs until you’ve decided to throw them a bone. In this active vs reactive scenario, reaction is going to win out — which spells disaster for your protagonist.

Big Choices and Small Moments

Even if you can’t give your character a bunch of information or make them an ass-kicking hero from page one, you can let them be proactive from moment to moment. Study this article on writing active character reaction. If they simply can’t participate just yet, at least let them be engaged. You’ll also want to take a few big risks and step outside of your comfort zone.

Keep training/explaining to a minimum, especially in the first 100 pages. It’s always better to have your protagonist active vs reactive, even if they make a mistake doing so because they’re green or don’t have all the information yet. Really take a close look at all of these types of montages. I will bet that you can make some big cuts and redistribute key information elsewhere.

Perhaps the biggest choice you can make to empower your hero is to stop giving them so much help. The best friend who only exists to support them? Give that friend some nuance and conflict, or they’re just going to be boring scaffolding for your protagonist. The older, wiser mentor who gives the trainee the lay of the land? Let the character start to discover things for themselves, make assumptions, and get out there, ready or not.

Remember, fiction is life elevated. Big stories. Big characters. Big stakes. Most of us feel like we’re just along for the ride in our daily lives. When we come to get away from it all and read fiction, we want to see protagonists who take risks, make choices, chase dreams, and grow into their power. There’s definitely an aspirational component to relating to character. Make sure your hero is someone readers can be inspired by, warts and all, and put them in the driver’s seat. What are you waiting for?

Are you struggling with writing a proactive protagonist? Hire me as your novel editor for actionable, hands-on manuscript advice tailored to your story.