Crafting an Effective Plot for Children’s Books

Plot is probably the most essential ingredient in a book you can’t put down or one your child begs to have read over and over, or if he’s older, a book he reads with a flashlight after lights are out and he’s supposed to be asleep. It’s that feeling of “I’ve got to know what happens next” that makes the reader turn a page.

In books for younger children, plot is easy to see — it is the something different that happens on each page. You have thirty-two pages in a picture book, and that usually means approximately twenty-five or so incidents comprising the plot of the book. Your plot outline is really your book dummy, where you draw or describe the picture on each page. For a picture-book plot to work, something different must happen in each picture. But that something needn’t be very different — a dramatic change in a character’s facial expression may be sufficient in some instances. Here are some of the changes that can drive the next incident in your picture book:

change of sceneentrance or exit of character

change of expression

close-up

panorama

change of point of view

change of mood

surprise

more of the same

meanwhile… (what’s happening elsewhere)

Logic and cause-and-effect are two of the most important things picture books teach. Your plot — the transitions from picture to picture and from page to page — must be logical, sequential, motivated by the main character’s actions (if you are writing fiction) and related to illustrating the strong theme of your book. If you find yourself using sophisticated narrative techniques like flashbacks, rethink your plot. A picture book should almost always take place in one time frame and move in a direct line from start to finish.

Begin at the Beginning
The beginning is a problem area for many picture-book writers. Always start where the story becomes interesting. Many writers begin with background, character introductions, etc. Eliminate the preliminaries. You don’t have room for them in a picture book. Start where the story becomes interesting and grab the reader’s attention right away. Here are some signs to help you identify your beginning:

dramatic piece of dialoguefirst experience of strong emotion

character makes a decision

day begins

introduce character’s present situation

character’s typical response to specific situation, which may change or be reinforced in story {“Timmy always liked to…”)

beginning of a journey

character receives or sends an important message

The classic fairy tales offer good examples of how to start where the characters’ problem is. You should do the same — begin where the character is experiencing or about to experience the crisis that will determine his actions. Here are some examples from the Brothers Grimm:

no more money and no way to get anyhusband and wife want a child but can’t have one

character’s hopes (as for inheritance) are disappointed

character is forced to leave home

character is born with unusual physical quality

character returns home from journey/adventure/war

character encounters mysterious/magical stranger

character hears of opportunity to improve his lot

character receives special/magical gift

What Drives Plot?
Format.In storybooks, easy-to-read books and chapter books, your plot or plots will not be so closely linked with the book’s format. The pictures will be more incidental, so you must make sure your plot is internally logical and motivated. The best way to do so, as in any book, is to create a strong, consistent character who drives the action forward. A good example from the easy-to-read world is Peggy Parish’s Amelia Bedelia. Amelia interprets common turns of phrase literally, and in this she is very much like a child learning to read. When Amelia, a maid, is instructed to “draw the curtains,” she takes a pencil and pad and makes a picture of the curtains. Her consistent but well-intentioned misunderstandings make the stories happen.

Characterization. In books for older readers, character is also paramount in determining the plot, what happens in the story. But when you analyze page-turners, and you should if you are writing a book for children, you realize you care about what happens next because you are involved with the main character and wonder how he or she will handle a particular situation. The story interests you because you know him, his plight, his choices, his good traits and bad, and you are curious about how, in this particular setting, he’ll proceed. Curious and main characterare the key words.

You wouldn’t be curious about plot if the main character had a blank face and was not “real” in your mind, or if the setting or situation he’s in weren’t interesting. It wouldn’t matter to you whether he sank or swam or where his situation placed him or how he proceeded. Plot is cause and effect and is dependent on characterization and setting.

A perfect example of what we mean comes straight from the pages of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. The impoverished March family is worried about Father, who is ill at the front during the Civil War. Ever one to take action, Jo goes to a wig-maker and sells her long auburn hair, her one physical beauty, in order to get some extra money to send for Father’s care. This action is motivated by love, devotion, generosity and a certain impulsiveness. After returning home and bravely explaining her action, the following scene ensues:

Jo lay motionless, and her sister fancied that she was asleep, till a stifled sob made her exclaim, as she touched a wet cheek:”Jo, dear, what is it? Are you crying about Father?”

“No, not now.”

“What then?”

“My ? my hair!” burst out poor Jo, trying vainly to smother her emotion in the pillow.

Jo’s feelings drive the book’s action. Her devoted act of sacrifice is certainly admirable and true to her character. But the “warts and all” depiction of her wounded vanity is what makes her real, what makes readers love her, and what makes them yearn to find out what she will do next. How will her pride influence her actions and the book’s action after this point? Does this emotion have a positive side as well?

Here are some real qualities that young and old characters may have that can drive the events of an interesting plot:

proud
angry
tired
haughty
foolish
immature
introverted
charitable
tough
cowardly
smug
insecure
impressionable
jealous
fearful
foolhardy
shy
brazen
mean

Now try to put some character traits together with some types of actions. As in the scene from Little Women, the tension between an outward action and an inner feeling can take your character and your plot through some interesting developments.

Emotion
angry
moody
brave
cowardly
loving
secure
jealous
friendly
shy
brazen
Action
success
self-sacrifice
surrender
take a stand
abandonment
flee
befriend
ostracize
orate
hesitate

This article was written by Eric Suben and Berthe Amoss.

Want to write children’s books that kids, parents and agents will love? Consider:
The Encyclopedia of Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books:
From Creating Characters to Developing Stories, a Step-By-Step Guied to Making Magical

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