5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways from Ann Whitford Paul's WRITING PICTURE BOOKS

5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways from Ann Whitford Paul's WRITING PICTURE BOOKS

Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books outlines a writer’s path from brainstorming to publishing. Though centered on picture books, Paul’s advice can help any writer learn to tell an engaging story. I’ll admit I found her organization a little off and some of her writing samples a little trite, but her book provides essential writing tools and practical ideas.

Overall, Ann Whitford Paul’s helpful explanations, examples, and exercises effectively teach how to diagnose an ailing story and polish it until it is ready to submit.

Because I love asking questions (and finding answers), I typically share what I learned from books in a “fake interview” format. All answers come from Writing Picture Books, not me. Though I’ve summarized the book here, I recommend reading the entire book to access the author’s extensive list of examples and explanations.

Let’s dive in.

How does the knowledge of your audience affect the way you write picture books?

A picture book has two audiences: children too young to read (around 2-8 years old) and the adults who read to them. Here are some principles to keep in mind when you are writing for children:

  • Everything is new to children, so you must tap back into the excitement of discovery. Try something new. Pay attention to your senses. Put wonder into your words.

  • Children have had few experiences, so their reactions are big for small things. Look for seemingly small incidents that matter greatly to children.  

  • Children live in the present, so story lines usually take place in a few hours, a day, or a night.

  • Children have strong emotions, and everything matters and is serious, so tap into their strong emotions for your stories.

  • Sometimes childhood is not happy, so remember to represent the difficulty. Use humor.

  • Children perceive more than we think they do, so expect children to be smart enough to figure out what a story is about without an explicitly stated moral. Our job is to write engaging stories, not teach lessons.

  • Children have short attention spans; be focused. The story must be short but the idea must be big enough to justify making it into a book.

  • Children are self-centered, so write stories about their problems. Your main characters should be children or childlike.

  • Children long to be independent, so give them examples of strong girls and boys who find their own solutions to problems. Empower them.

  • Children are complicated, so give them gray areas with well-rounded characters.

  • Children have rich imaginations, so they can easily accept the impossible. Let your imagination soar with them.

  • Almost any topic is okay for a picture book as long as you write it in a way appropriate for your audience.

Along with these principles, it is important to keep your adult reader in mind, including parents, grandparents, teachers, and librarians. Refer to these principles as you write:

  • Language does not have to be babyish: feel free to use big words if their meaning is clear in the context of your story and if they’re not too difficult to read aloud. But if you use a big word, help the child understand it.

  • Make books easy to read aloud. Study poetry and use it in your books. Avoid long sentences. It’s easier to read characters’ dialogue expressively than it is a narrative description.

  • Adults are frequently asked to read and reread picture books, so make them short. Give them a story that will stay with them. Strike an emotional chord in both of them.

Also, remember that the age of the child determines the length of your manuscript:

  • Up to 2 years old: between a half to a page long (usually board books written and illustrated by the same person with a sentence or word per page).

  • 2-5 years old: around two to five pages (400-900 words total, but often fewer than 500 words)

  • 5-8 years old: anywhere from four to fifteen pages that fits within a 32-page format

What writing exercises would you recommend to help writers improve their story?

To come up with a great story concept, use the question and answer technique. Think of a general question about the underlying issue you’re trying to unravel in each story and pose an implicit question to the reader. This question will help keep your writing tight and focused. In your story, answer your question in one sentence. This is like your pitch or blurb. If you can’t do it in one sentence, your story may be too complex. Put your question and answer where you can see it frequently. Go through your story line by line, and delete anything that doesn’t have to do with the story’s question and answer.

To experiment with your story’s point of view, try writing your story using different POVs from different characters until you find the one that feels right. Most picture books are written in third person limited (the outside narrator only goes into the head of the main character). A few use third-person-omniscient (the narrator jumps into multiple heads), but this tends to complicate the plot too much for a picture book. First-person (the narrator is a participant in the story) helps listeners experience the action and emotion alongside the main character. Authors that use first-person must place the main character on every page. In second-person narration, the author invites the read into the story. Whatever POV you choose, stick to it throughout the entire book.

How can writers create great characters in the short amount of time allotted in a picture book?

Picture books usually only have one main character. A great picture book character is someone readers care about because they share common goals or have admirable qualities. Characters should be likable, relatable (child or childlike), imperfect, consistent and believable (having valid reasons behind their choices), and assertive instead of passive. Characters should also be able to solve their own problems rather than relying on an adult to save the day.

To know your character inside and out, I recommend completing this character study before you write or after you write a first draft:

  • Give your character a name that creates a word picture (avoid alliteration) and a birthdate/age to place your story in a historical period.

  • Describe your character’s appearance, hygiene, clothes, health, relationships (family, friends, neighbors, teachers), and personality (strengths, weaknesses, attitudes, fears, obsessions, special talents, hobbies, favorite sayings, habits).

  • What has brought the character to this point? What experiences and resulting traits have come to define your main character and his motives?

  • What does your character want? What obstacles do they need to overcome?

  • In what manner would your character speak?

Also, remember that showing instead of telling makes you, the writer, define your character and paint a full picture for the reader and listeners of what’s going on. If you tell instead of show, you give the reader too much power in creating your character.

To evaluate your character after you’ve written a first draft, try marking every dialogue and action of the main character with a highlighter. Is everything your characters says consistent with her intended identity? What about her actions? Then do the same for any additional characters. Did any characters appear in the beginning but not at the end or vice versa? If so, they probably aren’t necessary to your story. Try deleting them or combining them with another character.

How can I write a strong opener that hooks the reader?

Try to get all of this information in the first 50 words of the manuscript:

  1. Who is your main character? He should appear first. The first sentence should show the main character in action rather than describe him. Indicate what kind of character he is through his actions and dialogue, not description. Your first line should also stir curiosity, create tension, or engage the imagination. You can ground the sentence in a main character, time, location, mood, opinion, provocative statement, action, conflict, or image.

  2. What does your character want? What is the main character’s problem, goal, or conflict? The sooner the reader knows this, the better. This should create tension.

  3. When is your story taking place? Giving the exact date and time of the story isn’t always necessary, especially in contemporary stories. To indicate a different time, use character names, unusual or old-fashioned phrasing, or a unique object.

  4. Where is your story taking place? City, country, or suburb? England, Iran, or China? Subtly indicate this while the story moves. Don’t say anything a reader can assume and leave it to the illustrator to explore what it looks like.

  5. What is the story’s tone? Funny, serious, sad? Carefully select words and rhythms to indicate the tone and what lies ahead. Funny = playful, made up words, upbeat rhythm. Serious = longer sentences, falling rhythm, quieter tone.

  6. What is the WOW moment? The hook that makes the reader want to keep reading until the end needs to appear early.

To make sure your opener contains all of these elements, go through your manuscript and highlight 1 in red, 2 in yellow, 3 in blue, 4 in green, 5 in purple, and 6 in orange.

What are some great picture book plots or story structures writers can use?

A plot happens when a problem needs solving, so your story should be centered on conflict. John Gardner states, “In nearly all good fiction, the basic—all but inescapable—plot form is: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.” To increase the conflict, readers need to feel that the character has something to lose should he fail in his endeavors. Here are a few types of conflict to choose from:

  • Conflict with oneself: the main character needs to overcome some struggle or deficiency within herself.

  • Conflict with others: your main character butts heads with another character

  • Conflict with society: your character has issues with a group in the community

  • Conflict with nature: the character battles nature

Once you have your central conflict, you can start to form your structure around that conflict.

Try using the Three-Act Structure:

  • Act I: introduces the characters, problems, and an inciting incident that moves the reader from the first to the second act. In picture books, this first act needs to happen within the first half page of your typed manuscript.

  • Act II: the main character takes action, more action, and even more action to solve her problem; often culminates in a low moment when all feels lost.

  • Act III: the problem’s resolution and a quick tying up of loose ends; usually occurs on pages 28-29, or 30-31 of a published picture book. Tying up loose ends usually falls on page 32.

  • In nonfiction picture books, Act I introduces the subject, Act II explores the subject, and Act III reaches a conclusion. To check your pacing, grab your manuscript and highlight each act in a different color and adjust accordingly.

Consider incorporating these structural tools as well:

  • The rhythm of threes: If a character fails three times before succeeding, the reader worries more about the outcome and cares more for the main character

  • Cause-and-effect action: action leads directly to a reaction that in turn leads to another action.

  • Escalating action: builds from smaller to larger conflict

  • The rhythm of sevens: consider trying to solve a problem seven times if three isn’t working (unless this makes your manuscript more than 500 words)

  • Suspense: reader doesn’t know until the very end what the outcome will be

  • Circular form: story begins with a certain phrase and ends with that same phrase or a slight rewording of the initial phrase

  • Comparison: comparing one thing to another (two characters or two situations)

  • Alphabet, counting, or repetitive phrases

  • Cumulative action: “this is the house that jack built” kind of story

You could also structure your story around archetypes:

  • Overcoming the monster: a protagonist overcoming whatever appears monstrous to children

  • Rags to riches: someone impoverished or mocked by society overcomes obstacles and dramatically improves her situation

  • The quest: character tries to reach a goal, big or small

  • Voyage and return: the hero or heroine leaves familiar surroundings and travels to a place that is different and often threatening but returns home changed

  • Comedy: focused on misgivings and misunderstandings, characters are not fully aware of the truth of some situation and/or the personal truths of themselves or others

  • Tragedy: a main character succumbs to his weaker, malevolent impulses which leads to dangerous and nightmarish incidents that culminate in that character’s death (less often used in picture books)

  • Rebirth: main character falls under a spell of dark power but is restored to her true self by the end or a main character awakens to see the world in a new way

How can writers craft a satisfying ending?

A good picture book ending compels a reader to go back and read the story again and again. Many books start out with great promise but fall flat. A satisfying ending should be unpredictable and tie up loose ends. Jane Yolen said, “A book should end with the unexpected expected.” The entire manuscript should build up to the ending; if not, get rid of it. The main character should evolve and solve the problem at the end of the book. Authors should show trust in their readers by avoiding an explicit moral or message.

In your book, you recommend keeping your story under 500 words. What are some ways that writers can cut their story?

Ann Hoppe said, “The words must be chipped away and chipped away so that only the essential few needed to carry the narrative forward and give it its unique flavor remain. The writer’s job is to pare a story or experience down until the essence remains, spare and shining.” Try cutting your story in half (you can add any necessary words after) with the following strategies:

  • Take out any words that could be portrayed in the illustrations.

  • Take out explanations or details that don’t move the story forward.

  • Get rid of sentences that sound like overt moralizing.

  • Cut adjectives and verbs. Substitute adverbs for more specific verbs.

  • Use active verbs.

  • Cut words like really, nearly, almost, just, and seems. What you say is either true or false. There is no middle road.

  • Cut out there were, it is, it was, and it isn’t. If unnecessary, cut out see, hear, watch, and look.

  • Instead of including both attribution and action when writing dialogue, choose one. Attribution only: “Go away!” Ronnie said. “Go now!” Action only: “Go away!” Ronnie pointed to the door. “Go now!”

  • Watch out for the word which, who, and that.

  • Get rid of repetition: “Jon sobbed loudly.” Sobbing is loud.

  • Don’t give every detail of your character’s life.

  • Cut out purple prose. Don’t bury your meaning in words.

  • Don’t show and tell. “She was so happy. She threw her arms around him.”

Other than writing and revising a draft, what should writers do to prepare their story for publication?

Create a picture book mock-up, or dummy.

  1. Print a hard copy of your story and grab blank paper, removable tape, and scissors.

  2. Cut sixteen pieces of paper in half and staple them together.

  3. Number your pages from one to thirty-two.

  4. Plan the front matter:

    • Half-title page: usually appears on page one and traditionally is the title with only a small illustration

    • Full-title page: usually on page two and three and includes the title and the names of writer, illustrator, and publisher.

    • Copyright information: usually appears on page four

    • Dedications: usually appear on page five, right before the opening page

  5. Start pasting your manuscript on page six.

  6. Always cut the manuscript when the location, characters, or actions change (or whenever the illustration would change).

  7. On odd pages, make sure you end with text that compels the reader to turn the page.

  8. Plan your picture spreads: the minimum number of pictures is 13 double spreads and one single spread.

  9. Make sure your text suggests a variety of illustrations and contains the book’s premise in the first three pages (if not the first page).

  10. Your climax should happen in the final pages (near 30 or 31).

The dummy will help you evaluate your story’s structure and pacing. I recommend making sure the hook is compelling, the problem is introduced within the first three pages, the solution is solved after page 29, and that the page turns are effective.


Ann Whitford Paul’s Picture Book Checklist:

  • Does the main character change or learn something new at the end?

  • Is the main character a child or childlike? Are there superfluous characters who don’t advance the story?

  • Is it really a board book? Picture book? Picture storybook? Would this story be better told as a chapter book or as an early reader?

  • Does the story have more than one level? Does it say something? Does it have depth?

  • Is the story new and unique? Is the idea old or overdone? How might you add freshness?

  • Is the story tightly focused? Is it all about one thing or one aspect of a thing?

  • Is the opening strong and compelling? Has the description gone on too long?

  • Does the plot build to a climax?

  • Does the ending grow out of the story? Does it evoke an emotional response and make the reader want to read it again?

  • How well does the story fit into the thirty-two-age format? (use a dummy)

    • Is the problem established by the third spread (at the latest)?

    • Are there strong page turns?

    • Does the resolution come on pages thirty to thirty-one or at least close to the end? What about picture variety? Is there a nice twist, punch line, or satisfying aha moment on page thirty-two?

  • Does the language fit the story? Does the writer milk the emotion with cadence, rhythm, and tools of poetry?

  • Do the characters speak appropriately?

  • How can this story be best told? In poetry or prose?

  • Did you use active instead of passive verbs?

  • Did you show instead of tell?

  • Are there excess words that don’t advance the story?


My 5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways are:

  1. Don’t be afraid to represent difficulty and create grey areas.

  2. A writer’s job is to write engaging stories, not to teach lessons. Trust children to figure out what a story is about without an explicitly stated moral.

  3. A good character is likable, relatable, childlike, imperfect, consistent, believable, and assertive.

  4. Try chopping your writing in half. You’ll be surprised what you don’t need.

  5. Make a mock-up of your story and use highlighters to evaluate your opener, main characters, pacing, conflict, structure, and ending.

Whether you are a novelist or a children’s book writer, you can benefit from compacting your story as much as possible to evaluate and revise effectively. I encourage you to apply at least one of the FREE THE WRITER takeaways to your own writing this week. Let me know the results in the comments below.

As always, keep freeing the writer,

Rachel Michelle

Writing prompt of the day: Write a Fibonacci poem

Writing prompt of the day: Write a Fibonacci poem

Writing prompt of the day: Write a haiku

Writing prompt of the day: Write a haiku