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QUESTION: Hello Susan. I'm writing my first picture book and I'm not sure whether you can help me, but I hope so.

Is it true that the main character is usually responsible for his/her own fate? I mean, is it acceptable that the character's friends help him succeed, or does the main character have to help himself?

My character tries to help himself and fails, and he starts to despair. So his friends get together and help him, and then he finds success. Ultimately he has to take the "leap of faith" himself, but he gets a little help and encouragement along the way, and this is what gives him the courage to "give it one more try".

Is this acceptable, or is it the wrong message for kids? Some of my favorite picture books, like "Giraffes Can't Dance", involve friends helping the main character (in this story, the giraffe is sad because he thinks he can't dance...until his cricket friend helps him find his own personal rhythm). But that book was written by a pretty well-established author, and I'm a nobody.

Also, in your experience, should I focus more on what the character is feeling ("His heart filled with bliss"), or the actions occurring ("The wind whistled in his ears as he soared up to the stars")? It seems to me like feelings are more important because they can't be shown in pictures, while something like "He flew up to the mountaintop" is easily shown in the illustration and is unnecessary. I'm pretty unsure about this part, and I'm having writer's block because of it.

Please give whatever advice you can. I thank you for your time.

Ari

ANSWER: Hello Ari:

When people tell you that a character is supposed to be responsible for his own fate, they are thinking about what's called "deus ex machina," or "by the machine": "an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel." In the old days of Greek drama, the hero would get himself into some spectacular difficulty, but at the end an angel or whatever would be lowered (by machinery) onto the stage to save him. Naturally, none of us can get along without the help of our friends. Your giraffe story is a good example. So it sounds as though you are on the right track. You may be a nobody, but I'll bet you the author of the giraffe story was a nobody, too, at one time. So don't worry about that too much.

You are absolutely right; many actions can be shown by illustration. Your reader is much more interested in the character's feelings (by the way, "The wind whistled" is a cliche, avoid it. Find a more creative way to state it, such as "his ears bent, or flattened back."). Show, don't tell. Also, "his heart filled with bliss" won't get the job done. Don't tell the reader what the character is feeling, the reader wants to decide that for himself. Let him pump his fist in the air, jump up and down, or "if he had a tail, it would be wagging."

Keep reading, and learning from what you read. It sounds like you have a lot of good things going for you.

Good luck, and thanks for writing!



---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Hi again Susan,

Thanks so much for your positive advice and encouragement! It truly means a lot to me.

A fast followup question...

I totally understand the deus ex machina...I grew up reading many Greek and Roman dramas and comedies, plus I noticed the good ol' DEM appearing in people's workshop manuscripts when I was an English major, haha. It's amazing how many people think "And it was all just a dream!" is a highly original ending!!

I'm a little bit confused by one part, though. You said:

< You are absolutely right; many actions can be shown by illustration. Your reader is much more interested in the character's feelings (by the way, "The wind whistled" is a cliche, avoid it. Find a more creative way to state it, such as "his ears bent, or flattened back.") >

-- OK, so far so good...describe the character's feelings. This is what I suspected was correct. But you also said here, "His ears bent, or flattened back". Isn't that something that could be shown in illustrations?


-- You go on to say:

< Don't tell the reader what the character is feeling, the reader wants to decide that for himself. >

I'm perplexed here, because above you said, "Your reader is much more interested in the character's feelings."


Please explain this for me, because I must be missing something here!


Thanks again,
Ari

Answer
Hello again Ari:

Yes, of course, many aspects of a story could be told through illustrations. But not all should be! I believe the actual number of illustrations to be included is the publisher's decision. You can't possibly describe every action via an illustration. Depending on the age of your market, readers may or may not understand that flattened ears mean a strong wind. If you think the whistling wind is effective, by all means include it. My comment was meant as a general observation. All the same, a better, more vivid term for the wind can be found. How about a "muscular", "rugged" or "vigorous" wind? I tell my students, don't settle for the first thing that comes to mind, as it is bound to be a cliche. That's the sign of a lazy writer. Go on to the fourth or fifth thing. Don't be afraid to use the thesaurus, it's the writer's best friend.

Once you have figured out your age group, your best help will be to gather books in this category - your librarian can be useful here - and analyze them to see how if the focus is more on the action or  feelings, and how characters' feelings are presented.

Forgive me if I'm telling you things you already know. Sometimes we just need to be reminded.

You are asking the right questions. Good luck, and keep writing!

I hope this answer has helped. If it has, a good score would be very much appreciated. I am proud of my high ratings over 1000 questions answered.

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Susan Rand

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I can answer questions about the elements of fiction and non-fiction writing: how to get started, writing techniques, re-writing, etc. I will NOT write for you, do critiques except from my website at http://pygmypress.com, or give you ideas. I will not answer home-or-schoolwork questions in any category. If English is your second language, please say so, and I will make an exception. Please submit no more than one or two questions at once, as I tend to go into detail in my answers.

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I wrote my first book in 1957 and have been writing and studying writing since. I have a BA in Written Communications, and have taught writing both privately and through adult education for 15 years. Have also edited (fiction books) for an online publisher and edited/wrote more than 100 articles for a teen sex education site. Currently writing web content and mentoring beginning writers.

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BA degree in Written Communication

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