What can Picture Books Teach Us about Writing Novels? Lots!

#writing #tips #novels #creativity
By Whitney Jones

Any one who’s spent ten minutes around a toddler can understand this particular truth: they are the kings and queens of all they survey. Including books. Including Mommy’s books.

Ask me how many novels I’ve read this year … a good round 15 is the answer. Ask me how many picture books I’ve read to my toddler this year alone … GOOD GOD, TOO MANY TO EVEN COUNT.

20180402_152559.jpgI read at least ten books every day to the little dude and, often, they’re the exact same ones. Despite his already pretty significant book collection, he has his favorites, and he makes sure we know which ones they are. If fact, we begin to memorize them. If you ever see me out and about mumbling, “One was Johnny who lived by himself,” blame my toddler.

It’s not so bad, though, because the kiddo actually has mostly good taste in reading material, and I find myself–my novel-writing self–learning a lot about what good novels do from these picture books.

That’s right, picture books have a lot to teach novelists, and in the coming months I’m going to explore several ways you can improve your craft by reading them! This week’s picture books lesson is all about the cliff hanger–so scoot up close, boys and girls, so everyone can see, and let’s begin!

But… but… what’s next?!?

We all know that cliff hangers are great ways to keep your readers flipping those pages. Usually, in a novel, we try to get our characters hanging over those cliffs, and our readers’ butts hanging off their seats, at the end of each chapter. You want your reader, comfy in bed as the clock tolls midnight, murmuring, “just one more chapter…” Their weary eyes, lit with the frenzy of needing to know more, slip into the next words of the next page. They are powerless to stop.

Y’all, picture books are GREAT at cliff hangers. They have to be. The attention span of their audience is almost nonexistent. In fact, cliff hangers in picture books happen on a page-by-page basis. In order to keep the kid reading, each two-part page spread in a picture book has to end on the unspoken question, “what next?”

Take Sandra Boynton’s classic picture books The Hippos Go Berserk for example.

Hippos Go Berserk is a counting book wherein hippos show up 2, 3, 4, etc at a time to a house and then leave 9, 8, 7, etc at a time. What keeps the kid turning pages as we count the arriving hippos is that we’re wondering how the hippos will arrive–what they’ll look like, what they’ll be doing, what surprises they bring with them. Also, we want to know what’s going to happen once all the hippos arrive.

Now THAT’S a fun party.

Hint: they all go berserk.

But what keeps us reading after the crazy hippo party, what keeps us counting down as the hippos depart the party, is Boynton’s grammar and sentence structure. Boynton ends the text on the second page of the two-page spread with fragments, letting the sentences actually hang off of words like “and” and “while.” We have to keep reading to find out how the sentence actually ends. Boynton leaves the most basic actions open from page to page–a master of the cliff hanger.

“…and…” AND WHAT? I MUST KNOW! *turns page eagerly*

Now you try!

Boynton’s technique, and those found in other picture books such as Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and But Not the Hippopotomus are great to keep in mind as you write your novel. It’s important to remember that when Boynton leaves a sentence hanging open, she’s really leaving an action hanging open. You should do the same! Just not on a page-by-page basis.

Think of cliff hangers happening at the end of each chapter. In order to figure out what action to keep alive at the end of a chapter, start by answering these questions:

  • What is the central tension of this chapter?
  • What action is central to the plot in this chapter?
  • What action, if any, will continue into the next chapter?
  • What conflict (internal or external) will the character continue experiencing after this chapter?

Got your answers? Great! Now you’ve identified the important emotions, actions, and themes that will keep your characters moving and your readers reading. And NOW you can build your cliff by:

  • Keeping the central conflict open at the end of the chapter.
  • Ending the chapter before the action of the plot/scene ends.
  • Both!

Just end that chapter so that it will keep the reader reading for “just one more chapter” as the night fades into early morning.

One final word… literally!

picture booksI want to go back to Boynton real quick, and her sentence fragment cliff hangers. I’m not suggesting that you end a chapter with a sentence fragment that is completed in the next chapter. But I do think Boynton’s partying hippos can remind us that cliffhangers can be created or improved by paying close attention to the language we use while setting them up. Choose emotionally-charged language that lets the readers know what the stakes are for your main character. Choose words that vibrate and move, that tug your reader into the conflict and into the scene, that has them hanging right there on the edge, alongside your protagonist.


Do you guys have a favorite picture book? Is there one you think is particularly brilliant? Tell us in the comments!

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