All stories begin with a problem, a dilemma, a conflict. Something is wrong, and out of balance – a storm is brewing…
As William Faulkner said, stories are about ‘the heart in conflict with itself.”
The usual picture book format has only 12 double-page spreads of storytelling space. 12 steps on a journey.
When I’m writing picture books I divide an A4 page into 12, and plan stories visually. And when I’m teaching – children or adults – I use a version of the storyboard above to show the basic pattern of a classic picture book narrative.
It isn’t a rigid plan – I am talking about general principles not an exact formula. Some stories subvert the pattern completely, or play with it and twist it until it is barely recognizable. But its almost always there, lurking, in some form.
As Robert McKee says in his book Story: “Story is about principles, not rules. A rule says, ‘You must do it this way.‘ A principle says, ‘This works…. and has through all remembered time.’ Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.”
Robert McKee explains that a story begins with the ‘set-up’, then sparks into life with the ‘inciting incident’ when the hero is set on a course he or she will have to see through to the end. In picture books both set-up and inciting incident can happen as one, on the very first page. (Most of the set-up, of course, is in the pictures, just as it is in a film.)
As the story unfolds, things get steadily worse for the character: the problem deepens, the dilemma is intensified. Robert McKee calls this stage ‘Progressive complications’.
I use simpler language when I’m talking to children – I just say : “things get worse… and WORSE!”
But it’s important to emphasize that stories are about feelings, not practical difficulties.
The growing tension is within the character – he or she is torn by conflicting emotions – often precisely because the character is clinging on to old answers, to old ways of being.
As tension grows, as problems deepen, the character moves inevitably towards the dreaded moment when his/her worst fear comes true: the crisis.
And the natural, timeless pattern of stories is that the new life, the answer to the problem, the secret of happiness, is there hidden in that darkest moment.
And it is suddenly revealed in the climax – the twist – when the character’s problem is unexpectedly resolved.
My first book Halibut Jackson was written before I’d really explored any of this, but it follows the pattern almost exactly.