If anyone knows how to write a picture book, it’s Timothy Knapman. With more than 50 published picture books, translated into 20 languages, and famed too for his stage and music theatre work, Timothy Knapman is a huge success in the children’s book world. Here, he very generously explains the secret magic formula for writing a picture book.
Have a great idea
It’s easier said than done, certainly, but our story will need a big, bold idea at its heart and there’ll be no fooling our readers if we don’t have one because…
We don’t have that many words!
A picture book should only be about 300-600 words long (sometimes shorter, almost never longer) so remember: it’s not like writing a novel or a chapter book. It’s more like writing a joke. A man walks into a pub with a newt on his shoulder. “A pint for me please,” he asks the barman, “and a lemonade for Tiny.” “Why do you call him Tiny?” asks the barman. “Because he’s my newt.” And that’s it. We don’t describe the man, the newt, the pub or the barman. We use only the words we need to tell the story clearly. Picture books are the same because…
We have pictures!
And the pictures will do a lot of the work for us – all the description and a great deal of the charm and humour. That doesn’t mean we can relax. We have to give our illustrator (whether that’s us or someone else) as many opportunities as possible to delight the reader. So, as we write, we’re always thinking about how our story can be told in pictures. At the same time, we can’t be too bossy: we have to leave space for the illustrator’s imagination. So I don’t, for instance, have any idea what my characters should look like. If the book’s about a fat elephant, then a picture of a thin elephant won’t do because the story won’t work – but that’s all. The reward is always being surprised and delighted by what an illustrator comes up with.
Remember the shape
Picture books are usually made up of twelve double-page spreads, so we must tell our story in twelve parts. That gives us a rhythm and we should be careful to take advantage of that rhythm, pacing the story evenly so that the reader doesn’t feel we’ve dawdled our way towards the end of the book and are suddenly cramming too much into the last two or three spreads. Twelve spreads means eleven page turns. I think of them as cuts in a movie. You can use them for suspense, surprise or both. In a dark, dark street there was a dark, dark house and in the dark, dark house there was a dark, dark room and in the dark, dark room there was a… We turn the page… Light switch!
And, most important of all…
There is no magic formula
Sorry. Following the suggestions I’ve made will help you write a picture book but there are plenty of good ones that break some or all of these rules (except the first). The important thing is that the writers of those books knew the rules existed and so consciously chose to break them because that was how best to tell their story. Robert McKee, who teaches screenwriting, has a saying that sums it up best: ‘anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. An artist masters form.’ Best of luck!