Originally Published: Nov. 30, 2010
by Lauren Shapiro
“It’s hard to write 1000 words or less, preferably a lot less, that has character development, conflict, rising action,” said Deirdre Jones editorial assistant at Little, Brown Brooks for Young Readers. But, she says, it can be done, and at the SCBWI meeting on November 12th, she presented her theory as to how.
“What I’ve learned is that the narrative arc is the bones of the story. You have to hit the problem the character has to overcome, and only after that can you develop your character,” and her observations of how successful writers accomplish this has led her to conclude that “What’s really going to make the book work is a 9 points formula.”
Those 9 points are:
- Introduce the character
- Set the scene (where we are, what we’re doing)
- Introduce the problem
- Increase the tension
- Build the themes/characters/message
- Reach the climax
- Resolve the problem
- Show character growth
- End on a memorable note
Ms. Jones illustrated these points via a structural analysis of Awesome Dawson by Chris Gall a book she is proud to have assisted in editing from start to finish. She picked it as a model of using the formula to create something unique that works. In the first two sentences we’ve learned Dawson’s age, as he goes to school, we’ve learned he likes to put things together, he’s creative, and that he doesn’t have many friends. “On the next page you’re learning that his parents wish he’d clean their yard/house; and that Dawson has a secret workshop.
This exposition is quick. “A big pitfall is spending too much time or text here,” says Ms. Jones. and the short exposition allows readers to spend most of our time in the middle trying to solve the problem. A little bit goes a long way in a picture book.”
Then comes the problem – His parents ask, “Dawson have you done your chores?” He doesn’t want to do his chores. This problem was foreshadowed when his parents were introduced as wishing he would spend more time cleaning the yard. Now we’re in the middle.”
The middle section “should not be a plateau – he went here, and then he went there. If the main character is just walking around, it’s not interesting. The more you do in the middle, the more fun for the reader. Dawson finds a vacuum cleaner and this is how he’s going to solve the problem. But then the vacuum starts sucking up everything.” And so here we not only have the rising action, Ms. Jones points out, but a change in perspective. “Up to now everything is somewhat believable. Once the vacuum becomes alive, it enters realm of fantasy, which is another way to ramp up the excitement. The vacuum is sucking up his father’s car, the problem is getting bigger, not smaller, the adventure is getting bigger – we’re out of the workshop and into the town.” Ms. Jones said that once Dawson realizes he may have made a mistake, we have character development.
“When he’s trapped inside the vacuum wishing he was just raking leaves, this is a huge moment. Every page increases the tension, as Dawson tries to fix the brain of the vacuum. This book is classic narrative arc, there’s the problem, three attempts to fix it, a black moment when it looks like it’s all over, and then there’s resolution.”
She smiled. “That’s how you create a narrative arc in a picture book.”
Lauren Shapiro is a freelance writer. She has published over 50 articles in diverse publications including Crain’s American Dry Cleaner, Dance Spirit, American Small Farm and WorldandIOnline. Her article on Archie Comic Books and Literacy was published in Education Update in Manhattan, and reprinted in parent papers in Staten Island, New Jersey, Mississippi and Pennsylvania. She is hoping to find a way into the children’s book market.