re: How Can Picture Book Readers Feel It If I Don’t Tell It?

in Picture Books by

Dear Editor…

I’m writing a picture book. A reader recommended I remove the parts that say how the character feels physically when she’s scared. Here’s an example: “It looks taller than I remember. My stomach starts to hurt.” Other lines recommended for deletion: “My heart pounds just as loud.” “I swallow. My throat feels dry.” My crit group wanted more of those. I’d appreciate your experienced perspective about how to handle this to make PB stories the strongest.

Sincerely,
N

Dear N…

I understand the desire to convey a sensual experience. I generally encourage picture book writers to avoid statements that explicitly tell how the character feels. Try this: Close your eyes and imagine the sentence “It looks taller than I remember” on one page, then imagine turning the page and seeing a character looking up, up, up at the tall thing. What is that character’s body language? What is the expression on her face? Kids will “read” that body language and, with the extra help of the well-timed page turn, they’ll “feel” that uncomfortable belly sensation of being daunted without you laying the words “my stomach starts to hurt” on the page.  The beauty of telling stories via the picture book format is that the art and page turns do part of the work. So try deleting those lines to allow these tools room to tell the story with you. Tip: Think of yourself like a “straight man” in a comedy duo: You set up the jokes with your text, then let the art and page turns deliver the punch lines.

Happy writing!
The Editor

13 Comments

  1. Love this explanation! I hope it’s ok to ask a follow up question: Should a simple art note be inserted to take place of the text for the transition– (girl staring up) Or do you just move from: It looks taller than I expected! to the next text/scene?

    • Hi, Kim. In this case, the writer should probably move on. Think of this advice when considering whether to add a particular illustration note: Any illustrations notes included in the manuscript should inform the illustrator/editor about the events, not tell anyone what to draw. We want to allow the illustrator to work their visual storyteller magic without planting limiting ideas in their heads. Most of the time, they come up with ideas for images and visual jokes that never occurred to us authors. Looking up up up? Maybe… but maybe they’d come up with something even more awesome. Give them room to do that. Editors know to read manuscripts with this in mind. In a Guest Editor post on DearEditor.com, award-winning illustrator Stacy Innerst had this to say about illustration notes: “I understand that with minimal text there is a temptation to sell the story by filling in the blanks, but I think if the root of the story is strong enough the pictures will come. A good illustrator will get what you’re trying to evoke without too much direction.” Pop over to that post, which is insightful: http://deareditor.com/2012/12/guest-editor-stacy-innerst-the-risk-of-illustration-notes-in-picture-books-manuscripts/

    • Glad you find this helpful, Ann. It’s so easy to forget about the page turns when we writers are staring at the isolated text in a Word doc.

  2. D—As always, your insight is spot on. Picture books look SO easy and they’re SO hard. Agree with Ann about page turns. And, N, the illustrator will take your text and make it soar visually.

    • Thanks, E. They are deceptively hard, indeed. Difficult, too, is the “trust the illustrator” advice … but it’s so very essential that we writers do it.

  3. Thank you So much for your answer and the wonderful link! What a great tidbit to remember, “Don’t try to sell the story by filling in the blanks” when it pertains to art notes.

  4. I think this concept is the hardest part of writing picture books. It gets easier with the experience of many manuscripts. It also helps to realize as writers, we start as storytellers but for picture books especially, we need to become storyshow-ers…

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