The sky knows it's Wednesday...
Outside my morning window, black clouds churn and thrash fat raindrops everywhere. Every few seconds, snapping flashes of white pierce the scene, followed by growls that shake from sky to ground in angry tantrums. The rattle reaches all the way to my coffee mug, causing the spoon to clink against the rim.
And don't we all love drama?
Nature's dramatic shows, maybe. But personal drama? Some of us thrive off that, too. Today's guest author is one who understands best how to use the drama in our lives to thicken the clouds of our story's plot and craft a manuscript that will sell.
With this dramatic spirit, I enthusiastically welcome today's inspirational, creative, unique, and experimental author/illustrator with a drum roll........
...Mira Reisberg, PhD
Dramarama: Different Ways to Play with Plot
By Mira Reisberg, PhD
As most of you reading this know, the world of children’s book publishing has gotten more and more competitive. So what can you do to increase your chances of being published?
One of the things I encourage my students to do is to get the drama out of their lives and into their writing. This means using compelling language, memorable characters, and a well-crafted plot. Even concept books and biographies benefit from these 3 elements. Today we’re going to mostly focus on plot.
One way of crafting a satisfying plot is to start with a great hook which presents a powerful problem or conflict, followed by a series of events describing why it’s a problem, then a series of unsuccessful attempts at solving the problem until we reach the big climax where the protagonist (or main character) solves the problem ending with some positive outcomes from solving the problem and/or a sweet twist at the end.
Deborah Hopkinson’s Book, Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek: a Tall Thin Tale (Introducing His Forgotten Frontier Friend) begins with:
Now there’s an old tale of two boys who got themselves into more trouble than bear cubs in a candy store I like it so well, I’ve asked my friend John to help out by drawing some pictures. All stories have a time and place, and this one’s no different, It happened on the other side of yesterday, before computers or cars, in the year 1816. This green Kentucky Valley is our place. Don’t you feel like sticking your toes into that rushing water? That’s Knob Creek.
Right off the bat we know there’s going to be trouble. We know this is no ordinary story because of the way the author addresses the reader directly engaging us with questions and letting us know about her relationship with the illustrator whose hand we see painting the fabulous landscape complete with the green hills of Kentucky, Lincoln’s log cabin, the rushing creek and one boy headed to visit the other. Normally, we’d hear and see some different examples of trouble the boys get into, but in this book we spend the next few pages getting to know the two friends before the adventure begins. Of course Abe’s little known friend saves him with much ensuing drama and compelling text like: “Uh-oh. I’m afraid this isn’t much better. Look – Abe’s in trouble from the very start. His stomach feels queasy. His head’s all awhir. He gets halfway. He’s stuck.” Notice how short and choppy these sentences are as they move us right along?
The author ends it writing: “We could end our tale here, two happy friends in the sunshine long ago. But I expect you want to know what happens next,” before launching into more language and imagistic play showing and messing with our ideas about the consequences of Abe’s friend saving him. This story has both a brilliantly crafted and original plot and very compelling language.
In Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book by Yuyi Morales, our story begins with:
When Grandma Beetle woke at dawn, she heard a knock at the door. And, Oh my, waiting outside she found Señor Calavera. Señor Calavera tipped his hat. What a skinny gentleman! With a pass of his hand he signaled to Grandma Beetle. It was time for her to come along with him.
Here we have very different language choices or “tone of voice.” Yuyi crafts short sentences as well but these roll along in an almost “sing songy” voice. We see Grandma Beetle greeting a dapper skeleton (Señor Calavera AKA Death). Grandma Beetle looks nowhere near ready to die and go with Señor Calavera, and there’s our problem. Little by little, page by page, she outwits Señor Calavera with a series of progressively larger things she needs to do in “Just a Minute” as the story counts up to the number 10. Grandma Beetle outwits and exhausts poor old Señor Calavera closing the story with a lovely twist at the end. Grandma Beetle announces she is ready, “But, oh my, where was Señor Calavera? Grandma Beetle found only a note.” We turn the page to read Señor Calavera’s note “Dear Grandma Beetle, your birthday party was a scream! I had fun like never before. I wouldn’t miss your next birthday party for anything in the world. You can count on that. Sincerely Yours, Señor Calavera.”
Once again, we have a great hook (and characters – anyone know of another picture book for young kids with death as a main character?). Yuyi has created a well-crafted plot with progressively bigger obstacles or stakes that usually the protagonist (here Grandma Beetle) overcomes. But, in this case, Grandma Beetle actually creates the obstacles for Señor Calavera to stall him. Yuyi provides a satisfying ending followed by a twist at the end showing that the story isn’t totally over – Señor Calavera will be back next year and how will Grandma Beetle outwit him then? Besides providing a wildly imaginative counting book, the story also teaches about Mexican cultural traditions.
My last example, Dog Breath: The Horrible Trouble with Hally Tosis by Dav Pilkey, author/ illustrator of the Captain Underpants books, follows a much more traditional approach to plot. It starts off with our problem:
“There once was a dog names Hally, who lived with the Tosis family. Hally Tosis was a very good dog but she had a big problem.”
We see the Tosis family all holding their noses, green breath coming out of Hally’s happy smile. The “voice” in this is deadpan but punny. It’s really clear there’s a problem but we have to turn the page to find out more. Pilkey then proceeds to show page after page of why Hally’s breath is a problem – wallpaper curling, goldfish dying, a skunk avoiding Hally. The final straw comes when Hally’s breath makes Grandma Tosis keel over. Mr. and Mrs. Tosis decide Hally has to go.
Now Pilkey sets up a series of progressively more hilarious examples (with tons of puns) where the kids keep trying to save Hally until Hally finally saves herself bringing fame and fortune to the family who decide to keep her after all. In the final twist, we turn the page to see the Tosis family all wearing clothes pins on their noses with one last corny pun, “Because life without Hally Tosis just wouldn’t make scents”
This super fun book presents a classic approach to plot – beginning with a problem or conflict (the hook) examples of why it’s a problem, obstacles the hero (main character/protagonist) has to overcome to solve the problem, the climax where the hero solves the problem, a winding down showing positive consequences from solving the problem (fame and fortune) and a twist at the end.
I hope this article has been helpful. As you can see, I love teaching. Do come visit me at the Picture Book Academy www.picturebookacademy.com or my website www.mirareisberg.com where you can see free teaching picture book reviews and learn more about my work.
Yours in creativity – Mira
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Mira Reisberg PhD is a passionate picture book creator, editor, teacher, mentor, and art director. She wrote her 370 page dissertation on children’s picture books and has taught children’s literature courses at universities and colleges throughout the U.S.
Mira’s own award-winning books have sold over 600,000 copies while her students have sold well over a million copies of their books. Mira especially enjoys helping others create luscious language, compelling plots, and juicy characters while looking for curriculum connections, and core underlying themes or subtexts.
Mira is available for private consultations at firstname.lastname@example.org or join her radical writing e-course starting August 27th at the Picture Book Academy www.picturebookacademy.com -
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