How to create a winning children's book plot

  • by Leanne Lim

Regarded as possibly the most important aspect of storytelling, the plot and narrative is something you really have to nail before you send your work off for an editor to read. If you still don’t have a clear direction or understanding of the events of your work by the time you’ve edited and revised it, most likely, the editor isn’t going to have any idea either!

A very charming aspect of picture book writing is that often the plot and narrative can also be highlighted and developed by the illustrations. It’s otherworldly, magical, and extremely engaging to watch events unfold through the page. However, that doesn’t mean that you, as the writer, can just rely on the illustrations to carry across the narrative of the story. 

We receive tens, if not hundreds, of submissions here at Ethicool every week and we often return feedback that the narrative and plot just isn’t quite clear or strong enough. It seems that sometimes writers can get caught up in a few things that start to diminish the importance of the story itself. Some examples are:

  • Letting the rhyme/rhythmic language of your work lead and force your plot (check out Stuart French’s fantastic post for more on this!). 
  • Giving priority to the message or moral of the story which ends up deflating the narrative. 
  • Having too many ideas and themes so there is no single major or cohesive direction that the story is moving towards.
  • Not letting the character take their time to arrive at a conflict and then slowly solve it—leading to an underdeveloped narrative.
  • Similar to the above, not having enough conflict at all to the point where there is absolutely nothing at stake and there is no tension to be found in the story.
  • Using too much exposition to narrate the plot instead of letting action do its job. 

Some of these issues are quite easy to fix. For example, if you have too many ideas, it usually means you’re in a great position to distill your story and figure out which direction you want to hone in on. However, for some of these other points, it can be easy to get caught up in the ‘do not’s. With that in mind, let’s dive into the basics and get deeper into some tips and tricks to create a fantastic plot for your picture book. 

What is a plot?

Also known as the narrative, the plot is the sequence of events that occur within the story and usually follows a cause and effect pattern. The plot is the main substance of your work. It’s the things that happen, the actions that occur, the part that is bound to be suspenseful, engaging, and captivating. 

How does plot differ from the message or moral of the story? 

But the plot is not the same as the message. The message/moral of the story is the lesson that you are teaching through your work. It is different from the plot as it's less about the action, and more about one overarching message. Usually the message or moral of the story are life lessons or lessons that are meant to teach you about your behavior and actions in the world. Oftentimes, such as with fables, morals are taught through analogy and metaphor (but this doesn’t always have to be the case). 

Famous examples of fables include: 

But morals are not restricted to just animal analogies. Some of Ethicool's books weave in a message in a slightly more literal fashion, while still maintaining strong plot lines. Stuart French's Remembering Mother Nature is one book that does this well. 

The key message in Remembering Mother Nature is that children can find ways to help save the planet. Yet it also has a strong plot in that it introduces Mother Nature and her world before placing the child at the centre of the story. 

How do I structure a children's book plot? 

Now you know the difference between a message and a plot, the next important step is to understand how you should structure your plot. In a children’s picture book, unfortunately, there is not a lot of space to create an extremely complex and multilayered plot. It just isn’t the form for it. What we’re trying to say is you’re not going to be writing the next Lord of The Rings in picture book format. So it’s really integral for you to consider the structure and shape of your plot. 

If you’ve never heard of plot shapes before, here is a basic and really great example to help. It's called a Narrative Arc. 

Narrative Arc 

Source: Donna Lichaw

Narrative arcs are extremely useful, even though you may think you’re just writing a children’s picture book and they need not be too complex. 

Take a look at the plot shape above and notice the ups and downs. The upward motion demonstrates the rise towards the climax (the big conflict of the story), whereas the downwards motion is when the drama is starting to simmer out. These are known as the Rising and Falling actions. These actions are what makes your story interesting and keeps the reader engaged and this is one exceptional way to build and sustain tension before finding a resolution.

One Ethicool book that follows this structure is Teigan Margetts' Tom's Tears. 

In Tom's Tears, the inciting incident is that Tom loses his tears, and the rising action is where we discover why, and he goes on a journey to find them. The climax is where he rediscovers them. You'll just have to read the book to discover the resolution! 

It’s really important to note that we’re not suggesting your story absolutely must follow this structure. This is just one shape of many. But if you’re stuck, or you’re just getting started, this is something we highly recommend and know works well within the confines of a picture book story. It’s dynamic, effective, and gives you enough time to flesh out and develop the moral or message you want to teach the audience. 

Now that we’ve briefly seen an example of a plot shape and the significance of the rise and fall of events, let’s take a look at what we consider to be the most important aspect of plot.

How should I use conflict and resolution within my plot? 

All plots require one element to succeed and that is: some kind of conflict happening in the story. As mentioned previously, a lot of submissions we receive tend to diminish the drama of the conflict to the point where the overall plot becomes deflated and flat. 

Let’s go back to some foundations to get a better idea of why this is a really bad idea. How do we define conflict and resolution?

What is conflict?

The Conflict is the struggle between opposing forces within the story. In short, this is the major problem that needs to be fixed. The conflict is what drives the narrative forward. It builds suspense and tension and it’s really what keeps you turning the page because you want (and maybe need) to know what happens next!

What is the resolution?

The Resolution is the conclusion to the conflict and how we fix the problem. It is entirely dependent on the conflict and cannot exist without it. The resolution is meant to be satisfying in some way and should feel like a question has been answered in order to provide some kind of relief and conclusion. 

These are both absolutely essential to your story writing. If your conflict is boring and there is nothing at stake, then there is less reason to keep turning the page. Humans are curious at heart and children even more so, and therefore, when you’re writing your plot, your conflict really needs to tap into this. 

Needless to say, without a good conflict, you’d be very hard pressed to gain a good resolution. With nothing at stake, or with an easy problem to fix, where will the reader find relief and satisfaction from by the conclusion? 

If you’re thinking about these elements in regards to your story, try considering this:

  1. What is the conflict of my story and does it create tension? 
  2. How does it affect the main character/s? 
  3. And finally, why should it matter to the reader?

    Oftentimes, submissions with a weaker plot don’t quite have a distinct direction with one or more of these three aspects. If a plot or story isn’t engaging to us, how will it be able to capture the attention of little ones?

    Let’s dive a little deeper into some concepts that you can use in your writing to really bring your plot to the next level.

    How to use the concept of 'show, not tell' 

    The first tip to help you enhance your plot is probably one you’ve heard a million times since you started writing: show don’t tell. Even if you already know this one, think of this as your friendly reminder to really check through your writing and revise instances of ‘telling’. 

    For those who have not heard of it before, here is what it means: 

    • When you tell in your writing, it means you are stating things and giving exposition. You are not allowing the reader to use their imagination or letting them infer ideas, concepts, or feelings.
    • When you show in your writing, you are painting a picture for the reader to deduce those very same things on their own. It’s more memorable, more impactful, and definitely shows the mark of a writer who knows what they’re doing. 

    Take a look at these examples:

    • Telling: Charlotte was angry.
    • Showing: Charlotte stomped her foot on the ground and crossed her arms with a huff.

    So, why have we chosen to bring this up in regards to narrative and plot? We receive many submissions that try to tell us a story and (sometimes) a message through exposition and dialogue. The problem here is that we are being informed of the conflict through narration instead of following the journey of the character and learning through them. The conflict falls flat because the reader is not given the chance to learn and grow for themselves.

    If you’re writing a story about acceptance, you wouldn’t want to tell us (and this is very much exaggerated): “Charlotte’s classmates won’t accept her but then one day they did”. You would try to show us Charlotte’s struggles of being accepted, what she goes through, how her character develops, and then the resolution of her problem. 

    In saying that, another huge aspect of storytelling is letting the protagonist solve the problem. In many of the submissions we receive, sometimes the resolution comes too easily. Let your character take the time to figure out the problem and find ways to make things better. 

    One Ethicool book that does a great job of showing as opposed to telling is Pris Pho's Just a Rabbit. 

    In Just a Rabbit, Rabbit wanders through the forest, asking other animals if they can see the moon. In the end, Rabbit succeeds in seeing the moon, but not in the way you'd expect. The story is the ultimate example of show as opposed to tell. 

    Now, you might be wondering how to make the protagonist solve the problem and how long it should take for the conflict to be resolved. Read on to discover a great way to do just that. 

    What is the 'Rule of Three' and how should I use it? 

    If you're not sure what form your conflict and resolution should take, the concept of the 'Rule of Three' can help. The Rule of Three says everything is more effective and more satisfying when the set comes in a three.

    A number of popular children's books use this concept quite literally, for example, The Three Little Pigs and Three Blind Mice. But it can also be used in a clever way in plots to help your protagonist take their time to solve their problem. 

     Here are some examples:

    • Your protagonist interacts with three other characters to solve the conflict.
    • Your protagonist overcomes three obstacles to get to the resolution.
    • Your protagonist visits three places before fixing the problem.

    In reality, there are many possibilities in how to use the Rule of Three in your story. But if you are feeling stuck, or think there is room to really develop and create more tension within your plot, the Rule of Three can help. 

    The plot versus the moral of the story 

    Something we see a lot of writers struggle with in general is embellishing a good story with an even better message without one overshadowing the other. It’s not an easy thing to do and oftentimes the moral of the story can come across as too explicit and heavy handed, diminishing a well thought out narrative and plot. 

    Perhaps with picture books, there is a misconception that a shorter word count means you have to get to the point straight away—that the moral and the message of the story must be abundantly clear from the beginning. Whilst it’s often a good idea to signpost the direction your story is going from the very beginning (this could be thought about like a hint to the reader), by letting the theme take priority over the entire story, it’s very easy to lose the plot and narrative. Story telling must always come first as that is what will engage with the reader and especially the little ones.

    Now, you may be wondering, how can we balance and create harmony between the plot and the moral? Using internal and external plots can help ... more on this below. 

    Using internal and external plot

    A fantastic way to masterfully weave a message or moral into your plot is to consider your work’s internal and external plots. What exactly does this mean?

    • The Internal Plot is considered to be what is going on within the character personally, for example, their motivations and the emotions that reside within the heart and the mind. This can be thought of like a character arc.
    • The External Plot is the actual plot and storyline and details what is happening in the surroundings and what actions are occurring. This is where the major conflict and resolution is happening.

    A good example of this is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. The external plot is rather simple—a young boy goes to a distant land and meets wild beasts and then comes back home. However, the internal plot is the anger and frustration he feels at being sent to his room and then the emotional changes he goes through with the ‘Wild Things’ before coming back home. The themes of this story are subtle; the idea that children are able to master feelings such as anger, understand (and come back to) their reality, as well as find comfort and love in their family is all ever present here. All of this is demonstrated through the changes of the internal and external plot without the author needing to ‘tell’ us anything. 

    As we can see, the moral of the story usually comes with the progress of the internal plot. What the character learns and how they develop is usually the biggest indicator of the lesson that the story is teaching. But this development cannot really happen without the events of the external plot. So think of it as a cause and effect relationship: the events of the external plot impact the progress of the internal plot, which in turn demonstrates to the reader the core themes and ideas of the story. 

    While you start writing your external plot, start considering what it is that your character is going through and how this is demonstrating your themes and message. It may be helpful to ask yourself these questions when you’re deciding on your internal plot:

    • What events cause your character to learn the moral or message of the story?
    • What changes happen to your character internally?
    • What interactions (with the setting, other characters, inner monologue, etc.) does your character have that makes them change?
    • What is your character thinking and feeling and how does this shift from the beginning to the end of the story?
    • How are the events of the external plot influencing the internal plot?

    At the end of the day, a good story doesn’t necessarily need a moral to be engaging or magical. But as Ethicool is a brand that is focused on the world’s big issues and publishing writing that makes these issues accessible to children, it’s strongly recommended that you consider how your work’s themes are working alongside your plot.

    Final advice 

    Our final words of advice are simple: take some time to interrogate what you want your story to say. Sometimes when we write, it’s extremely easy to get caught up in the characters and the ending and all the other craziness that we really want to get to but it’s always, always going to be beneficial to you to take your time with your work. When you finish that first draft, don’t look at it again for a few days, a week, maybe even a month! Take time away from it before you come back and then edit with clear eyes. Then, you’ll be able to understand your plot and what it is that you’re really trying to say because, sometimes, you may not realise you were trying to write a completely different story. 

    And, finally, as always, keep reading and keep writing!

    Ethicool is currently accepting author and illustrator submissions. Visit our submissions page to find out more.

    Tagged with: authors how-tos
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