Thursday, May 6, 2010

Illustration Correspondence Course: Narrative Structure!

I'm back! And I'm really rollin' this week! New dummy is finished & sent off! ICC is back on track. Library book pile:

... Dwindling! One thing I'll miss about haunting many library branches several times a week is the fun of stumbling upon old childhood favorites. I was a BIG Tomie dePaola fan as a kid. I found his drawings so appealing, and I remember really liking the bittersweet stories of this book, and that perennial tear-jerker, Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs. 


One of my VERY favorite books as a kid was this one:

... and a few years ago I realized that this book MAY have been a subliminal inspiration for Bea Rocks the Flock:
In the story, Mariana May gets in trouble for continually getting her white dress all dirty, so Nursey dyes her dresses different colors for different occasions.

And oh, I WANTED THAT RAINBOW DRESS. If it had rainbows/unicorns, I WORE IT.

Moving on, week... what are we on, 6? Anyway, this week's correspondence course is called Narrative Structure, and Yes, Picture Books Have Them! A common mistake in submitted picture book manuscripts is a lack of plot. When I reviewed a lot of submissions back in the day, I'd see a lot of dummies where a kid goes to the zoo (for example), sees this and this and this, and then goes home. Frankly, not the most the most thrilling of stories. I'm not saying you need to write a 32-page John Grisham novel, but SOMEthing needs to happen. There are lots and lots and lots of way to structure your story, but here are two things I try to keep in mind:

1) I took this formula from Darcy Pattinson. Step 1) You create a character. Step 2) You figure out what she wants most in this world (or, fears most in this world). Step 3) You throw some complications at your character that get in the way of their heart's desire (or, heightens the thing they are afraid of) until Step 4) Climax! And Step 5) resolution.

2) This one sounds so very basic, but sometimes the basic things are the easiest to ignore! Make sure your story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or more specifically, make sure you introduce your character & their problem, have the problem build to a climax, and resolve the problem in a satisfying way.

The example I often use for point number one is Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, by Mo Willems. Our character is Pigeon. What does he want most in the world?

To drive the bus, obviously! The complications that get in his way: we won't let him! His frustration builds and builds and builds until we reach a narrative, and visual, climax:

Resolution and special twist ending: Pigeon does NOT get to drive the bus, but he moves on to a new dream...

Even if you're an illustrator only, not an author/illustrator, it's important to think about narrative structure because your illustrations should mimic the narrative arc. Your illustrations add to the climax just as much as the words do. Where the Wild Things are is a terrific example of this.  If you scroll down through these spreads, you'll notice that the illustrations get bigger and bigger and bigger...






... until the Wild Rumpus climax, when we get three whole spreads of full-bleed art, no words at all. The beauty of the structure constantly staggers me.

As Max returns home, the illustrations shrink back down, easing out of the narrative arc.

One of the most difficult things in writing a picture book, in my opinion, is creating a satisfying, yet unexpected, ending. My vote for one of the most satisfying endings of all time?


What I liked best about this ending as a kid was that we were never told outright that (spoiler alert) Miss Nelson IS Viola Swamp. I still remember the deliciously creepy, satisfying feeling of putting together the pieces myself- it totally blew my mind. "Wait, there's the black dress and, why... hold on... a wig box... so that must mean...  O. M. G."

And I REALLY liked page 32, the final page- the adult detective is not smart enough to figure out what I, a kid, realized the page before.


A close second in my personal Most Satisfying Story Endings of All Time goes to this Reading Rainbow gem:


In this book, Bea (another subliminal inspiration for Bea Rocks the Flock?!?) is sick of kindergarten, and her dad is sick of his office job, so they switch places. Hilarity ensues as each experiences life in the other's shoes. Here's where you think, "Well, it was all good fun, but now they're going to realize that they should really go back to where they belong." 

Wrong! I think the delightful thing about this ending is that is precisely what does NOT happen! Mr. Jones stays in kindergarten as the star pupil,


... and Bea goes on to have high-powered executive lunches.

What could have been a fairly run-of-the-mill morality tale turns into a springboard for the imagination. After all, books for the young are meant to encourage creativity, not squash it, right?

7 comments:

Toby Speed said...

I enjoyed your discussion about narrative and visual arc. I never noticed before how Sendak's illustrations grew and became smaller in "Where the Wild Things Are." Thanks!

Nina Crittenden said...

Now One Foot, Now The Other is a beautiful story. It was ruined for my sister and I one day when our Grandfather read it to us in a ridiculous voice (and then became the funniest book OF ALL TIME!). James Marshall and Maurice Sendak are brilliant (have you read Chicken Soup and Rice?), and that pigeon is a fan favorite at our house! I will take these correspondence courses to heart- you are awesome and have inspired me tremendously!!!

Sharon Wagner said...

I wore a rainbow dress once. Unfortunately I was a teenager and got teased. Bad memories. But great blog post. I feel like I really learned something.

Vicki said...

Thanks, Toby! Nina, I am having a hard time imagining ANY voice that could make that the funniest book of all time! I'm going to go try a few now. And Sharon, I too wore rainbow clothing long past the acceptable age limit. I had a pair of rainbow sneaks in high school that I wore into shreds, I loved them so.

Abigail said...

Thanks for sharing your course outline online -- it's been great. Will you be teaching again at PNCA or elsewhere?

Vicki said...

Thanks, Abigail! I WILL be teaching more classes at PNCA- coming up, I'll be doing a summer intensive course in July on writing & illustrating picture books. That one will be fun, because we'll have special guest star speakers! And in the fall/winter I'll be doing more portfolio and writing classes. I'll be sure to post on this blog when new classes are coming up...

Glad to hear you're enjoying these posts!

Christina Rodriguez said...

Man, that Pigeon REALLY wants to drive the bus. I'd be scared if I were on that bus right now!