Thursday, 19 January 2012

Picture Book Text Format

Picture books follow a particular technical format.  This is because books are made by printing on enormous sheets of paper which are then cut and folded into 32 pages. (Longer books are made by glueing those 32 pages together - if you check the spine you can usually see the folds.) 

With a picture book the first couple of pages will be taken up by a title page, and the publishing information page, the end pages will be perhaps more information on other titles. That leaves between 24 and 28 pages to play with, which translates to 12, 13 or 14 spreads. 

You have to work out how your story fits into those spreads.  It can be useful to make a dummy book - 8 sheets of A4 paper folded in half will give you 32 pages (page 1 is the front, p 32 is the back). So, pages 2,3,4,5 have title info etc, Spread 1 is p6 and p7, Spread 2 is p8 and p9, Spread 3 is p10 and p11 and so on.  The text is presented like this:

Spread 1
Jennifer heard a noise outside the window.  She looked out and saw an enormous dinosaur.
Spread 2
It ran towards Jennifer saying "I'm going to eat you up!"

We also have to imagine the reading experience. So each spread should invite the readers to continue reading.

Spread 1
Jennifer heard a noise outside the window.  She looked out and saw....
Spread 2
An enormous dinosaur! It ran towards Jennifer saying "I'm going to eat you up!"

You don't need to give the illustrator instructions unless it's not clear what should be in the picture.  For example, it's clear from the text that Jennifer sees an enormous dinosaur so you don't need to tell the illustrator this.  It's not relevant to the story what colour the dinosaur is, so you don't need to tell the illustrator that.  It is relevant that Jennifer is a wart hog, and not clear from the text, so you do need to tell the illustrator this.

Spread 1
Jennifer heard a noise outside the window.  She looked out and saw....
(Illustration: Jennifer is a warthog)
Spread 2
An enormous dinosaur! It ran towards Jennifer saying "I'm going to eat you up!"

And we have to think in pictures.  If Jennifer is inside, the dinosaur is outside, how are we going to show this?  Will we see the dinosaur running towards Jennifer from Jennifer's POV or the dinosaur's?  And will it be that scary if Jennifer is still in the house and therefore protected from the dinosaur outside?  (That Jennifer is a warthog and living in a house is just fine by picture book standards.)

Spread 1
Jennifer heard a noise coming from behind the termite mound.  She looked up and saw....
(Illustration: Jennifer is a warthog)
Spread 2
An enormous dinosaur! It ran towards Jennifer saying "I'm going to eat you up!"

(NB I'm assuming in the above scenario that the illustrator will read 'termite mound' and 'wart hog' immediately place the scene on the plains of Africa, not on Willesden High Road, so it doesn't need mentioning.)  

And so on until you've told your story in 12, 13, or 14 spreads, no more, no less. Add a word count and your contact details at the end, and you're done.

I think picture book texts are the hardest form of writing EVER, and the editing process is gruelling - with so few words to play with, everyone can have their say about whether it should be termite mound or ant hill.  Added to that, because the form is short, lots of people try it so competition is stiff, and because full colour illustration is increasingly expensive to produce and print, fewer picture books are being produced.  

If you want to try them, why not, but it's a long journey from having an idea to getting the text right, to getting that phone call from an editor.  100,000 word novels, in my opinion, are so much easier. 

4 comments:

Philip C James said...

Informative post, Sarah, think I'll email a link to a friend in Bath (who should find instructing the illustrator easier as it's her husband!).

The way you presented the post could very easily be worked up into The HOW TO DESIGN A PICTURE BOOK Picture Book...

Liz Fielding said...

Interesting, Sarah. I used to write picture stories for little girls' comics and that was similar in layout.

Does this post mean that you sold the picture story you talked about a while ago?

womagwriter said...

This is a great post. I would think that trying to write a picture book, even if you have no intention of attempting to sell it, would be a good writing exercise for anyone.

Sarah Duncan said...

Phil - oh dear, I don't think I could face it - they've so technical.

Liz - it went to acquisition meetings at two separate companies, but failed. Might try again (in my spare time...)

Womagwriter - I found it an incredible discipline, albeit rather frustrating. So hard to do, but really focuses you on story telling and (literally) how to make people turn pages.