One of the major problems editors encounter when reading picture book submissions is the lack of plot, or even purposeful organization. Many picture books basically start with the character waking up, then follow the character doing a bunch of stuff, then end with the character going to bed. So the passing of the day is used as the only organizational structure in the piece. That simply won’t work for a publishable picture book. You need something deeper and more important holding your story together. It might be a traditional plot (with a main character overcoming something to find success in the end) or it may use a different structure, but you’ll definitely need something more focused than just following the characters through the day.
There are a number of possible story structures that you might see in a picture book. In a cumulative story, all previous events are repeated as new ones are added, and the story is either moving in a circle back to the original idea or building to accomplish something. Examples we all know would include “This is the House that Jack Built” and “There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” Though you rarely see a totally new story using this structure, it isn’t uncommon to see a play on a well-known story. “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” has spawned many versions that have been published in picture book format.
Adding and Subtracting Elements
A structure that may be written similar to the cumulative story is one where you are adding or subtracting elements. Green Eggs and Ham is an example of a cumulative story that adds as Sam adds more and more ideas for getting his friend to try green eggs and ham, but the friend rejects them over and over until they are both overwhelmed by the additions and Sam’s friend finally tries and likes the unusual breakfast. An adding or subtracting story may not necessarily use the cumulative structure of repeating all the steps. In Karma Wilson’s Bear Snores On, more and more animals crowd into Bear’s den until they reach a point that changes everything.
Full Circle Stories
As I mentioned above when discussing cumulative stories, Full Circle Stories follow a round pattern because they end back where they began. Laura Numeroff is a master at writing circular stories as demonstrated by If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and other books she has written in that series. In Numeroff’s books, the full circle structure is married to the idea of cause and effect, but just as not all circular stories are cumulative, not all of them have cause and effect elements. A popular circular structure for bedtime stories, for example, begin with a child resisting going to bed and follows the child’s efforts to stay up only to come to the ending where the child is finally asleep. The important thing to keep in mind is that the actions of the story drive the story in this circular structure. It doesn’t just happen.
Journey Stories follow the main character on a journey that takes him or her to somewhere new. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a classic example of this as the caterpillar munches his way to a total transformation at the end. Surprisingly, Goodnight Moon might be considered a journey story as we go from one element to the next to the next before reaching the conclusion of the “journey” through the things in the bunny’s room and see him fall asleep. Another popular example of this would be The Monster at the End of this Book where Grover tries to stop the reader from making the journey to the end of the book. Again, this kind of structure can be combined with other structures. Where the Wild Things Are is both a journey story and a full-circle story since Max does journey to somewhere new, but ultimately ends up back where he began, only with a new understanding of it.
Pattern Stories such as “The Gingerbread Man” have each new scene repeat the previous one with only slight variations. A variation on this type would be the question and answer story such as the picture book Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Bill Martin. The story develops by asking repetitive questions with slight variations of text accompanied by repetitive answers with slight variations of text as well. Other examples would be the How Do Dinosaurs... series by Jane Yolen. This repetitive pattern often gives the story a kind of refrain, but notice that these stories do normally go somewhere. If your pattern story ends simply because you stopped adding things but have no sense of “completion” then the pattern is not enough to make the story work. The pattern still needs to drive the story toward a satisfying ending of some sort.
It’s Your Choice
So whatever structure you choose for your picture book, know that you do need one. And it needs to be more specific than “stuff happens within this time frame.” Editors get far too many of those. Try checking out a nice tall stack of recent picture books from your public library (or spending a few hours reading all the new picture books at your local book store) and making note of the structure in the books. You’ll see quite a few with a very traditional story plot structure, but you’ll also see structures like those mentioned above. After reading through a dozen or so, ask yourself about your own picture book manuscript. What structure are you using? How effectively is that structure working for you? How might you revise to make it even better? See where that takes you. I think you’ll find it’s somewhere wonderful.