The most successful picture books IMHO have two key elements: 1) a strong (surprising) story, and 2) they are written in a strong (surprising) way.
You can have a terrific story but if the writing is dull, pedestrian and flat, it’ll be a lacklustre read. Of course you can have zippy energetic prose but if the story is clichéd, or pointless, you’ll also find it that much harder to win over your audience.
So, what techniques are the best to employ in a picture book?
ALL OF THEM!!
All techniques can be used in stories for small people.
But not all of them necessarily in the same story. If you overwork everything with lots of techniques, the story itself may very well be lost. Fit the techniques to the story you are writing.
So many of these techniques are teaching tools for the young emergent reader. Rich text with techniques that facilitate acquisition of reading, expand vocabulary and develop a healthy regard and respect for words and their properties and elasticity.
Rhythm – please use this in EVERY story (picture book or not) you write. Rhythm is a non-negotiable requirement. Great rhythm is almost invisible but makes your story a pleasure to read both silently to yourself and even more so out loud.
Rhyme – I’ve written about rhyme before. This is from my piece on the Storylines website:
‘Should you write in rhyme? It’s such a compelling idea to do this. Rhyming stories are very seductive. They are fun to read and can help with the acquisition of reading skills. But rhyme is not always the right form for a story. And it is very hard to do well. And it is not essential for a picture book. For the ten picture book manuscripts I’ve had accepted for publication, only one has been written with some rhyme in it. Writing in prose has not stopped me getting published. It is not the only language technique that can elevate your story. However, if you do choose to write in rhyme, remember the key rules to successful rhyming. First, of course, is the rhyme itself, the sound-alike words that usually end each line, or every second line (there are a few permutations). Rhyme can also be found internally (mid-line).
The biggest problems when it comes to rhyming are the use of old-fashioned or dated words, made-up words, using words that require an unconventional or incorrect pronunciation to make them rhyme, odd syntax to make the rhyming word fall at the end of the line, or the use of an odd word that doesn’t fit with the tone or style of the rest of the story. They often interrupt the flow of reading and confuse readers. If you are relying on one of these types of words, it would be better to find a different rhyming pair.
The second key aspect for a successful rhyming story is rhythm. It has equal importance with rhyme, and its role should not be underestimated. It won’t matter if your rhyming is genius if the rhythm is off. Rhythm is a matter of syllables and stresses. You don’t have to be a slave to counting syllables, and having the same number in each line, but you do need to generate a smooth repeating pattern or tempo. The stressed syllable in each word will also have an impact on the rhythm. The stresses must also fit a pattern, for example Te DA te DA te DA te DA. If a stress naturally falls on the first syllable of a word, but your pattern requires that it falls on the second or third syllable, you CANNOT use that word. We do not say econOMy, we say eCONomy. Anyone coming fresh to your story will assume every word should be pronounced the conventional way. If you have altered the stressed syllable there is no way a reader can know that, and they will struggle to read your story.
A great test to see if your story works is to get someone who hasn’t seen it before (and hasn’t heard you reading it aloud) to read it aloud to you. If they struggle, or even hesitate at any point, you will know the rhythm isn’t quite right yet. Check out books by expert rhymers like Lynley Dodd and Juliette MacIver in local bookshops and libraries. These writers are skilled practitioners who spend months refining their rhythm and rhyme before submitting their stories. Study the patterns they use.’
It’s easier to get this wrong than it is to get it right. So to summarise, common problems include
- Bad scansion – the number of syllables in a line is out of step with the count in other lines. Can someone unfamiliar with your story read it aloud in a natural fluent manner? Or do they pause and make adjustments, or stumble.
- Inconsistent rhyme – do your stanzas follow a consistent rhyme and rhythm pattern? abab four line or ababcc etc… Any switches to a different pattern must be for effect and not convenience.
- Awkward word use to allow rhyme – if you pick a word that doesn’t fit in with your other words (e.g. it’s old fashioned, awkward contraction, adult vocabulary) just to make the rhyme work, this can be a problem
- Sacrificing meaning for the rhyme
As I tend to not use rhyme, I instead focus more on other techniques to make my prose sing. One of the joys of writing for children is making them fall in love with words. Using fun and interesting language will help you achieve this. You’re probably already familiar with the following techniques. I learnt them all at school and doubled down on them at University. But it never hurts to be reminded of these, and how they work.
Alliteration – starting consecutive words with the same letter. This is easy to over use so keep a tight rein on this technique.
This line from my book The Were-Nana has both alliteration and assonance – Stella Rosa had never met Nanan Lupin before, but she knew her voice sounded horribly hollow and hard to understand when she spoke on the phone. The lovely thing about this is when reading it aloud, the words ‘horribly hollow’ sound as ghastly as their meaning.
Assonance – this is kind of a riff on alliteration, using words (consecutive or in close proximity) that begin with (or include) the same or similar sounding syllables. They can have either, the same vowel and different consonants, e.g. hells bells, or different vowels within similar consonants e.g. flipped, flopped, lapped.
e.g. The Nursery Rhyme
A diller, a dollar,
A ten o'clock scholar,
What makes you come so soon?
You used to come at ten o'clock,
And now you come at noon.
A ten o'clock scholar,
What makes you come so soon?
You used to come at ten o'clock,
And now you come at noon.
She sells sea shells
By the sea shore
Onomatopoeia – children are the ideal audience for this technique, and this is a great way to get littlies participating in the reading process. Words that replicate a sound – boom, honk kapow, pitter pit pat, ratta-tat-tat. Practitioners who ace this are Sally Sutton (Ambulance, Ambulance), and Elena De Roo (The Rain Train). Make sure you give appropriate attention to getting the ‘sound’ right. Certain words will work better for different age groups, so remember to target your audience appropriately too.
Personification – helping to give personality to things that are inanimate. The Song of Kauri does this on several levels: Years passed, and Kauri grew tall and vigorous. At first he lived alone in the valley. He spoke with the Earth, but the great Earth was busy with its own concerns.’ and ‘The rain came down to embrace Kauri, but the Sun soon dragged it back into the sky to make clouds to wrap itself in. This is helpful to get the reader to identify and connect with a non-human, maybe even a non-biological character, to enable dialogue and emotions.
Metaphor – a comparison using two unrelated things, giving a new perspective to something familiar, e.g. in The Song of Kauri, instead of describing diggers and backhoes doing roadworks: Monsters made of dark night, belching smoke, carved scars across the land..
Simile – a comparison using ‘like’ or ‘as’.
Repetition/cumulative text – repetition is an awesome learning tool in picture books. It can take several forms:
1 The same line or refrain repeated, either on the same page or separated by one or more pages
2 A repeating structure. For example in The Were-Nana, Simon describes his nana to his impressionable little sister over several pages –
“She has whiskers,” Simon said, as they pulled out of the driveway. “They scratch your skin when she hugs you.”
“She has long, sharp fingernails …” he said, as they drove along the motorway, “ … like claws. They dig into you when she pulls you close.”
“And don’t think for one minute she’ll be arriving on a plane. She rides a witch’s broom that she borrows from her witch friends.”
This trio of descriptions creates a rising tension, to which the sister then reacts with a fearful outburst. The repeating format facilitates the rhythm and also follows the rule of three (see below). The descriptors provided (whiskers, fingernails and witch friends) are also themselves repeated several times later in the story by the little sister. She has comprehensively swallowed her brother’s ‘fake news’ and her repetition – “She’s a were-nana,” (…) Her friends are witches and she has a hairy face and claws on her hands” gives more power to the words both in her mind and in the mind of the reader. Repetition is a powerful tool.
Cumulative text works a little differently and is valuable in the acquisition of reading, providing text which an emergent reader can easily predict and follow along with. It’s great for creating a sing-a-long too, e.g. I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, Wonky Donkey
Puns/Word play – A fantastic way to show young readers the fun and joy to be had with words. I can’t think of any specific local examples off the top of my head right now but will do my best to remedy this as soon as possible J
Neologisms – inventing new words can be enormous fun. Most don’t pass into regular use but they can work brilliantly in a picture book. They still have to make sense in the context of the story, though, and I would avoid making them too nonsensical or reliant on base humour. The two I’ve managed so far are the were-nana (from the picture book of the same title), like a were-wolf but oh so different. And sheepnotist (as in, a sheep performing hypnotism - I guess this also qualifies as wordplay) from my latest picture book Sharing with Wolf.
Rule of 3 – three is truly a magical number. Repetition reinforces an idea, helping it to stick in our minds and repeating it three times works well, giving us a good chance of recalling it while not becoming dull or annoying. Grouping things in threes (bits of information, clues, actions, descriptors, etc) can also help things stick, making them all easier to remember, providing a framework for that recall (I know there are three things). In my own writing I have found it often occurs organically. I was raised on books that used the power of three and so utilise the same rule when writing myself without consciously attempting to do so. Fairy tales are easy examples of the rule – The Three Little Pigs, the Grimm Fairy tale The Three Brothers, Andersen’s Clumsy Hans and so on.
There are other techniques. I will have a go at assembling some more, but if you have any questions, or comments or disagreements on what I've talked about above, or suggestions for other techniques to discuss, let me know in the comments below!