Form: Learning It
Years ago, I read a writing book by Lawrence Block. I’m pretty sure it was Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print. The advice I remember most from this book was that the best way to learn plot was to go out and plot a book. One you liked. By a good writer.
At the time I was working on a mystery novel (for grown-ups), and I did dig a few of my favorite mysteries off the shelf and re-read them and look for the big plot points. I probably didn’t go as far with this as I should have, but (in forgiving hindsight to myself) that book turned out to be the one that dragged on way too long and did nothing to make me happy, and I put it in a drawer when I made the jump to kids’ fiction. Someday, who knows…
Anyway, this week, I’m reading Anastasis Suen’s Picture Writing, and she’s basically giving me the same advice. In her book, she asks writers to storyboard out a few picture books–ones with strong characters. So I went to my shelf.
And just in case any of you are anywhere near being as much of a kids’ book addict as me, I’ll show you my list, so you can ooh and get all nostalgically syrupy for a moment.
- Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell and Lillian Hoban
- Miss Spider’s Tea Party by David Kirk
- One Present from Flekman’s by Alan Arkin (Yes, that Alan Arkin.)
- In a Blue Room by Jim Averbeck (Okay, you can’t get nostalgic for this one, because it’s pretty new, but it’s also pretty wonderful.)
Now, obviously, when I talk about form, I’m not talking about a formula. There is no formula, as much as we would sometimes like. But there is form. There is a common structure upon which every book in a genre is built–even if doing the building means taking the familiar shape and twisting or even breaking it.
An example: Suen talks about a big story problem, then three small problems that show the big one. One of the books–Bread and Jam for Frances did have the three problems, although I had to read pretty deeply to identify them to my satisfaction. Another book, though—Miss Spiders Tea Party uses eight small problems to illustrate what’s going wrong. And they both work. Between the identification of the big problem and the ending climax & resolution, the authors give the hero a strong or increasingly bad problems to deal with.
And–here was another fun difference. The Hobans and Kirk handled the last, most critical problem in two very different ways. Remember, this is the problem just before the Climax, so it has to be big, and it has to have impact. In Frances’ story, the Hobans deliver several scenes of Frances not getting any other food than her bread & jam. The authors took their time over the first two problems, but they deliver these scenes in quick succession, not giving Frances–or us–any time to recover between them.
Kirk has taken the opposite route. He gives the first seven problems a two-page spread each (one page of verse & one full-page illustration). The last problem, though, he spreads out over eight pages (four verse and four illustrated). He’s drawing out the problem, raising and dropping Miss Spider’s hopes, and seriously increasing the tension…again, to get us to the climax.
Now, I would never say that writing a picture book is easier than writing a novel. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s harder, & you’ll probably hear me say that plenty of times in the next year or ten. But…it is, I think, an easier form to study in this way–simply because there are fewer words in which to hunt for the structure.
Why am I doing this? For the same reason we should all be doing it in whatever genre we’re writing. No, we’re not out to learn that mythic formula. No, we’re not out to play “Copycat the Rich & Famous.”
We’re out to learn everything we can about the form we’re writing. We’re out to make our own books in that form the best that we can.