How to Write a Picture Book

How To Write A Picture Book

There’s a lot to know about how to write a picture book. Whether you’re self-publishing or will work with a traditional publisher, there are some picture book rules to know and follow. Your book must be well written, professionally illustrated, and entertaining for kids, but there are other non-negotiables in picture book writing too.

To help you understand better how to write a picture book, we’ll cover:

  • picture book rules (like age groups and word count)
  • how to become a good picture book writer
  • Finding and refining your picture book ideas
  • Picture book characters
  • Plotting your picture book
  • Tense and point of view
  • Writing your first draft
  • Revising your picture book manuscript
  • Dialogue
  • Show, don’t tell
  • Next steps

Let’s get into it to get you one step closer to writing your fantastic picture book and getting it published!

Picture book rules

It’s crucial to bear in mind some critical guidelines when writing. When we say a picture book is well written, it’s not only about the story and word choices, it’s also about delivering what people expect. While sometimes these picture book rules can be broken, it’s not recommended, especially not for newer authors. If you look at bestselling picture books and books published by traditional publishers, you’ll see they follow these rules. These rules are crucial to getting accepted by traditional publishers, but even if you’re self-publishing, it’s good to model the pros.

Picture book age groups

Have a clear age group for your picture book. There are two picture book age groups:

  • Age 2-5
  • Age 5-8

These age groups are slightly flexible, but write for one or the other because two-year-olds are not the same as eight-year-olds. The language, vocabulary, theme and content should align with your target age group. Avoid using many big words or complicated story themes.

Learn more about picture book age groups here.

Picture book word count

Your book should contain about 200-500 words if it’s for ages two to five, and 500-800 words for the older age group. Your word count can be lower than these guidelines, but not higher. It can be a challenge to keep your word count low, but ensuring each sentence adds value to the storyline will help. Having a well-planned plot also helps, so you don’t have unnecessary scenes or sections. And remember, your illustrations will contribute to narrating your story too, as well as take care of descriptive details!

Picture books spread from A Song in Her Heart by Kathy Dye. Illustrated by GetYourBookIllustrations. Note the low word count.

Publishers are strict about these word counts, but even if you are self-publishing, honour these word counts since that’s what readers have come to expect. If your picture book is too long, adults won’t read it again, and kids may also get bored with it. So, even if you are writing for your grandchildren, it’s still best to stick to the right word count.

How to become a good picture book writer

Do these two things before you start writing:

1. Read a lot of picture books

2. Practice

When you read picture books, read like a writer. Consider word choices, the interplay of words and illustrations, how various subjects are addressed, how many sentences there are per page or spread, the characters and what sets them apart, dialogue, repetition, how fast the story starts and ends, how the story builds, how many and which types of illustrations there are, and everything else you can notice. Doing this regularly is indispensable. It is, in fact, one of the most valuable exercises you can do to enhance your skills as a writer. Don’t overlook its significance.

Spread from Bibi Saves the Honey Bees by Judith Ewa. Illustrated by GetYourBookIllustrations. Note the dialogue.

Spread from Winnie Acts Up by Pat J. Wheeler. Illustrated by GetYourBookIllustrations. Note the dialogue and how it’s handled differently from the previous example.

Regular practice can give you remarkable improvements. Write as often as possible to find your voice and practice different aspects of writing craft that are used in creating quality picture books. As you practice, also think about how your story would work with illustrations, since illustrations are so important in picture books. This constant practice should include creating engaging characters and developing interesting storylines. Experiment with different tones, tenses, and points of view. Over time, you’ll become a skillful picture book writer. Remember, writing high-quality picture books requires determination, persistent practice, and never-ending learning.

While self-publishing offers a wonderful opportunity to authors, too many self-publishing authors don’t take the time to learn their craft and create fantastic books. Writing amazing picture books takes more than just inspiration. It takes hard work. Take the time to learn how to write a picture book manuscript that is truly well-written, even if you never intend to submit to traditional publishers.

Finding picture book ideas

Most authors I work with don’t have trouble coming up with ideas, but if you do, try one or a few of these for inspiration:

  • Observe and listen to kids.
  • Decide what the purpose of writing is, e.g., to write something fun, funny, or inspiring.
  • Consider your motivations, such as writing for your own children
  • Simply have fun with it and write about something you are passionate about.
  • Google “idea generator,” “children’s book idea generator,” or “writing prompts” to get some prompts for inspiration. You can also use this online picture book idea generator.
  • Make your own idea generator with many small cards or Post-it notes. Write down characters, desires and/or decisions, and problems, then combine them randomly. For example, a tiny alien – wants to see an Earth sunset – is very scatterbrained.

Tip: When writing a story about morals or life lessons, don’t be preachy or obvious with the lesson. Keep this in mind as you develop the idea. Just make the story entertaining for your little readers, so that they can draw their own conclusions about what they should or shouldn’t do.

Picture book characters

Without a character, there is no story. Characters propel the story forward, engage readers and keep them wanting more. If you don’t care about the main character, it doesn’t matter what else happens in the book. For picture books, the main protagonist must be someone children can relate to. They must be childlike, memorable, likeable, believable, and at least a little flawed. It’s also crucial that they overcome their own problems.

Types of Picture Book Characters

The characters you get in picture books are:

• a child (boy or girl)

• a toy (normally an anthropomorphic/human-like, like a teddy bear or a doll)

• an animal

• a mythical or fantasy creature (e.g. a unicorn, mermaid, phoenix, or fairy)

• an inanimate object (e.g. a pencil or bottle)

These would all be a child-like character, e.g., a child mermaid, a child teddy, or a child unicorn.

Characters designed by GetYourBookIllustrations

You can learn more about different types of characters, like main characters, supporting characters, and antagonists, in this article.

Plotting your picture book

Character and plot are the two fundamental components of a story. Characters may originate plot lines or influence the plot, while at the same time, plots can shape characters. Plotting means “devise the sequence of events” and involves planning out the sequence of events that make up the story. It isn’t the entire story, though—it is a brief summary of what happens. Imagine you were briefly, in a few sentences, explaining a whole storyline to someone. There are two types of storytellers: plotters who map out their stories before writing them down, and pantsers who don’t plan and just go with the flow. I recommend outlining your plot before writing your first draft to save time and help yourself be more creative because you’re not trying to figure out what should happen next. It makes it easier to end up with a well-written manuscript because you’ll avoid possible plot mistakes.

The type of plot a story follows is called a “plot line,” “story arc, or “narrative arc”. The most widely used plot line for fictional or narrative nonfiction picture books follows this structure:

  1. Set-up
  2. Inciting incident
  3. Building action
  4. Climax
  5. Diminishing action
  6. Resolution

Thousands of fantastic books follow this same plotline. Click here for an article that explains each part of this plot line.

As you can see, you want building action throughout most of your manuscript, where the main character runs into difficult situations and needs to overcome them. This will keep your audience interested. This leads up to the climax, then diminishing action (which should only take up a spread or two) and then a satisfying resolution. Note the satisfying in the previous sentence. Picture books should never end on cliffhangers, but always have a complete, satisfying resolution.

You can also include repetition in your plot, like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, where she keeps trying out things in sets of three. Kids love repetition and using repetition wisely can make your book more fun.

Tense

Part of how to write a picture book is knowing language and grammar, for instance, tenses and point of view.

The tense you use for your picture book should be based on the story, its goals, and your preference. You can choose past, present tense, or even future tense, and then stick with it throughout your manuscript. It’s distracting and incorrect to jump between tenses.

Past tense means the story has already occurred in the past, so the narrator or character can reflect on what has happened and foreshadow future events. Writing in the past tense can make for a more natural, fluid storytelling style because we normally tell stories about things that have already happened. It allows you to jump around in the timeline of your story without using flashbacks, however, this kind of nonlinear writing should be limited in picture books to ensure it is easy to follow. Past tense is the most popular tense used for writing books and is easier for most writers.

When writing in the present tense, the story unfolds as it’s being told, giving an immediate and impactful atmosphere. This can add to the tension, as the narrator doesn’t know what will happen next. It also allows for a stronger connection between the reader and the events of the story. However, it has drawbacks too. The character cannot reflect on the events in the story, since they are living these events in the moment, and you can’t foreshadow much. This tense works best for stories that take place over a limited period.

The future tense is less common than the past and present, but can be an effective tool for storytelling. A manuscript written in future tense will be based on assumptions, making it ideal for fantastical stories, but not suitable for other stories. Many examples of this type of writing include titles centering around “If…” or “When…”. In other words, they are stories of an imagined future. These kinds of stories give off a feeling of possibility, where anything can happen; nothing is solidified yet. For character arcs that involve historical events or what has already happened to them, the future tense might not work very A good example of a picture book written in the future tense is If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (and other books in this series) by Laura Joffe Numeroff.

Point of view

Most picture books are written from a first or third person limited point of view. Second person writing is also an option, though rarer. Lastly, there is an omniscient point of view, which I’ll explain below.

First person

First person writing is told from the narrator’s point of view using “I”, “me”, etc. This viewpoint reveals the inner world of the protagonist, making it clear who they are, and can make readers feel close to them. It can be a good writing style if your character is quite unique or quirky, but may be limiting if your story wants to make fun of the character, or if the character is dishonest or can’t see things as they are.

Third person limited

Third person limited (also called “third person narrow”) uses “she,” “he,” “they,” and other pronouns to narrate the story through the perspective of the main character. It offers insight into the main character’s thoughts and feelings, but not those of other characters. The plot will stay with the main character only, although observations about others can be revealed. Third person writing works well if you’ll make fun of the main character, if the main character is dishonest or misrepresents themselves, or if one needs to evaluate their actions objectively. Third person writing is generally easier than first person.

Second person

The second person point of view is rare in books and uses “you” and usually refers to the reader. It can place the reader as a character in the book, or “speak” to the reader directly (outside the book). Take care when referring to the reader, as they may disagree. For instance, if you say, “You always come first in class!” the reader may react with, “No, I don’t…” which will cause them to distance themself from the book. So limit making statements about the reader and inner world descriptions, as it can feel unreal. It’s best to stick to action and events in second person writing, like telling the reader what or what not to do.

Examples of second person books:

  • Don’t push the button by Will Cotter
  • Song of the Old City by Anna Pellicioli

Omniscient (aka third person unlimited)

Finally, we have the omniscient point of view. This writing style isn’t as common in literature today. It refers to an all-knowing external narrator that is not part of the story and is written in the third person. The narrator has unrestricted access to all events and characters and tends to be more objective in their description. Unlike third person limited, third person unlimited is written from a distanced perspective rather than through the eyes of a character. The advantage is that the reader can learn things beyond what the main character knows, but the downside is it’s harder to make the reader connect with the character.

Writing your first draft

The first step to completing a picture book is writing the first draft. Don’t try to make it perfect. Your first draft isn’t meant to be good, it’s simply meant to get the story out of your head, into a written manuscript. Things like the vocabulary you use, beautiful word pictures, etc. don’t matter for the first draft. Also, don’t edit while writing. Editing requires a different way of thinking than creative writing, so trying to do both at once requires switching between two ways of thinking, which can be difficult.

Give yourself enough time and a quiet environment and write the entire story in one sitting. The faster you write, the easier it will be to not pause and reassess. Afterwards comes the revision stage, where you should switch to editor mode and make any necessary changes.

Revising your picture book manuscript

Once you have completed your initial draft, revisiting and revising your book is a key component of writing a picture book. Looking at the story from an outside perspective can help make necessary changes. Maybe you need to shorten the plot, improve the character development, make events flow better, add repetition, adjust your pacing, or be clearer in your theme. It may even require changing the point of view or expanding the whole idea. The end goal should be a picture book that is captivating and appropriate for its audience.

Think or refer back to picture books you’ve studied, and keep in mind your word count and the age group you are writing for. Also, think about the illustrations and see if you can remove text that will be shown in the illustrations. If you’re planning on working with a traditional publisher, revise your book until it’s as good as you can get it. This will help your manuscript to be accepted. If you’re self-publishing, also revise to the absolute best of your ability, so you can publish a fantastic book.

Dialogue

Picture books don’t always have dialogue, but when they do, it should sound natural, but not true-to-life. Written dialogue should be concise, compressed and to the point, so cut out any long explanations, pleasantries and filler words. You need to be economical with your words for a picture book, so only include the essence of the dialogue.

Example:

True-to-life:

“No, no, no! Paws off my tablet, Rocky! Look what you’ve done. You’ll wake up Daddy!”

Daddy heard the crash. “Zuri, what on earth is going on? What was that noise, and what are you doing?” he asked.

“Oops! I was only trying to help, since you’ve been so tired lately and I wanted to let you sleep, Daddy. So I thought I’d do my own hair, and not wake you up, you know?”

Daddy smiled. “Can I help, too? I can do your hair, you don’t have to do it by yourself. It’ll be a piece of cake, Zuzu.”

Natural, concise dialogue, quoted from Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry:

“Paws off, Rocky!”

Daddy heard the crash. “Zuri, what on earth?” he asked.

“I was only trying to help,” I said.

Daddy smiled. “Can I help, too? It’ll be a piece of cake, Zuzu.”

See the difference? Each line of dialogue is concise and lets the reader fill in the gaps. Yet it feels natural and clear. Also note, the author doesn’t opt for the shortest wording in every single case. He could’ve used “easy” instead of “a piece of cake”, but he chose the more colourful wording. Once you’ve trimmed down your dialogue to be concise, read it aloud and make sure it sounds natural and good to the ear.

Show, don’t tell

The famous Anton Chekhov quote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass,” embodies the concept of show, don’t tell. Telling is simply conveying what and how something is, without allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. For example, the author states that a character was “sad,” “beautiful,” or “embarrassed”. Showing, however, involves conveying the scene in a way that allows readers to experience it using their senses. To put this into practice, I ask myself: “Can I observe this with my physical senses, without concluding anything from my frame of reference?” This doesn’t encompass every aspect of show, don’t tell, but it’s one way I find useful.

Let me illustrate with some examples: you can see and hear someone laughing, but you cannot see or hear their happiness. You can infer they are happy, but you can’t see it with your eyes. You can only see them laughing. Expanding further, it’s more than just distinguishing between the visible versus the invisible. Take, for example, a person being short. We can detect with our eyes that they are short, but writing “Julie was short” is simply informing the reader. To showcase instead, you would need to write, “Julie stood on tippy-toes, yet her view remained blocked by the other children’s backs.” Keep in mind to prioritize experience and action over information. What is the character doing or experiencing? In this instance, we visually perceive that Julie is short through her actions and experience.

Show, don’t tell, is a key part of how to write a picture book manuscript that will make the story more real and draw readers in.

Next steps

Okay, now that you know the basics of how to write a picture book, what are the next steps? How do you go from manuscript to published?

Here are the steps to take once your picture book manuscript is complete:

  • Get feedback, preferably from adults and kids. Use the feedback to revise.
  • Get professional editing. This is crucial!
  • Get your book illustrations.
  • Get your book cover and interior designed.
  • Get your book published! This can be with a traditional publisher or you can self-publish.

Even before your book is published, marketing also comes into it, but that’s a big subject we won’t address here. You can also check out this article about how to write a children’s book. (with template PDF). Writing a picture book is an exciting journey and it can be immensely rewarding, especially when we take care to create the best book we can.

We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

1. What do you want to write about?

2. Which part of this article helped you most?

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