Story Arc: How to plot your nonfiction picture Book

Book 2 in my story arc study.
Book 1 in my story arc study.

Hi Folks!  This is my last post on what I learned at this year’s Missouri SCBWI Writing Retreat.  This lesson came together for me before the retreat.

One of the comments that Katherine Jacobs made on my picture book was that I needed a stronger story arc.  She suggested that I read Bread, Bread, Bread by Ann Morris.  For good measure, I also read her books Hats, Hats, Hats and On the Go.  The structure wasn’t clear to me until I typed the texts out so that I could see the text without the pictures and page turns.

Some nonfiction story arcs are obvious.  Perhaps you have a scientist who is working to figure something out.  You have a problem and multiple attempts to solve it.  If you’re lucky, you have a dark moment when your scientist almost gives up but then Ka-BAM!  Success!

The story arc for a biography, exploration and artistic creation works much the same way.

The problem comes when you are writing a list story.  How do you create tension in a list?

In Bread, Bread, Bread, Morris starts with the idea that people world wide eat bread.  Base line normal.  Then she gives a list of different types of bread starting with the fairly normal and then adding a few surprising examples.  The surprises add to the tension.  From this high, she shows us how bread is made and then how it is sold.  She wraps it up with a boy and his family sharing a meal that features – bread.  The structure here is oh-so subtle but it is there and the surprise elements help build the tension.

Hats, Hats, Hats is a bit different.  It is set up in contrasting pairs.  You have work and play, shade and warmth, and then you throw in something silly and surprising. It isn’t tension in the traditional sense but there is that fun little jolt when you turn the page for a funny little surprise.  Instead of ending with a boy just like you, in this book she goes for the satisfying aha moment.

Even a list book benefits from a bit of built in tension.  Just how it works will depend on the topic and the details you choose to present.  You might want to play with several different approaches before you find one that works but if you have fun playing with your text, your audience will have fun reading it.