One Writer’s Journey

November 1, 2018

Picture Books: Three Act Structure

What are the best ways to structure a picture book?  In part, I’ve been wondering if you can apply the three act structure to picture books.  In short, it depends on the story but some do have this structure.  You can find it written up in Eve Hiedi Bine-Stock’s How to Write a Children’s Picture Book, Volume 1: Structure.

If you’re like me, this is easiest to see when paired with a favorite story so I’ll use Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It is one of the three-act picture books listed by Bine-Stock.

Act 1.  Beginning or Set Up.

This is about 20% of the story, 5-7 pages.  In Where the Wild Things Are, this is Max at home making mischief and getting in trouble.  There is a transition where the forest is growing – you can still see Max’s room until . . .

Plot Twist 1: Something happens that separates the beginning from the middle.

In Where the Wild Things Are, the forest grows and grows and then “the walls became the world all around.”

Act II: The Middle.

This is the core of the story, the main action.  About 60% of the story.  In Where the Wild Things Are, this is where Max has a wild rumpus as King of the Wild Things.


A before and after moment.  This can be hard to put your finger on or at least it is for me.  But I would define this as the moment the wild things fall asleep and leave Max time to ponder.  Before, Max was a wild thing.  After?  He is Max.

Plot Twist II: This one separates the Middle from the Ending.

In Where the Wild Things Are, Max smells delicious food and sails home.

Act III: The Ending.

Like the Beginning, this is about 20% of the story, 5-7 pages. This act is your resolution.

In Where the Wild Things Are, I would say this section is actually a bit shorter.  He sails home, much calmer, and finds dinner waiting for him and it is still hot.  He is at home.  He is where he is loved.

So there you have it.  A picture book in three acts.  Bine-Stock said that this structure can also be found in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and Chicka-Chicka-Boom-Boom so why not get them out and see what you can see?


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