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Three attempts to solve a problem—you’ve been told thirty trillion times this is the way to build a picture book plot. I even covered it in an earlier post.

It’s a tried-and-true method for telling a story. But does an editor reviewing all these similarly-structured submissions feel like she’s been there and read that? Well…….maybe.

There are other ways to frame picture books by using different story structures, as Tammi Sauer once pointed out during Storystorm.

But if those formats aren’t right for your story and you choose a more traditional arc, when is it OK to abandon the “three attempts”? When is it reasonable to break free from this rule?

First, we have to look at the why.

Why do we employ the “three attempts” structure? TO BUILD TENSION.

The main character tries to solve their problem and fails, repeatedly. This tension invests the reader in the protagonist’s struggle. It compels you to turn the page.

However, I wrote a manuscript recently where the protagonist doesn’t even realize she has a problem. The reader sees the problem, but the character is oblivious. It doesn’t make sense for her to attempt multiple solutions because she doesn’t see anything wrong in the first place!

Remember, three attempts builds tension. But that’s not the only way to achieve “what happens next?” excitement and anticipation.

In my manuscript, the humor comes from the reader knowing more than the main character (that’s a kind of “superiority humor”). The humor builds because the protagonist keeps mistaking her surroundings for something else, something that’s familiar to her. That escalating humor adds to the tension—OH NO! DOESN’T SHE GET IT YET?!

There’s also a deadline, an end goal that the reader and the main character both know. But can she get there if she’s so confused? You don’t know. More tension.

Bottom line—if you’ve built tension into your story via another means, you don’t need the three attempts. It certainly didn’t make sense for my story. Who tries to get out of a jam they don’t know they’re in?

Let’s look at picture books that build tension in different ways.

[Meta Device]
THE PANDA PROBLEM by Deborah Underwood & Hannah Marks

In this meta tale, the narrator and Panda argue about who’s the main character. The narrator wants Panda to be the protagonist with a problem to solve. But Panda thinks the narrator is the main character because uncooperative Panda is the narrator’s problem. This story mocks our “problematic” picture book rule. It keeps the tension high as both characters wrestle to control the story.

[Versus Device]
FIRE TRUCK VS. DRAGON by Chris Barton & Shanda McCloskey

A follow-up to Barton’s popular SHARK vs. TRAIN of 10 years ago (wow, time flies!), this new “battle” features a stand off between the reader and the characters. The reader understands what the two friends excel at, but the fire-starter and fire-squelcher don’t ever mention THOSE skills. That’s “superiority humor” again, with the reader knowing more than the characters. The tension arises from wondering if fire truck and dragon will ever get to what’s downright obvious to everyone else.

[Chronology Device]
THE END by David LaRochelle & Richard Egielski

This story is a fairytale told backwards. There’s a surprise each page turn as you discover what happened immediately prior to the current sticky situation. Does that create tension? You bet, as each spread also displays a new predicament.

[Parallel Structure]
OPERATION RESCUE DOG by Maria Gianferrari & Luisa Uribe

The parallel picture book tells two tales which eventually converge. The tension is kept high by a back-and-forth narrative between the two main characters. In this book, Alma misses her military mama. She and Abuela decide to adopt a rescue dog as a surprise for mama’s return. The rescue dog, Lulu, is lonely and afraid, without a family. Both characters face delays in their journey to the dog rescue rendezvous. But at the end, Alma and Lulu finally meet and it’s destiny!

Some of these stories also employ the classic “ticking clock” or deadline to achieve tension. THE END ends at the beginning. OPERATION RESCUE DOG has two ticking clocks—Alma wants to adopt a dog in time for her mother’s return…plus, the Dog Rescue Truck is only open for a limited window. Will they make it there on time?

For the “ticking clock” device, think of Cinderella’s carriage turning back into a pumpkin at midnight!

So while you’re reading new picture books, pay attention to the building of tension. Did the author use three attempts to solve the problem, or a different device? Were you still riveted? Compelled to turn the page? Invested in the main character’s plight? Then take note and try to break free in your own writing!

 


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COMING SOON:

BLOOP
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
July 2021

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illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
November 2021

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illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
2022

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