The curtain rises on your picture book manuscript. The audience, eyes wide, applauds with great anticipation. Is your three-act triumph ready?
As a former actress (sorry, no Academy Award credits to my name), I utilize my acting skills while writing. And you don’t have to be a practiced thespian in order to do so. Just think of the word “ACT” and its related words:
- ACTion – how a character behaves
- reACTion – how a character behaves to a specific situation
- interACTion – how characters relate to each other
These are the three things your illustrator will be thinking about when they bring your picture book to life. So, you, as the main character’s puppeteer, should be thinking of these things as well. Not only thinking—but revealing—that your character exhibits a unique way of behaving.
Now, action is a tricky thing in picture books. You can’t describe everything away—remember, you’ve leaving the brushstrokes up to your illustrator. So what you have to dig for is emotion. Emotion informs actions. How you act when you’re happy is very different from how you act when you’re angry. Or afraid. Or lonely. Emotion will inform your illustrator and your readers.
Like Kathryn Erskine encouraged you to slip on your character’s shoes, I often stand up and act out the emotion—what the character is saying or doing—to see if it feels genuine. I say lines aloud and listen to the natural inflection of my voice. (Your family might think you’re crazy. But do it for your art.)
Then I pace through scenes. Is there something happening in each scene? If your character is standing still, in the same location, scene after scene, it makes for a boring book. There’s nothing new to illustrate each page turn. Going places or doing things is action.
Next, there’s reaction! Your character should be reacting to what’s happening. Is she nervous? Shy? Thrilled? Have you given your character something to work toward? To struggle through? The way your character reacts to the barriers in the story will make her unique and interesting.
For instance, in my upcoming book NORMAL NORMAN (Sterling, 2016), Norman is an unusual orangutan. When the young scientist in the story peels a banana, Norman freaks out! He screams! Noo-ooo-ooo! You’re ripping off that poor creature’s skin! And the illustrator’s sketch (which I just received this week!) shows Norman with a horrified expression. Norman’s reaction to the banana informs the reader that he’s not an ordinary animal.
Finally, how your characters relate to each other also serves your story well. Are they friends or enemies? How does their relationship change over time? Again, dig for the emotions. How do they feel when they speak to each other? Is it loud and messy, or quiet and controlled? Do they ignore each other?
In THE MONSTORE, toward the end of the book, pesky little sister Gracie says to Zack, You’re the best brother ever! My illustrator took the emotion of that line and translated it into Gracie giving her brother a loving, eyes-closed bear hug, with Zack surprised yet bursting with affection. I didn’t write all that out, however. That’s too much to say in a picture book! I let Gracie’s words speak for themselves…and James Burks did the rest. (I know you’re going to ask if I wrote an art note for this scene—I did not! The words expressed the sentiment and James illustrated them far better than I ever could have imagined.)
That scene is the turning point in the story, when the siblings learn to cooperate instead of plot against each other. There is a new kind of interaction between them. And how did the story get there? Through the actions and reactions that came before.
So when you’re writing, think of ACT-ing, my dear summer school students. And when you’re finished with your manuscript, you can take a bow!
Street magic performer. Hog-calling champion. Award-winning ice sculptor. These are all things Tara Lazar has never been. Instead, she writes quirky, humorous picture books featuring magical places that adults never find.
- I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK (Aladdin/S&S 2015)
- LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD (Random House Children’s, 2015)
- 7 ATE 9: THE UNTOLD STORY (Disney*Hyperion, 2016)
- NORMAL NORMAN (Sterling, 2016)
Tara is a member of SCBWI and speaks at conferences and events regarding picture books, brainstorming techniques, and social media for authors/ She is a life-long New Jersey resident. She lives in Somerset County with her husband and two young daughters. If they had a dog, it would be a small white fluffy thing named Schluffy. Contact Tara through her Website taralazar.com, Twitter @taralazar, Pinterest pinterest.com/taralazar, or Facebook facebook.com/authortara.
Tara is giving away a picture book manuscript critique! To be eligible to win, just comment on this post before the end of #KidlitSummerSchool.
And check out the Exercise Book for Tara’s tips on Bringing Out Your Character’s ACT!
Not registered for Kidlit Summer School yet? No worries! Click here to REGISTER.