Picture book or short story?
One of the issues we (Lisa and I, as Mentors for Rent) see in some picture book manuscripts is that the manuscript feels more like a short story than a picture book. So, I thought I’d share part of a transcript from the first video in my Picture Book Fixes – A course. This is from Module 1: Is It a Picture Book or a Short Story?
Today we’re going to talk about picture books vs. short stories. The question I want you to ask yourself is, “Uh oh! Have I written a short story instead of a picture book manuscript?” Now, you might wonder, “What’s the difference, and why does it matter?”
Well, it matters for a couple of reasons. The two forms, picture books and short stories, might be written for the same audience age, and they might even be the same word count, although as picture books get shorter and shorter, a picture book is actually often shorter than a short story in a magazine. But they are very different forms, and a picture book manuscript has to resonate in a way that will make parents and other people willing to pay $18 for that book, and willing to read it again and again. A short story is usually read just once, and then a reader moves on to other stuff.
So, we’re going to take a look at the major differences that occur between picture book manuscripts and short story manuscripts. I have a summary of these on your tip sheet, which I hope you’ve already downloaded.
A short story can usually be understood with zero illustrations accompanying it, though in a magazine there will usually be at least one illustration. But most of the detail is in the story, in the words themselves. A picture book requires a lot of illustrations, usually for the story to even make sense! There are some picture books that can be understood even if you can’t see the pictures. But more and more in the picture book form—it almost doesn’t make sense if you can’t see the pictures. So that is a major difference right there.
A short story, because of that first difference, includes descriptive details. The words might describe what the character looks like, what the setting is, and that sort of thing. But in a picture book manuscript, none of that is included, because all of those details will be shown in the artwork, in the illustrations.
In a short story, dialog tends to be more conversational. Sentences are longer. There’s more back and forth, whereas in a picture book manuscript, if there’s dialog, it tends to be really short and snappy and rhythmic.
A short story is often only read one time, so a punchline ending, a twist ending, is OK because they aren’t going to hear that story over and over and over again. With a picture book, it’s typically read repeatedly, and it really has to have something deep. It has to have layers of meaning to give the reader, both the kid and the parent or the teacher, something new to discover and to think about, even in repeated readings.
A short story can be read silently by a child, if they’re old enough to be reading age, or it can be read to them. But a short story is usually read in a pretty straightforward manner, whereas a picture book manuscript is really meant to be read aloud, even to be performed. It inherently is a more dramatic form. The page turns. When you turn the page in a picture book, it’s a new scene, like an aha moment every time. And part of a picture book is all about how you use those page turns to build suspense.
In a short story, it tends to be about what happens. The words that are used need to be strong words and they need to be clear words, of course. But in a picture book, it’s about how you show what happens. Really playing with words is often a key factor, and that’s why picture books get compared to poetry a lot. Word play, rhythm, things like alliteration, metaphor…those things are more important in a picture book, and they are more essential to a picture book manuscript.
A short story tends to only cover one scene, especially for very young readers of picture books age (3-5 or so). It covers one scene in more detail, whereas a picture book tends to cover (it’s not a clear-cut rule) bigger events and more time, but they only give in the words the bare essential facts, and then the illustrations fill in everything else.
So those are the main differences that you’ll often see between short story manuscripts and picture book manuscripts.
In the video, I go on to share some examples related to these various elements and also some tips for revising/avoiding this issue in your own picture book manuscripts. But hopefully this excerpt will at least get you started on evaluating your own manuscripts to see if this is a picture book problem that you should work on fixing!
I wrote picture book manuscripts for years and submitted them to publishers, only to learn, eventually, looking back, that they were really short stories–and I sold some of them as short stories, too. “The Doll Wall” sold to New Moon Magazine. And…well…the below all sold as literary narrative passages (without illustrations). That last column is where I keep track of what the passage started out as. In the case of all of these, they started out as trade picture book manuscripts–I thought. Wrong! They were never going to be picture books. So I was happy they made their way out into the wilds in some form, at least!
If you’re looking for concrete picture book craft information, you might enjoy my Picture Book Fixes – A course. So far, 40 students have enrolled in the video class since it went live a month ago! Whee! I’m happy to be be reaching people and giving this info at an inexpensive cost–so that they can get their manuscripts into the best shape possible before taking it to a critique group, Mentors for Rent, or an editor! And I’m working on Part B (which isn’t a more advanced level, but just covers 5 additional very common problems). I hope to have it out in the next couple of weeks. I’m so excited about and grateful for the great feedback I’ve gotten on my survey from students of Part A. It’s really helpful to hear what you guys want and need. I won’t pitch the courses here extensively, but if you’re interested in being on my video course mailing list, that’s where I’ll give more details, ask questions, maybe sometimes include a little coupon for a new course (this one is only $10, so I’m trying to keep them really accessible, even without coupons), etc. And if you do take the class and learn from it, please spread the word. Thanks, you guys!