If you are keen to write a picture book, you need to know how one is put together. The storyboard will help you visualise the manuscript as a picture book, with illustrations telling at least half of the story. The process sounds complicated, but it is the single most important thing you can do to ensure your text works.
In Australia all “trade” picture books have 32 pages. Ones that are part of educational reading series may have only 16 or 24, and board books for the youngest have only 8, but the usual is 32 (certainly no more). This is because of the way the sheets of paper are cut. Paper that can take full colour printing is expensive, so none goes to waste.
- Take a large sheet of paper (A3 is good)
- Fold it four times.
- When you open it out, you will have 16 spaces. These represent the double spread openings of the picture book. Draw a line down the middle of each to remind you that they represent two pages.
- Miss the first two spaces on your sheet (we'll come back to them). But the 14 remaining spaces are the 14 openings (double page spreads) in which you will tell your story. Each opening will probably have some words, and may have one or several pictures (look at Bob Graham's work) but has to be seen as an aesthetic whole.
- The second space on your sheet is the title page opening. The picture and title may take up the whole opening, or you may also include the imprint and any dedication. (Some picture books choose to put these on the back page instead.) This space is numbered 2 and 3. You can now go through and number the others, 4, 5 then 6, 7 etc. If you remember that, as with all books, the picture book’s odd numbered page is on the right, you won’t go wrong. Of course most picture books do not have printed page numbers – these are for your own information.
- The first opening (and this is the hard part - bear with me, and then try it yourself) is not an opening, but two separate pages. They are the back page (which you may use to finish your story off), and the "half title" which usually has just the title and perhaps a picture. (The back page has to be here, out of order, so that you can fit the largest possible openings onto your sheet of paper, and know that if you fold any sheet of paper in four you’ve got the template for a picture book.) Number these 32 and 1.
- Now comes the exciting part, treating your text as an actual picture book, perhaps for the first time. Try breaking your text up onto the openings. You'll have to do this over and over until you get it right. You may find that the story is just too short - but on the other hand, remember that you can have wordless openings. Perhaps your characters could meet three (people, adventures, objects) instead of the one you have thought of? The usual thing is that writers find they have the first six openings clear in their mind, and the last few, but the story seems to fade out in the middle. You may have to add more words, or think more creatively about what the pictures might tell.
- On the other hand, authors often find they have too many words. Most picture books published in Australia have under 500 words. Occasionally one will have over a thousand, but this is unusual. As a first-time author, we recommend that you stay below the 800. Anyway, your words have to leave room for the illustrator. Picture book texts don’t need visual description – the illustrations do this for them. Often there is a subplot which is not in the words at all. The words must leave room for the illustrator to provide both continuity and variety.
- When working on the storyboard, just jot down a few of your words to remind yourself what goes on each opening, then try your hand at rough sketches - stick figures are fine - to see how an illustrator might interpret the story.
- You will have to do this over and over until you get it right, but when you do it this way, it reminds you that there will be pictures, and you will be able to see where the pictures can carry the story, and cut your text accordingly.
- No one but you will ever see this, but nevertheless it is essential to get your story into the correct picture book format. When you are happy with it, you can cut it into strips and paste them together into a zigzag folding book – this is your first mock-up, if you are working on the illustrations.
Present your manuscript text arranged in openings (but not with a separate sheet per opening) to show prospective publishers that you have thought it through as a picture book, not just as a short story. One way is to make two columns, one for the text and one for notes on the illustrations (unusually this is in italics, to show that it is not to be printed). (See my Yabby example on the web page.) These illustration notes are essential if there is a subplot in the pictures that is not in the words, or if the words are not intelligible without the pictures (often the case in good picture books - look at John Burningham’s Come Away from the Water Shirley or Yabby again).
If you are working on both pictures and text, you then make a mock-up - a small or full-sized model of the book, with all openings sketched in, and one or two openings in colour using the same technique as you will use for the whole.
The more professional your submission looks the better. It's a very, very competitive world out there. If you can accompany it with an excellent assessment, this may add to your chances of getting it off the "slush pile" and into the hands of a reader.<