Tammi Sauer: Ask yourself, “What if?” and GIVEAWAY



Many of my books follow the Classic Picture Book Structure.

  •  Main Character (MC) has a problem
  •  MC faces obstacles that escalate
  •  MC encounters a black moment in which things can’t possibly get any worse
  •  MC figures out how to solve the problem
  •  MC grows/changes by the book’s end

In recent years, though, I have been challenging myself to try a variety of other approaches. I wrote a book entirely in dialogue—Roar!, illustrated by Liz Starin (Paula Wiseman/S&S, 2015). I wrote an off-the-wall how-to book (details on that one coming soon). I even (GASP!) wrote a rhymer—Mary Had a Little Glam, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Sterling, 2016).

I also really, really, really wanted to write a *circle story told in **second person narration that starred a ***little alien. I mean, who doesn’t?!

To come up with the plot for this book, I asked myself the biggest two-word question I know:  “What if..?”

What if…a little alien accidentally crash-lands in a boy’s yard?

What if…the boy wants to keep him?

What if…the boy takes him to school?

What if…the boy and the alien have an amazing day, but, when nighttime comes, the boy discovers something is wrong with his alien?

Each of these questions pushed me to consider what happened next in the story. If one question took me to a dead end, I gave myself a detour. I simply asked myself a new “What If..?” question.

Eventually, the questions led to Your Alien, illustrated by Goro Fujita, which sold at auction in a two-book deal and earned starred reviews from PW and Kirkus.

your alien

Your Alien (Sterling) will be available to earthlings and aliens everywhere on August 4.


*Circle Story:  what happens in the very end of the story echoes something that happened in the very beginning of the story

**Second Person Narration:  addresses the reader directly and uses the pronouns “you,” “your,” and “yours”

***      alien


Whenuntitled-7 she is not eating out, Tammi Sauer is probably revising a picture book manuscript. She has three new books this year:  Ginny Louise and the School Showdown (Disney*Hyperion), Your Alien (Sterling), andRoar! (Paula Wiseman/S&S). Visit Tammi’s website tammisauer.com, her blog picturebookbuilders.com and find her on Twitter @SauerTammi.

Tammi is giving away a copy of YOUR ALIEN. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win this prize, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Tammi’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

If you haven’t registered for #KidlitSummerSchool yet click HERE.



236 comments on “Tammi Sauer: Ask yourself, “What if?” and GIVEAWAY

  1. I could see using this in conjunction with other plotting tools and strategies, in order to not only push the plot forward but also go deeper, and obtain a more complex story / more complex characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderful exercise! I love this. THANK YOU!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Debbie Austin says:

    Thanks for the challenge to mix it up a bit. Your Alien looks adorable!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am excited to try this exercise in a new story that I am just starting. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oooh, I love a challenge! Thanks, Tammi! I can’t wait to see the new book!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It seems like this post is about taking a different approach to style or writing process, not structure. Do the dialogue, rhyming, and alien picture books you’ve described follow the classic structure outlined at the beginning of your post, or are the structures different? Thanks!


    • tammisauer says:

      YOUR ALIEN does not follow the classic structure, it follows a circle structure. For more examples of this approach, check out IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE and WHEN A DRAGON MOVES IN.

      The dialogue and rhyming books loosely follow the classic picture book structure.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Tammi! Looking forward to reading “Your Alien” and comparing as part of my reading for research. It’s so helpful to see your process and result. Cheers!


  7. Jewel Sample says:

    What if the end did a curlicue and wound up in the middle? I love your what if questions. The circular structure is hard to do because the end isn’t exactly like beginning. There has to be change, there is just an echo, yes those things that echo the beginnings, and that echo why the change.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Rosie Pova says:

    Congratulations, Tammi, what a great success story! I command you for being brave and going where you wanted to explore, regardless of rules and taboos. I’ve been feeling a bit discouraged lately and could sure use some of that approach.

    Love the cover, so cute :)!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Mandy Yates says:

    So awesome! Can’t wait to read this book. Great exercise too.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Jenifer McNamara says:

    Enjoyed reading about other how PB’s can be structured, and looking for more ways to enhance my PB writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you, Tammi, for the importance of the “What if?” question. I look forward to reading your books.
    ~Suzy Leopold

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Looking forward to reading these new books. Thanks for the exercise.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. ‘What if..’ opens so many plot possibilities. Thanks for the great writing tip.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. marlainagray says:

    “What if?” is an excellent question. Thanks for this post and congrats on “Your Alien”!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. So looking forward to reading your new books!

    Hhhhmm…What if?

    Liked by 1 person

  16. rgstones says:

    I can’t wait to read Your Alien!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Alexandra Penfold told us about the development of Mostly Monsterly at a recent workshop I attended. I’ve been a big fan since. Your Alien looks soo cute!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. writersideup says:

    “What if…?” is that wonderfully sure-fire way to expand the imagination 🙂 Thanks, Tammi!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Zainab says:

    Thanks for telling us what to do!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Cindy C. says:

    Tammi, as a “pre-published” PB writer I especially enjoy your plot/structure advice. I’m reading all the YA/MG posts, but the scale of plot is different. I look forward to “Your Alien”.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Lee says:

    Thanks, Tammi! I love the idea of creating a series of “What if..”questions for a story idea. This could also work with photographs or images/advertisements from magazines. It’s a great idea for brainstorming fresh, new ideas. Thank you so much for sharing! I can’t wait to purchase and share Your Alien with my students. I love the front cover! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Cindy Clemens says:

    “Your Alien” sounds terrific! Can’t wait to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. kpbock says:

    Love your books, Tammi! Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Linda Melino says:

    I will ask what if from now on and see where it takes me!

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Lauri Meyers says:

    And what if I revise this manuscript one more time? And what it I submit it to the right publisher? And what if they say yes? Love that what if question…now back to work!

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Ellen Sirianni says:

    I love the “what if…?” Thanks for sharing, Tammi. Looking forward to reading YOUR ALIEN.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Sue Fritz says:

    When I taught 2nd grade, I used this same strategy for my students. Now as the writer, I find myself needing to use it as well. Thanks for reminding me what a great strategy it is.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Leah Heilman Schanke says:

    Thanks. It’s inspiring how you challenge yourself to try different approaches.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Priya says:

    Got stuck, so will be trying this question when I resume my story

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Barbara Senenman says:

    I always knew about the “what if” to come up with a story idea, but it’s the constantly asking this question throughout the story that has me gasping and wanting to take out ALL my picture book mss that I’ve shoved back into the drawer.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. SevenAcreSky says:

    Great question to ask at every point…creates so many dimensions for your story, and then it’s easy to choose the best one….or two, or three. Great lesson, thanks Tammi.


  32. Susan Cabael says:

    Happy book birthday to YOUR ALIEN!!


  33. Debbie Vilardi says:

    What a great worksheet. Now, I need some milk. Happy sales to you.


  34. Dawn says:

    I enjoyed this post. What if…opens up so many story possibilities. Thanks!


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