Because I write in rhyme, most of the time (but not always), the Nerdy Chicks asked me to discuss plot in rhyming picture books.
Whether you’re writing in prose or rhyme – plot matters! You can be an excellent poet and write awesome poems with perfect rhyme and meter, but that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to write a rhyming picture book. Because what rhyming picture books have, that most poems do not, is a plot. So, even if you have perfect meter and amazing rhymes, if you don’t have a plot – you don’t have a story.
When critiquing other author’s rhyming picture book manuscripts, or when editing my own, I ask myself these three questions about plot:
1. Does the story have a strong beginning that introduces the setting, characters or problem in a way that makes the reader want to keep reading?
When writing in rhyme, it’s so important that the first few stanzas be perfect, in meter, rhyme and content. The meter and rhyme need to be flawless and you want the reader to get hooked by the story, so they’re not even thinking about the rhyme.
Here’s an example of a bad start, from an early draft of Cock-a-Doodle Oops!. The story began:
Early one morning, (without any warning),
Rooster delivered a speech,
“I’ve saved up my money to go someplace sunny.
I’m taking a trip to the beach.”
Though the meter and rhyme were fine, I realized the reader needed to know why Rooster leaving for vacation created a problem. What was at stake? So I added this to precede it, and it became the first stanza of the book:
Farmer McPeeper was such a deep sleeper,
not even an earthquake could shake him.
A poke or a pinch wouldn’t budge him an inch,
‘cause only his rooster could wake him.
Now, Rooster’s decision to leave town has obvious consequences, which will make the reader want to turn the page.
2. Does every line add to the story and move it forward?
When writing in rhyme, it’s so easy for the rhyme to take the story in the wrong direction or to add elements to the story that don’t move it forward. With such a low word count – and with the limitations created by the meter, every line must be vital to the story.
In Cock-a-Doodle Oops!, when Rooster came back with a sore throat and couldn’t crow, I let the rhyme dictate what happened next (and the meter’s pretty bad too – gulp):
“You can’t let us down. You must wake Farmer Brown.
We worked hard to keep the farm running.
We plowed and we hoed. We reaped and we sowed.
While you lay on the beach all day sunning!
This stanza introduces new elements that don’t help the story (working the farm, plowing and hoeing . . .) and takes the reader out of the present action (refers back to Rooster being at the beach). So, instead I wrote a stanza that responds directly to the problem and heightens the tension:
“It’s hopeless,” said Goat. “If he’s got a sore throat,
his crow will be too soft hear.
Since Rooster can’t do it and each of us blew it,
He’ll probably sleep for a year!”
When writing a rhyming picture book, plot is more than just the story arc – you also have to think about pacing. Sure, you need a strong beginning, a climactic middle and a satisfying ending, but the way you pace it helps create the mood of the story. Here are three examples of how pacing impacts your story:
- The number of lines in each stanza can impact the tone of the story and/or improve the read-aloud-ability. Here’s an example from 1 Zany Zoo:
While you stood here waiting
with nothing to do,
I snuck through the gate
and into the zoo.
Changing this to a two-line stanza not only improves how it reads (less choppy) but it also makes it sound more like natural dialogue and prevents an unnatural pause in the middle of a sentence.
While you stood here waiting with nothing to do,
I snuck through the gate and into the zoo.
- The rhythm and line length can set the tone for the story. In this first example, a boy is giving an excuse to his teacher about what happened to his homework, so he’s speaking in long sentences told in a hurried, almost breathless voice:
A monster ate my homework, Ma’am; I swear to you, it’s true!
It swallowed it with one big GULP; it didn’t even chew!
This example is from a story in which the students and teachers are chasing an escaped chick through the school. I used shorter phrases to support the panic and action of the chick running through the school:
Counting chicks when one escapes.
“There it goes!” The teacher gapes.
Children scramble. “Hurry, grab him.”
Teacher hollers, “Someone nab him!”
- Don’t be afraid to break up a stanza to control the pacing and create the experience you want the reader to have. For example, the last line of Cock-a-doodle Oops! is a big BA-DUM-BUM punch line. So, when I formatted it on my manuscript, it looked like this:
He joined them outside and pulled Rooster aside.
“Your crow had a bit of a screech.
I see that you’re sick and I’ve got just the trick.
What you need is . . .
a week at the beach!”
So, to sum things up:
In rhyme or prose, everyone knows
It helps a lot to work on plot!
Choose a rhyming story you’ve written, or write a new one, and ask yourself these three questions:
- Does the story have a strong beginning that introduces the setting, characters or problem in a way that makes the reader want to keep reading?
- Does every line add to the story and move it forward?
- Does the pacing (the length and rhythm of each line) match the mood of the story?
If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, then make the changes necessary to change those answers to “yes”!
Lori Degman is teacher of the deaf and an award winning picture book author. She has two books: 1 Zany Zoo, Simon & Schuster (Cheerios New Author Contest winner);Cock-a-Doodle Oops, Creston Books (2015 ILA Honor Book); and Norbert’s Big Dream, Sleeping Bear Press, coming July, 2016. You can find her at: Loridegman.com on Facebook Lori Grusin Degman or Twitter @LoriDegman.
Lori is giving away signed copies of her books 1 ZANY ZOO and COCK-A-DOODLE OOPS! If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, 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 Lori’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.