Writing Advice

Ten Essential Picture Book Elements

By Kathryn Evans

Sorry for the delay SCBWI friends – here, at last, are my notes from the Winchester Conference Picture Book  Intensive. The aim was to explore the essential elements that make  a breakout picture book with Sarah Frost, Commissioning Editor for picture books at Hodder, and Author/Illustrator Melanie Williamson.

The morning session covered the ESSENTIAL  basics:

1.  Title:

A great title should be  memorable, intriguing and match the tone of your story. Rhyme or alliterate, highlight the theme of your book, try and use the main characters name,  is there a catchy refrain from your story that you could use?  e.g Time for Bed, Sleepy Head Be short snappy specific. Check to see if your title has been used before! Be immediate – get attention fast.

2. Popular themes:


Siblings/new baby





Importance of kindness/sharing



First experiences of toddlers and things they’ll face when they’re growing up – eg potty training



Growing up

Accepting difference

Facing fears.

3. Character:

What is unique about your character?

Is your characters name memorable?

Do they have friends or family?

How do they live?

Are they a goodie or a baddie?

What mood are they in?

Will they appeal to boys or girls?

4. Narrative plot:

Your story should have:

A beginning middle and end;

A problem that needs to be overcome which might then lead to


A resolution to the problem and satisfying ending;

A distinctive shape – cumulative, circular or in a question and answer format;

Not be a set up for other  stories.

5. Setting:

Can your story move between locations/settings – makes things more fun for the illustrator!

Be playful, try the unexpected;

Children are often more willing to accept unusual settings than adults;

Setting helps a child become involved in the story;

Setting can help set the mood of a story;

A white background will keep focus on the character and emotion;

6. Audience/Voice:

Consider your audience – both children and adults who buy the books;

Can your picture book have different layers to broaden its appeal?

Find your voice – individual, energetic, lively…

Is your unique personality coming through in your writing? E.g The Great Dog Bottom Swap

7. Your book should be great to read aloud:

Think about:




Word play




Sensory words




Animal noises

8. Think about the relationship between words and pictures:

Leave space for child to interpret story

Pictures can tell a part of the story that the words don’t

Pictures can add detail and humour

Pictures can tell a different story from the text

Text and illustrations should not be saying exactly the same thing

Give the child some element of control by having illustrations revealing what’s not said

Set your illustrator notes in seperate column so they don’t interrupt the text

Think about page turns and pacing

You need to tell your story in limited words while:

Increasing tension/suspense

Varying  rhythm

Creating excitement, drama and impact

Creating a ‘big reveal’ moment

9. The physical structure of a picture book contains:

Full spreads, vignettes, panels and frames )these can all be used to manipulate pace);

12 double spreads but it can stretch to 14 plus single page.

10. The ending – things to think about:

Match tone of your ending to the tone of your book

Can you bring your story full circle?

Could your ending have a surprise/twist?

Try to have your end in sight when writing;

A great ending can send the reader straight back to the beginning again.

The morning session carved an editorial pathway for the picture book script I’ve been sweating over but the hands on afternoon session gave me a little time to play with it.

We spent time looking at each of the above elements in detail – playing with our characters – interviewing them to give them depth. Writers played with storyboards to help visualise page turns. We had fun!   When you really examine your own writing, bearing the above  in mind, you might be surprised at what you’re missing.  I was.

Thanks Sarah and Melanie – you were inspirational and a tiny bit bonkers – in a wholeheartedly good way .

Kathryn Evans is the award winning author  of  More of Me and Beauty Sleep.

Beauty Sleep coverMore of Me new show card new