Writing Between the Lines

So… Rebecca Kai Dotlich’s, ONE DAY THE END just won a Boston Globe Horn Book Award. I was lucky enough to be the illustrator. The crazy thing is, it’s the simplest story ever. “One day, I went to school. I came home. The end. One day, I lost my dog. I found him. The end.” And so on.


What makes it so fun is that the pictures tell a completely different story than the words, and that’s become a favorite type of book for me to illustrate. I tried to dissect what makes for a great “misaligned” picture book and came up with the following. I hope it’s helpful.

As picture book writers, our job is different from any other form of writer. In a sense, we’re creating movies in our heads and then peeling away everything but the words. It’s so freakin’ weird. And so much harder than it sounds.

Our natural instinct is to give a play-by-play of that movie as though we were describing it to someone else. “In his red pants and blue jacket, the blond-haired boy walked six blocks to his grandmother’s victorian manor. On the way, he found a baby bird that had fallen from it’s nest.” Does it work? Sure. Do we get the idea? Yup. But we’re missing an important part of our picture book collaboration – the illustrator.

The illustrator is your own personal character designer, your landscape architect, your fashionista. He or she takes your emotional intention for each scene and pushes it to it’s maximum potential. And the less stage direction you give, the more your illustrator can do with the story.

When I use this “movie-in-my-head” analogy with my picture books, I end up writing the text as the voiceover of an omniscient narrator. (Imagine Sean Connery reading the following. Or Morgan Freeman if you prefer…)  “Something peculiar happened on the way to Nana’s house.” You may or may not choose to add [Art note: child finds a baby bird fallen from it’s nest.]

Because we’ve said so little, the illustrator gets to have SO MUCH FUN coming up with the details. Is it a boy or a girl or an anthropomorphic bunny rabbit? Is it raining or snowing or sunny? What city are they in? Or is it a path through the woods? By telling less, you’re letting the illustrator show more.

Exercise: Go through your manuscript and see how many specific references you have to the following:

Color (unless a book about color)

Quantity (unless a counting book)

Clothing descriptions

Specific Locations (i.e. Key West, Chamberlain’s Deli, Kennedy Space Center)

Character descriptions

Things your characters are holding

How your characters get from place to place

Specific character actions

Take out as many of those references as you can, and replace them with words and phrases that leave the interpretation open to the illustrator. Hint: Describe the emotional impact of the scene instead of the physical one. (I.e. – instead of “Quinn threw his stuffed dog toy against the wall.” Try “Quinn was mad, and he wanted everyone to know it..”)

Exercise: Look at your manuscript as if it were a movie in your head. In the first scene (first page), write a description of what’s happening. Use as many words as you want. Then, as succinctly as possible, rewrite the page to include only the heart of the story. (And if you prefer, say it in a Morgan Freeman voice.) Repeat the process with the rest of the book. See if you like it better than your original.

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