Ask a Picture Book Editor

Does Your Plot Read Like a List?
Is it really boring?

If you've created an episodic plot, you will be on Route Rejection faster than an editor can skim your first lines.

Basically, this means that the plot is a list of things the character did.
One thing follows another.

It has a beginning, middle and end.

It has a main character who sets off on a journey.

They get there in the end.

But . . .  “SO WHAT?”

Everything has EQUAL WEIGHT.

There is no drama, no tension, no story.

To avoid this pitfall, ask yourself:

• Does my main character’s problem emotionally engage the reader? Is there enough at stake?

• Do things get worse for the main character with each episode as the plot progresses?

• Is there a clear, climactic turning point where the reader cries out, “oh, no!” and turns the page to see how everything will be resolved?

Imagine if the plot in Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler’s best-selling Room on the Broom were simply:

  1. A happy witch and her cat set off on a broomstick ride.
  2. A dog comes along and asks for a ride.
  3. A bird comes along and asks for a ride.
  4. A frog comes along and asks for a ride.
  5. A storm comes along and . . .
  6. . . . it makes the broomstick snap in two
  7. The cat, dog, bird all fall off the broomstick into a bog.
  8. The witch flies into a cloud and gets lost.
  9. A dragon appears
  10. The cat, dog and bird scare the dragon.
  11. The witch is saved.
  12. The witch says thank you to her new friends and they fly off into the moonlight.

This plot reads like a list: this happened, then this happened, then that happened. The listy things have equal weight. The reader really doesn’t care a hoot about any of these characters or what happens to them. There isn't enough at stake.

Instead, Julia Donaldson creates a page-turning read:

  1. A happy witch and her cat set off on a broomstick ride on a windy day (foreshadowing – the wind will be trouble!)

  2. From Room on a Broom © Julia Donaldson/Axel Sheffler

  3. The dog rescues the witch's hat that has been blown off by the wind (we like him already, he’s so helpful)
  4. The witch loses something else – the bow from her plait is blown of by the nasty wind. (It’s getting worse)
  5. The bird finds the bow (we like the bird, now, too!)
    From Room on a Broom © Julia Donaldson/Axel Sheffler
  6. It starts to rain (making it worse) and the witch accidentally drops her precious wand in a pond (oh, no, how will they find it in such a wet place . . . ! Note the rule of three here – three things happen and then there is a shift.)'
    From Room on a Broom © Julia Donaldson/Axel Sheffler
  7. The frog is the ideal source of help this time. (Plus, he’s so polite and helpful, we like him as well.)
  8. Oh, no, NOW the storm makes the broom snap in two . . . (even worse – NOW all the animals fall into a bog!) AND the witch flies into a cloud with a SCARY DRAGON in it! (make things much, much worse for your main character and keep doing it . . .)
  9. The witch really needs help and now, no help can be found. (Oh, no!) AND the dragon is about to eat her . . . (this is your climactic turning point, where the drama has built up to the max. There is a lot at stake here.)
    From Room on a Broom © Julia Donaldson/Axel Sheffler

  10. BUT . . . IN THE NICK OF TIME, (now we need something unexpected to shift in the plot) a horrible beast rises from the bog and says, “Buzz off! – THAT’S MY WITCH!” (whew! The clever twist is that it's the dog, cat and frog working together to become the horrible beast.)
  11. The beast scares off the dragon (the resolution. This works because readers really care about all the characters now.)
  12. The witch is really grateful, so she mixes up a spell and out comes . . .
  13. . . .  a truly magnificent broom, complete with seats and a shower for the frog and a nest for the bird (the satisfing ending has a fun twist. It takes readers full-circle to the opening, but now the witch has new friends and an improved broomstick to match)
    From Room on a Broom © Julia Donaldson/Axel Sheffler

Ask your characters difficult questions.

Ask yourself, what if . . .

If there were a witch, what if she lost her three most precious possessions? What if a storm came along and actually snapped her broomstick in two? What if a dragon came along and she’d met her match? What if he actually wanted to eat her up and she couldn’t find a way out? How would she re-solve this?
So, next time you’re plotting a book, think about how you can up the ante constantly as you develop your idea. This will mean your action won’t read like a list, but like a story arc with emotional tension that makes readers really care about the outcome.

Natascha Biebow is an experienced editor, mentor and coach, who loves working with authors and illustrators at all levels to help them to shape their stories.
Check out the Cook Up a Picture Book Coaching Courses.


  1. Great post Natascha - great example, Room on the Broom, one of my favourites. And really nicely laid out too. Thanks!

  2. Excellent article, Natascha. And yes, you've chosen a great story to illustrate your points. :)

  3. this is really great. Natasha expand this and make it into a book. Not too complicated though just adding more ideas for conflict and what ifs. I would buy it. This made everything so cyrstal clear.Well done!!! we need more please.

  4. Thanks for your helpful comments! We are always looking for blog post ideas. Please email them to us!

  5. Really wonderful editor i love his all working ideas thanks for share it designing company profile .


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