PICTURE BOOK FOCUS Raising the Stakes Part 1

In this three-part feature, Natascha Biebow suggests key ways to raise the STAKES in your picture book, to make readers (and editors) really care!


So WHY do story stakes matter?

You might think: Picture book plots don’t have the complexity of sub-plots and intricate characters like novels, so do you always need to have characters with sound motivation and plots with high stakes?

The answer is YES! Preferably. Even picture books for small children have plots that encourage a key element – page turns!

In Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell, a preschool classic for very little ones, the zoo sends the reader increasingly outlandish animals. How will it all end?!

The best books, of course, are those that you absolutely can’t put down. That you want to read over and over again . . . WHY? Because you CARE, you want to find out what will happen next, you are intrigued to see how it will all end, there is a mystery to be solved, something that drives the reader towards a satisfying ending, or similar.

WHY do you care? Because there are stakes – something is at RISK.

- Check the stakes in your story. Ask yourself: What does your main character need and want, and importantly, IF they don’t get this, so what?

Really ask yourself. Be honest. Does what happens in your story matter?
Will readers CARE? The answer to this key question will show whether your picture book story’s stakes are high enough.

For example:
Dot has a new baby brother. Mama and Papa coo over everything the new baby brother does. Life for Dot is different with the baby brother.

So what? Do you really care about this plot? It sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it? There are many great books about new baby siblings, after all. New picture books need to stand out.

How could the stakes be made higher?

What if . . .

A baby arrives on the doorstep . . .
Detail of baby in the basket from Wolfie the Bunny by A Dyckman & Z OHora
The baby is adopted.

Dot is jealous of the baby brother and tries to tell her parents that he isn’t as perfect as they might think he is.

OK, better. But what if also . . .
It’s a family of bunnies and the baby brother is a wolf?

The baby is really a wolf! From Wolfie the Bunny by Anne Dyckman & Zachariah OHora 


What if Dot is the only one who realizes and tries to warn the whole family?

A-ha! That’s a fairly big problem – the wolf might EAT THEM ALL UP (seeing as they’re bunnies and all . . .)!

What if now . . .

The author adds an in-built time constraint: Dot must convince her parents that she is right quickly, or the family might become Wolf Lunch any minute!

The family doesn't listen . . . (of course). More tension.

Dot is on guard day and night! From Wolfie the Bunny by Anne Dyckman & Zachariah OHora 
So, now the story is quite engaging – readers will probably want to keep turning the pages to find out how it will end. Will he, won’t he eat the bunnies?

BUT, keep going.
The author raises the stakes even higher!

For instance, what if . . .
Dot and the baby wolf suddenly meet a BEAR, who tries to eat the baby brother for dinner. Oh, no! Now Dot has a dilemma.
A hungry bear wants to eat baby wolf! From Wolfie the Bunny by Anne Dyckman & Zachariah OHora

Dot doesn’t care much for her baby brother, but she doesn’t exactly want him to be eaten either, does she . . .? 

This twist adds an unexpected bit of humour to the story, and also ups the ante for Dot so she must choose. Suddenly, the stakes matter to Dot personally.

Her choice showcases what is really important for Dot – family. In the story’s resolution, Dot stands up to the Bear and makes peace with her baby brother.

The hug moment
From Wolfie the Bunny by Anne Dyckman & Zachariah OHora
Notice how the author in this example uses both internal and external conflicts to drive the story forwards. In this example from Wolfie the Bunny by Anne Dyckman and Zachariah OHora.

Internal stakes, that drive the character's growth:
Dot’s dilemma about having a baby brother and her values. In the best stories, the main character has grown and changed by the end, leading to a satisfying ending. 

External stakes, that drive the plot forward: the adopted baby, the threat of a wolf to a family of bunnies, the parents ignoring Dot, and the arrival of the bear. 

Make sure that you have BOTH kind of stakes (ideally!)  and that the main character’s actions and choices have consequences: To keep the tension in your story tight all the way through your plot.

Get more tips on raising the internal and external stakes in your picture book in
Parts 2 and 3 of this blog in April/May.

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 storieswww.blueelephantstoryshaping.com 
She is the author of THE CRAYON MAN 
and has been awarded an MBE for her
services to children's book writers and illustrators as Regional Advisor of SCBWI British Isles.


  1. Great read! Informative and inspiring and can’t wait to read the next one.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing such great advice, Natascha!


We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.