PICTURE BOOK FOCUS: How to OUTLINE Your Picture Book Plot


Experienced editor Natascha Biebow shares tips on using an outline to create a water-tight picture book plot.

If you want to write a picture book, can you just start writing or should you make a plan?

Remember how when your teacher told you you should outline something in school, it seemed so incredibly dreary and seemed to suck the life out of anything you wrote? But what if there was a different way to plan that actually saved you from writing a dead-end idea or helped you hone your premise before you spent all those hours fine-tuning something that was never going to really fly?

An outline can:

- help you finesse your idea, really digging deep to find the heart of your story, your nugget
- avoid dead-end plots and ideas
- put in place helpful structure on which to ‘hang’ your story

And the best thing is that it could save you time and many frustrating hours!

The reason? Outlines are concise and focused, and so they force you to figure out key elements, rather than writing around the bush over the course of weeks and months.

Once you have your outline ‘road-map’ you can have fun writing your first draft focusing on language, voice and rhythm rather than to have to work out everything at once. It means you can breathe spontaneity and freedom into your writing.

So what placeholders do you need for your outline? 


The five elements to plan your picture book

How to plan a picture book:

1. First, work out your breakout premise: check out the competition to ensure that your idea is unique enough to stand out from other already-published books with a new angle, memorable character and your unique voice. Ensure your idea is child-centred. 

2. Next, consider your character’s motivation: this is what your character needs and wants and what will happen if they don’t get it. It is what will make young readers really care about this character and your story. It is often tightly linked to what is at stake in your story. Add a gripping problem or conflict. Without solid motivation, the whole story falls down, as there is often no point to it. The ‘so what?’ isn’t adequately expanded upon and readers can’t be bothered to read on or go on a journey with your character. Working out the character motivation will also help you to put in place the emotional story tied to your plot arc (see below). If you do nothing else, do not skimp on working this out!

3. Now, you’re ready to create a step outline for the plot based on the above. Every story has a beginning, middle and end, and you always need a clear climactic turning point ¾ of the way in (find the place that is 75% of the word count to check if this falls in the right place.)

Here’s how it might look for A BIT LOST by Chris Haughton

A Bit Lost by Christ Haughton

Premise: When Little Owl accidentally falls out of her nest, she is lost and needs to be reunited with Mummy ASAP. While other animals might be big and have Mummy's big eyes and her pointy ears, they are simply not her . . .

Character Motivation: Owl is little and lost, and she misses Mummy – her mummy is one-of-a-kind special



Main plot point: Little Owl falls asleep and topples out of the nest

Character’s emotional journey: Little Owl feels lost and misses Mummy

Pace: show Squirrel stepping up to try to help Little Owl solve her problem


Main plot point: Squirrel tries to help Little Owl find Mummy

Character’s emotional journey: show Little Owl getting more frustrated, worried and sad

Pace: use rule of three to build pace so Squirrel tries three times to unsuccessfully match an attribute that might identify Mummy – BIG like a bear; POINTY EARS like HARE; BIG EYES like FROG – building to the climactic turning point where Frog must help find the solution instead.

From A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton


Main plot point: surprise - MUMMY is looking for Owl (too)! – and Frog knows

Character’s Emotional Journey: relief and ‘aw’ moment – Little Owl is reunited with Mummy finally!

Pace: moment of pause where reunited Mummy and Little Owl hug, followed by resolution where Squirrel and Frog get reward (biscuits in the nest). Plot comes full-circle to the opening – uh-oh, Little Owl has fallen asleep and is about to fall out of the nest again!

Outlines are not set in stone – they are starting points – so be prepared to adjust as you get started. We all know that sometimes characters take us in unexpected directions and new ideas change the course of the action.

4. Flesh out the step outline with vivid scenes. Use action, body language and dialogue to show, not tell. Choose words and details carefully; use action verbs. Allow space for the illustrations.

5. Now you are ready to write!

  1. Premise 
  2. Character motivation 
  3. Outline
  4. Scenes
  5. Write! 



Natascha Biebow is an experienced children's book editor, coach and mentor and founder of Blue Elephant Storyshaping. She loves to help authors and illustrators at all levels to shape their stories and fine-tune their work pre-submission. She is the author of the award-winning nonfiction picture book The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayon.

* Logo of animals cooking: by kind permission of Lizzie Finlay


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