As a storyteller, if you really want to capture the attention of young listeners—if you really want their eyes to widen and their faces to freeze in attention, there’s something your story must contain. I call it the “OH NO” moment.
It’s that moment in your picture book manuscript when something has gone wrong for the character. Maybe dreadfully wrong, or maybe just a little wrong. Maybe wrong in a silly way, or maybe wrong in a gasp-and-hold-your-breath kind of way. But the “OH NO” moment makes things interesting. It gives the story a little tension, a little suspense, and sometimes a little humor. I’ve found that when I critique manuscripts for other writers (or my own manuscripts) and the story feels somewhat dull or missing a spark…it’s that “OH NO” element that is missing.
Recently I experimented with six three-year-olds, telling them a picture book story aloud. I paid attention to their eyes, which tend to wander all around the room. But suddenly during the story I gasped, animated my voice and said, “OH NO!” and every eye darted up and fixed on me in immediate attention. It was so cute I had to bite my lip not to laugh.
A good exercise to help polish your skills at using tension in your picture book manuscripts is to search for the "OH NO" moments in current picture books. Go to the library and see if you can find trends in how tension is introduced. I'm talking about the gulp, the gasp, the what's-going-to-happen-next moment. You might be suprised at how quickly it happens. Usually before the third page.
Kids naturally think in “OH NO” terms, and I have proof. My third grader recently created a comic strip which I think could be a great model for a picture book layout. Check out the very literal “OH NO” moment. My son had no prompting from me, and had no idea I would be looking at his work. (Hopefully you can click on the image to enlarge.)
This comic helps give a glimpse into the mind of a child. Notice how it begins with a kingdom, but "something went wrong" right on "page" two. It's almost immediate. A few more pages, and "OH NO!" said the king. There isn't a lot of descriptive text, the pictures have a lot of action, and the problem starts out right away. Great stuff for a picture book. Sometimes we adults forget what it's like to think like a child.
Oh no. My van just slid down the driveway. Out to shovel snow again.