Lights, Camera, Action: Why Picture Book Writers Should Think Like Screenwriters

I have this theory that picture book writers would probably make good screenwriters, and vice-versa. That’s because both the picture book writer and the screenwriter have to think in visual scenes. A screenwriter must always consider what the audience will see: who appears in the scene, what they're doing, what the setting is like, and how the camera is angled. On a smaller scale, the picture book writer must do the same, because the picture book is also a visual experience.

I received a manuscript to critique several years ago that comes to mind now. The writer had created an entire story with a grandfather lecturing his grandson as they sat in a living room. Hmmm. So… let’s think like a screenwriter for a moment and imagine that an audience is going to pay for a ticket and watch this manuscript portrayed as a film on the big screen. Would it be entertaining? An entire movie filmed with two people sitting on a couch?

To be fair, I suppose some fantastic director could possibly pull this off. I'm sitting here trying to think about movies where the setting hardly matters and is very confined. How about The Breakfast Club..would that qualify? It has a group of students in detention, and much of the movie takes place in the school library. Yet, still, the characters move around, sneak out, change locations, etc. Let me try to think of another one. Panic Room? In that movie we do get to see the villains, who are outside of the room, trying to get in, which creates a lot of tension. (If you can think of a better example, let me know. I’m sure there must be a movie out there which takes place in one room.) How about The Big Chill? That’s one house, not one room. But notice how in movies where the setting is fairly irrelevant and doesn’t change much, the characters must be extremely intriguing. For example, the Breakfast Club is certainly character-driven. We get to eavesdrop on these teenagers of differing social status confess their personal struggles to their peers.

Mo Willems’ pigeon books, like Don’t Let the Pigeon Ride the Bus, have almost no setting. There are no fantastic scene changes, and certainly the pigeon could be sitting on a couch for most of the book and it wouldn’t matter much. Yet the books work. They work BIG time. How? Well, it’s the pigeon. He stands right in front of the readers and talks to them. He engages them in a conversation. He’s drawn simply, like a child’s sketch come-to-life, which is fun for kids. And he’s funny. He’s child-like--even a little bit naughty. (You see...he has some important SpongeBob elements.) A character this engaging can bypass the need for an interesting setting.

So the grandfather-talks-to-grandson manuscript might work if the characters were somehow remarkable. What if grandpa is trying to tell grandson a story and grandson is simultaneously morphing into the characters of the story? Or what if he’s growing bigger with every page turn, until he topples the couch? What if grandpa becomes more and more villainous as the story goes along? Maybe grandson asks hilarious questions during the discussion? (Not really fulfilling as a story, but interesting at least.) In most cases, something visually interesting must be happening to the characters in a picture book. And typically, this requires movement. Action.

“Yes,” you say, “but can’t we just illustrate the discussion they are having?” Not a great idea. A good topic for another post.

In my view, the grandpa-and-grandson-on-the-couch manuscript would not work well as a picture book. Just as it would be quite challenging to create a movie filmed in one small space, a picture book with no action or scene changes would be a tough sell. Could it be done? Maybe, with some kind of brilliant twist. But if the characters are actively experiencing things in the present, the reader is more likely to turn the page. (Or watch the movie.)

As you write a picture book manuscript, take a moment and put on the screenwriter’s hat. What is your audience going to see and experience? Will it work, visually?

Of course, I’ll sit on the pigeon’s couch and chat with him anytime.


Anonymous said…
Kristyn I love the comparison between screenwriters and picture book writers. I never thought of it that way b4.

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