Story is King (Even When There are Pictures)

Stacey Kite

Stacey Kite

Every time I attend an SCBWI conference, I learn things—about both writing and illustrating. And every once in a while, something surprising about myself. That’s what happened at the Midsouth SCBWI conference this past September when I took a picture book dummy intensive and got feedback on a dummy of mine titled Battling The Math Dragon.

The critiquers, who were fabulous, gave me big kudos on artwork—yay, there was much rejoicing!—but they felt the story was not there, yet. Which seems like a no-brainer in retrospect, given that I’d spent more than two months working on the drawings, but only devoted a week to developing the story, itself.


Spread from Battling The Math Dragon

Spread from Battling The Math Dragon


The thing is, before that critique, I thought the story was solid. Or, more accurately, I thought the story was solid enough. What do I mean by enough? It turns out that deep down, I thought if I did a great job on the artwork, the story wouldn’t matter that much. That sounds pretty foolish, now, but the truth is, that’s how I have always looked at illustrated books. I just didn’t realize it.


In the past, I’ve only appreciated illustrated books as a painter. When I opened a book with illustrations—whether it was a 32 page picture book or a 300 page tome—I only looked at the artwork. The illustrations were all that mattered. At best, I thought of the stories as excuses for cool art—at the worst, I thought of the words as filler between awesome paintings. For example, I have several books illustrated by James Christensen that I’ve loved for years, but driving home from the conference, I realized that I had never read a word of any of those stories. Not one, though I study them all the time. (Of course, that’s not counting side blurbs about technique, which I never pass over.)


The stories might be fabulous or they might be so-so. I don’t know because the art—and learning from that breathtaking art—was all I cared about. (Seriously, his illustrations are brilliant.)


But that’s not the case when it comes to stories told only in words. I have always unconsciously held those to a much higher standard. When I read a non-illustrated tale, I want a great story. For me that means interesting, flawed characters who I connect with emotionally, solid plots with surprising twists, great character arcs, originality, authenticity and a satisfying ending.


Obviously, as I work on my novel, I’m trying with everything I’ve got to give my story those same qualities. But with my picture book dummies I’ve put all my effort into the art and not nearly enough into the stories those illustrations are supposed to support.


Now that I’m conscious of my bias and know what I’ve been doing (or, more accurately—not doing), I can attack the problem. Instead of thinking of the art first when I’m working on a picture book, I’m going to start with the story. I need to put in just as much effort crafting those stories as I am for my novel.


My takeaway is that the basics of good story are the same—whether that story is told with written words alone, illustrations (with or without words), on film, on stage or in song. I’m going to make the story king, regardless of the medium. Only then will I let the painter out to play.


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