Monday, May 8, 2017

Cliffhangers in Picture Books #NaPiBoWriWee

If you did NATIONAL PICTURE BOOK WRITING WEEK - #NaPiBoWriWee - with Paula Yoo, you should have manuscripts in progress. Before you submit any, make sure they're as strong as possible.

When we talk about cliffhangers, most people think of the chapter endings in novels. But even a picture book can have a sort of cliffhanger. Take a look at these first few pages from Police Officers on Patrol, by Kersten Hamilton and illustrated by R. W. Alley.

1.    Uniform! Badge! Radio! Police Officers, getting ready to go!
2.    Squad report—Sergeant Santole. “People need help! Let’s rock and roll!”
3.    A broken light might cause a crash! Who can help? Who is fast?

Hey, look at those last two sentences — they make a cliffhanger! The first three pages act as a sort of chapter, ending in the cliffhanger question, “Who will help prevent the crash?” This 144-word picture book has three of these episodes, each with its own cliffhanger. If you write picture books and have been told your work is "Too quiet," or if you have trouble writing a picture book under 1000 words, study Kersten Hamilton to see how much action a skilled writer can pack in to a few words.

Let's look at an even trickier example, a nonfiction picture book, Blind Tom: The Horse Who Helped Build the Great Railroad, written by Shirley Raye Redmond and illustrated by Lois Bradley. This is the story of a blind horse who worked on the transcontinental railroad. Here's an excerpt from a few pages in:

     But the workers needed help. They had to move heavy iron rails and spikes, which were piled onto flatcars. The cars were very hard to pull.
     What do you suppose could help pull the flatcars?

—Again, a question acts as a cliffhanger. We turn the page to find out the answer...


This page continues with some new information, ending in yet another question. The entire narrative follows this kind of question and answer format.

In both these picture book examples, questions act as cliffhangers. If the reader thinks she knows the answer, she'll turn the page to find out if she's right. If she doesn't know the answer, she'll turn the page to find out what it is. Kersten Hamilton notes that with novels, the questions at the chapter ends are implied. With picture books, the author asks the questions outright—you are teaching children how to read and understand a story.

Questions aren't the only possible cliffhangers, of course. Action or other dramatic moments can be used, just as in novels. In Stellaluna, written and illustrated by Janell Cannon, Stellaluna gets separated from her mother. One early page ends like this:

     By daybreak, the baby bat could hold on no longer. Down, down again she dropped.

Of course we are going to turn the page to find out where she lands.

Illustrators can use cliffhanger techniques as well. According to another writer, David Weisner said that in his award-winning wordless picture book Flotsam, he used images as cliffhangers. Take a look at the book and see what you think.

Exercise: Grab a stack of published picture books. Go through them slowly, looking for the cliffhanger moments. How many are there? How do they work to encourage the reader to turn the page? If you don't find a cliffhanger, could you rewrite the text to add dramatic tension to certain moments?

Chris Eboch is the author of over 40 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting. Learn more at or her Amazon page.

You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers is available for the Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Remember the magic of bedtime stories? When you write for children, you have the most appreciative audience in the world. But to reach that audience, you need to write fresh, dynamic stories, whether you’re writing rhymed picture books, middle grade mysteries, edgy teen novels, nonfiction, or something else.

In this book, you will learn:

How to explore the wide variety of age ranges, genres, and styles in writing stories, articles and books for young people.
How to find ideas.
How to develop an idea into a story, article, or book.
The basics of character development, plot, setting, and theme – and some advanced elements.
How to use point of view, dialogue, and thoughts.
How to edit your work and get critiques.
Where to learn more on various subjects.

Whether you’re just starting out or have some experience, this book will make you a better writer – and encourage you to have fun!

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