Monday, 23 March 2020

DIALOGUE ONLY PICTURE BOOKS: The challenges, risks, pitfalls and how to overcome them By Clare Helen Welsh


To the untrained eye, dialogue only texts can come across as simple and sparse. After all, there’s no narration, no scene setting, no description or speech tags. Yet, telling a story just through one or more character’s words is no mean feat. Manuscripts still need action and high stakes to keeping young readers engaged, except you don’t have the luxury of narrated words to do it in.

Despite this, it’s a style of picture book lots of us aspire to publish. After all, there are many excellent examples of stories told exclusively through conversation and they make for really fun read alouds. I love acting out the roles of Dot and Duck when I take How Rude to school, library and festival events. The paired reading provides an opportunity for children to memorise and act out their parts, bringing books to life before children can read themselves, and after they can, too. As well as reading for pleasure, we also know that texts such as these support early literacy development, including comprehension and sequencing.

However, writers have many concerns about creating these kinds of text, especially if you are the author and not also the illustrator. So, what are the challenges, risks and pitfalls of writing a dialogue only picture book text, and how can we overcome so that our texts are well received by editors?


EMOTION:

We know an emotional journey is an essential ingredient in picture books, and this is just as important in a dialogue only text, possibly even more so. Caring for the characters and finding out what happens to them will keep readers turning pages. I found excellent examples of authors and illustrators using dialogue and pictures to exaggerate and show emotion, keeping the stakes high and propelling the plot forwards. Without this, the risk is that your story ends up being repetitive scenes of talking heads and not much else.
Mo Willems - Don't let the Pigeon Drive the Bus


Viv Schwarz - There are Cats in this Book


TENSION:

Sitting alongside, emotion is tension. Without it we aren’t gripped and stories aren’t interesting or engaging. A plot about two characters enjoying a nice walk or two sharing a hat, would lack the conflict that makes a good hook. In a dialogue only text, ensuring you have a concept or characters with conflicting wants and needs is one way of creating immediate tension. Here is a humorous example from the ‘Already!’ series by Jory John and Benji Davies.

Jory John and Benji Davies - Goodnight Already




PACE:

It seems, though, that the key isn’t having emotion and tension… rather, the timing of it.  A story told in dialogue only needs to use pace to capitalise on emotion and tension in order to build action and energy. As can be seen in Karl Newson and Mo Willem’s work, the emotion and tension are tracked carefully throughout the spreads, so that they build at the optimum time…
Karl Newson and Tony Ross - I am a Tiger




…escalating into a crisis…


Mo Willems - Don't let the Pigeon Drive the Bus



…and end with a satisfying payoff.

Mo Willems - Don't let the Pigeon Drive the Bus



FLOW:

Once your arc is watertight, it will be important to give your story flow. What will stop the story feeling staccato and static? Will a parent need to point things out for the text to make sense? Examples of successful dialogue only books seem to have a clear structure in place. Indeed, the narrative is weaved into repetitive conversations embedded in a familiar and underlying structure.

Jon Klassen’s ‘I want my hat back’ and the ‘Oi!’ series by Kes Gray and Jim Field, have repetitive structures and refrains that make them easy to follow. A strong narrative flow or familiar structure can serve to hook readers, allowing them some grounding in world and plot. 



 
Jon Klassen - I want my hat back

Kes Gray and Jim Field - Oi Frog!




VOICE:
In dialogue only books, your characters’ conversations carry the story. Parents won’t want to point out who is talking. Therefore, character depth and personality have never been so important. It is worth bearing in mind that if you have more than one character, the talking’ doesn’t just have to be in just the words. Use the opportunity for dynamic body language and action to speak volumes about your character’s personality. I find Viv Schwarz a genius at character. On her blog, Viv talks about her process:

“I was developing the characters of Anna and Crocodile by letting them act out some of the ideas I had for the book on paper. I had no idea who they were yet. Anna had my haircut (it grew out gradually while I was working on the book) and the crocodile was a toy which Anna had told me was bought from IKEA ("when we got the wardrobes"). So, yes, that's how I work... I recommend it, it's really rewarding to see what these little made-up people come out with when you just let them run wild.”





PRESENTATION:
If your dialogue-only text has a solid plot and plenty of character, you’ll want to know how to format it for submission. There are different ways to present a text before submission, although it is widely accepted that splitting a picture book into spreads can help hone pace and page turns. However, in a dialogue only text, it might be necessary to structure your words in a slightly easier format to ensure it's accessible as possible.  Here’s a section from when ‘How Rude’ was submitted. 


HOW RUDE!

Clare Helen Welsh
1.
Dot: Hello, Dot. Lovely to see you. SMASH! [Duck knocks the sugar to the floor]
Dot: How rude!
2.
Duck: A tea party! Cool! Hang these up.
[Duck throws hat and scarf on the floor]
Dot: How rude! 


Clare Helen Welsh and Olivier Tallec - How Rude



As you can see, I used a script-style layout to make it easy and clear to read.  There’s no right or wrong way, as such. Other layout possibilities might suit your text better. For example, you may want to use colour-coding or your spreads might need additional art notes for clarification, so perhaps a grid or table format might be best. That said, I’d be wary of adding too many illustrations notes. Reading them can interrupt the flow and make a story hard to follow. Use them sparingly and where essential, as is recommended for standard picture book submissions. These aren’t meant to dictate scenes to the illustrator, rather help whoever is reading your text understand the narrative.

I hope this post goes to show that whilst there is a lot of skill in writing a dialogue only picture book, it is possible. Limiting a text to conversation, forces us to streamline the story and think carefully about emotion, tension, pace, voice and character. It also makes us think cinematically, which is a useful skill for picture book writers.The question is… ‘Are you up for the challenge?’

Clare is a children's writer and primary school teacher from Devon. She writes fiction and non-fiction picture book texts - sometimes funny and sometimes lyrical. Her next picture book, How Selfish! publishes with Quarto in April 2020 and is illustrated by Olivier Tallec. She currently has books in development with Little Tiger Press, Quarto, Andersen, Nosy Crow and MacMillan www.clarehelenwelsh.com @ClareHelenWelsh

3 comments:

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, Clare! This feels very relevant to me as my next book out is dialogue only, too! I had loads of fun writing it but as you mention, it can be really hard to keep the flow going, especially when there are quite a lot of characters as there are in my book. And like you said, it's really good to act out, and I'm going to be getting puppets of my characters for school visits and we'll act it out.

Thank you, and really good luck with your upcoming book. Hope you can celebrate it virtually! x

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, Clare! This feels very relevant to me as my next book out is dialogue only, too! I had loads of fun writing it but as you mention, it can be really hard to keep the flow going, especially when there are quite a lot of characters as there are in my book. And like you said, it's really good to act out, and I'm going to be getting puppets of my characters for school visits and we'll act it out.

Thank you, and really good luck with your upcoming book. Hope you can celebrate it virtually! x

Lynne Garner said...

Hi - great post. Really interesting and will bookmark this so I can point my writing students to it. They often asked me about dialogue.