Wednesday, 9 July 2014

APTLY EVER AFTER: Why picture books need proper endings • Jonathan Emmett

Back in April, Natascha Biebow wrote a post for this blog about picture book openings and why it’s important to get them right. I think endings are equally important, so I thought I’d write a post about them.

When I was reading picture books with my own children we were always disappointed by stories that ended inappropriately. Perhaps most disappointing of all were picture books that seemed to have no proper ending at all. We’d turn the page, expecting to discover how the story finished only to find that it was already over and we were at the back of the book. I think there needs to be a satisfying sense of conclusion when one reaches the end of a picture book, whether the story winds down gently or ends with a spectacular flourish or unexpected twist.

Some of the best children’s storytelling in recent years has come from Pixar, the animation studio that created the Toy Story trilogy and several other modern classics. While Pixar’s films are always visually impressive, the company attributes its phenomenal success to its motto – “Story is King”. Here’s one of Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling that’s also a great piece of advice for picture book authors.

Rule 7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

I’m a great believer in writing an outline before writing a story – even a short story like a picture book’s – and that means coming up with an ending before starting the first draft. I know that some authors dismiss outlines as limiting, claiming that they like to ‘discover’ the story as they are writing it. That might be true if the outline were a fixed document but, like most authors that use them, I’m constantly tinkering with the outline as I write the story. If a better ending occurs to me, I see if I can rework the outline to accommodate it. Writing a story with an outline is like going for a walk in the country with a map. You have an idea of what’s coming up, but you can always opt to take a different route and end up somewhere else if it takes your fancy. With a map, a walker is less likely to end their walk stranded in the middle of nowhere; with an outline an author is less likely to end up with an unsatisfactory ending.

I don’t know whether the authors of the following picture books use outlines or not, but here are three stories that all have satisfying endings that feel just right. I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers, but if you haven’t read any of the stories mentioned below and want to avoid any hints as to how they end, you might want to skip over that paragraph.

The Great Dog Bottom Swap

Peter Bently

Illustrated by Mei Matsuoka

This is the tale of a Dog’s Summer Ball that starts well, but ends in disaster. It’s a farcically funny story, deftly written with lots of amusing incidents throughout. And – as if that weren’t enough – the text on the final spread reveals a twist that makes the reader see the whole plot in an amusing new light.

Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose

Dr. Seuss

I can’t think of another picture book ending that made me and my children laugh quite so much as this one when we first read it. The story concerns Thidwick, a kindly moose whose generosity is exploited by a collection of creatures who set up home in his antlers. When a group of hunters arrive, the overburdened Thidwick’s chances of survival look slim. The image on the last page gives the story an incredibly funny, totally unexpected and somewhat shocking ending. 

The Gruffalo

Julia Donaldson

Illustrated by Axel Scheffler

I know that The Gruffalo has had plenty of praise heaped on it already, but that’s because it’s such an exemplary piece of picture book writing. After the mouse’s death-defying adventure, Donaldson ends the story calmly and quietly. Having repeatedly escaped being eaten himself, the mouse (and the story) comes to a stop as the mouse sits down to enjoy a meal.

What are your favourite picture book endings? Let us know in the comments box below.

Jonathan Emmett's latest picture book is HERE BE MONSTERS, a swashbuckling tale of dastardly pirates and mysterious monsters, illustrated by Poly Bernatene and published by Macmillan Children's Books.
Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blogYou can also follow Jonathan on facebook and twitter @scribblestreet.

See all of Jonathan's posts for Picture Book Den.


  1. Great post, Jonathan. When I get asked to look at manuscripts it's usually the ending that's the big letdown, when it should be the dramatic climax. Every would-be picture book author needs to think very hard about it from the beginning, surely! That seems like a very obvious comment, yet - like most things to do with picture books - it ain't easy and everybody thinks it is - Endings show up lack of thought.

  2. Thanks Moira.

    Yes, it's a shame when stories fall at the final hurdle. A strong ending can turn a mediocre picture book into a good one and a weak ending can turn a great picture book into a mediocre one.

  3. Enjoyed your post. Jonathan, and I totally agree. But ha ha - why worry about giving away spoilers when picture books are read so many times! Though if it has a poor, anti-climatic ending, then I suppose it won't get read again.

    There are lots of ending I adore, ranging from 'ahh' moments to clever twists, and today I was looking at books with simple, wordless visual images on the final page. Jon Klassen's 'This Is Not My Hat' always makes me grin when I reach the last page because it's so full of debate - what really happened where the plants grow big and tall?! Another book with a visual ending is Michael Rosen's & Arthur Robins' 'Little Rabbit Foo Foo'. I adore the book but the ending always feels a little flat to me because the image on the last double page spread is small and looks like an end paper, and somehow I want a different image or one or two words to round it off.

    For an ending that often makes adult gasp, I don't think you can beat the end of 'Egg Drop' by Mini Grey. Should I give away the ending for that one?!

  4. Thanks, Paeony. I haven't read 'Egg Drop' – I'Il have to check it out.

  5. I love the circular ending of the classic 'If you give a mouse a cookie'. Endings can be so hard, but then again, beginnings are hard too, and, er, middles...but, when you get it right, when you just KNOW, it's so great - almost a physical feeling of warmth (for me anyway).

  6. Good one, Jonathan. Yeah, it's got to end with one of two things: a HAH! or an AWWWWW!

  7. A really helpful, insightful post - I'll have to check out the Pixar storytelling tips. Sometimes I wish there was a machine that churned out good endings, as good ones can be so hard to come by! I also use a rough outline to 'map' out my stories, first in my head, then working out the page turns. As you say, it's a good starting point and often things will shift as you get writing. I love the close of GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE DINOSAURS by Mo Willems, where both Goldilocks and the Dinosaurs are in for a surprise.

    1. I always do a page break outline as well, although the breaks often get moved by the publisher or illustrator, which is fair enough. I don't know GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE DINOSAURS - I'll have to check it out.