Friday 12 September 2014

How to Write a Breakout Premise by Natascha Biebow

First, think about all the books that you really, really love. WHY do you really, really love them?

If you really, really love a book, you want everyone to read it. You tell everyone about it, right? WHY?

One of my current favourite picture books is:

Every time I read it, I laugh and laugh! The bears are replaced by dinosaurs who make delicious chocolate pudding instead of porridge; there are three HUGE chairs, and the dinosaurs are out to trick Goldilocks into becoming a delicious chocolate-filled-little-girl-bonbon for supper.

Just look at the endsheets! 

from Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems

One can imagine Mo sitting at his desk thinking about the story premise, ticking off the options until he settled on just the right mix of elements. 

An SCBWI interview asked him: "Were there hundreds and hundreds of these that you came up with and by a process of winnowing you picked the craziest 122? How do you judge what's funnier than what? Are you putting yourself in readers' shoes or are you choosing what YOU think is funniest and confident we'll agree?"

"I write as much as I can, then take the unfunny stuff out," replied Willems.

It's the process of working out a breakout premise.

Because really, really amazing book

1. Hold you captive in a world – you wish you could spend time hanging out with those characters, living in their world. It is just so convincing, compelling, filled with unforgettable details, yet uncluttered in the simplicity of its language. And if it's funny or sad or joyous to boot, you've got a real winner!

2. Have characters you wish you could invite home for a cup of tea. They are funny and interesting and you have a strong affinity with them; or perhaps they are the kind of person you wish you could be. 

Here's another character that I really, really like: 

from Doctor Hoof by Diana Kimpton and Garry Parsons

Doctor Hoof (illustrated by Garry Parsons) really wants to help others, but he's new in town. He has to revise his expectations about what sorts of animals he can help, but when he does try, it makes him feel great inside. Plus he makes lots of new friends with animals he would perhaps not have met otherwise. 

I once asked the author, Diana Kimpton, where she got the idea:

"With Doctor Hoof, it was the name that came first. My grandson couldn’t pronounce Doctor Who properly and used to ask if we could watch Doctor Hoof. When I told my agent, she suggested that would be a good name for a picture book character and a horse with a stethoscope and a stetson immediately sprung to mind. All I had to do then was think of a story!!! 

I decided early on that it would be good if he had just moved somewhere new, but the story didn't come together until inspiration struck in the middle of the night and I woke my husband to declare "He lives in a one horse town." After that, everything slipped into place quite easily."

I love the final spread in the book - the world of this party has such a joyous, friendship-filled feel to it.

from Doctor Hoof by Diana Kimpton and Garry Parsons
But breakout worlds and characters aren't enough. A third element is essential:

3. The plot is fizzy, bubbly and compelling! The storyteller explores a topic that resonates with the reader, that is thought-provoking or dramatic – in an original way. 

Importantly, something big is at stake! 

You really care about what the author is saying and what is going to happen to those characters and their world. The story is the storyteller’s vehicle for making the reader understand something meaningful.

The dinosaurs stand to lose their delicious chocolate-filled-little-girl-bonbon for supper (well, they do because not all stories end happily ever-after!) . . . 

from Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems
and Doctor Hoof nearly ends up friendless and unappreciated for his talent of helping others . . .

from Doctor Hoof by Diana Kimpton and Garry Parsons

When you read a book you really, really love, you are never thinking, "So what?” and, “Why should I care?” You don’t look up until you reach the end of the book. When you get there, you think, “Wow!” The words and the pictures are seamless.

You don't want to just write any book that readers will skim and soon forget. You want to write and publish those books that readers will really, really love. HOW?

To write a breakout book, we must like the characters and we must know them intimately. We must know what motivates them. Importantly, the character must care about what is going to happen in the story otherwise we won’t care!

A breakout picture book must therefore have:

Sometimes, the first premise we think of is the strongest. But sometimes, it needs ‘baking’. Then what do you do?

You can build it up by:

Observe. Look at the competition (then forget about it). 
Write from the heart, from your gut.

And then ask ‘so what?’ again.  

Natascha Biebow
Author, Editor and Mentor

Blue Elephant Storyshaping is an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission.  Find out more about how to create a fantastic PREMISE in my webinar course!

Natascha is also the author of Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Regional Advisor (Chair) of SCBWI British Isles.


Jane Clarke said...

Thanks, Natascha, for getting to the heart of what makes a brilliant picture book. But oh, how hard it is to find that breakout premise :-)

Moira Butterfield said...

So well put, Natascha. Really gets to the heart of it. Please, please everyone out there - pass this on! The market is now awash with committee-led nauseatingly dull stuff that holds none of this truth - the picture book equivalent of flatpack furniture bolted together from worthless bits - which is why it will all go into landfill. my sore head on today : )

Natascha Biebow said...

I'm glad you found it useful. Yes, finding that breakout premise is really, really hard. When someone else cracks it, you wish you'd thought of that idea!

Natascha Biebow said...

Yes, the trend to make 'books to order' is an interesting one. Can they be as fresh as ones that come from somewhere deep inside the author? Only if the premise is good enough in the first place and if the author commissioned is allowed time and space to go away and create (with a capital C).

Jon Burgess Design said...

Nice post. Yes, we all need a breakout premise. Hard to find though, which is why it's so nice when you do find one. I love the Doctor Hoof for Doctor Who story. I think those sort of happy accidental comings together are how the best ideas come. I had something similar, when saying 'Mickey Mouse' in a scots accent, it sounded like 'Mucky Moose' which triggered the idea for a picture book. (long ago. . .)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Natascha! So good I've shared it with all my PB buddies!

Paeony Lewis said...

Great post, Natascha. 'So what' is so important. Sometimes initial ideas can feel brilliant, but when I work on them they fizzle out into 'so what' ideas. However, some stay full of fizz!

Natascha Biebow said...

Thanks for all your comments and for spreading the word to other picture book people! Now back to looking for that unique fizzy idea.

Jan Carr said...

Thank you Natascha, this is so helpful to a non picture book writer too!

Sherry Ellis said...

This was a terrific post. A lot of authors really don't think of these things when they write picture books, but it's important to have these elements. Love the story behind Dr. Hoof.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thanks, Natascha. I think the 'so what?' question is critical. It's stuck with me since you talked about it a few years ago, and it's really good to repeat it over and over.