What if I told you the structure of your story is already written and that all you had to do was fill-in-the-blanks? Sound too good to be true? It is. Kind of. While storytelling is never this easy, Eve Heidi Bine-Stock’s analysis of storytelling strategies comes as close as I’ve seen to providing this kind of structural formula.
In another post about Eve Heidi Bine-Stock’s excellent three-part series How to Write a Children’s Picture Book, we explored her idea that there are two basic kinds of picture book stories: “needs satisfaction/ frustration” stories, in which the main story problem revolves around a need that the character either achieves (satisfaction) or fails to achieve (frustration); and “character transformation/ validation” stories, in which the main character has a problem that can only be solved by either some internal change of heart (transformation), or by changing the world around himself or herself (validation).
In this post, we’re going to explore the three basic storytelling strategies used to tell these stories. I haven’t spent the time to figure out if Bine-Stock is correct for every picture book ever written but, to be honest, I don’t care. What I do know is that knowing these three strategies gives you a great tool for brainstorming, outlining, and revising your picture book narratives.
The Three Basic Storytelling Strategies
Bine-Stock explains the storytelling strategies thus:
These stories plunge readers immediately into the midst of a problem at the very beginning of the story and provide no backstory to setup the problem. These stories follow the following structure:
- Development (of the character and problem)
- Action (taken towards solving it)
- Worse (often an unintended consequence of the first action)
- Solution (undertaken by the main character)
- Outcome (or resolution)
In a “needs frustration” story, the structure would be: Problem, Development, Action, Improved, Frustrated, Outcome.
Character Trait First
These stories setup the story problem by showing us a (usually) problematic character trait and how it is getting the character “in trouble.” According to Bine-Stock, these stories follow this structure:
- Character Trait (introduced)
- Development (how the trait creates a problem that must be solved)
- Action (related to trait)
- Improved/ Worse (character often gets what they want and then suffers because of that- this is the old “be careful what you wish for” dynamic at work)
- Problem (bigger problem is the result of the character’s trait and previous action)
- Transformation (required to solve problem)
These stories setup the story problem by first showing us “life as it is” before some “inciting incident” interrupts the normal flow of life. When these stories are “needs satisfaction” stories, they follow this structure:
- Background (established)
- Problem (introduced)
- Action (taken by character)
- Situation (gets worse)
- Solution (discovered by character)
According to Bine-Stock, when this strategy is used with “character transformation” stories, they typically follow this structure: Background, Character Trait (which causes problems), Worse (the result of the trait), Problem (one big final obstacle), Transformation (the character must change to solve problem), Outcome.
To help readers understand these strategies and structures, Bine-Stock analyzes various picture books and shows you the different ways each structural progression works and is expressed by various writers. It’s not unlike what Blake Snyder does in Save the Cat Goes to the Movies (another GREAT series of books on structure) where he analyzes movies based on his structural paradigm.
Structural Analysis of Harry the Dirty Dog
To help us see this structure at work, let’s look at Bine-Stock’s analysis of Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion, which she classifies as a “character transformation” story that uses a “character trait first” strategy.
- Character Trait– Harry the dog is sweet, but he loves being dirty and doesn’t like taking baths.
- Development– Harry’s refusal to take baths leads to problems as he steals the scrubbing brush and buries it.
- Action– Harry dislike of baths causes him to run away in order to avoid taking a bath.
- Improved/ Worse– At first, he loves his freedom and the fact that he can get as dirty as he wants. But eventually he tires of this and wants to go home.
- Problem– When he gets home, he is so dirty no one recognizes him despite his attempts to convince them.
- Transformation– In order to “get his family back,” Harry digs up the scrub brush and races up to the bathtub.
- Outcome– His family recognizes him and showers him with love. Harry now sleeps with the scrub brush under his pillow.
Personally, I LOVE structural outlines of this nature. As a story breaking or revision tool, they can really be priceless because of the way they force you to think through and analyze how your story beats operate within your larger story. To get a full understanding of Bine-Stock’s ideas, you really do need to read the book itself. But hopefully, this brief explanation gives you an idea of how useful this might be as both an outlining and revision tool.
Just think: if you knew what kind of problem your story was going to revolve around, you could use Bine-Stock’s outlines to figure out the trajectory of your narrative (the same way you can use Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet, which I’d recommend if you’re writing longer works). Similarly, if you were revising a story and couldn’t figure out what was wrong, you could use Bine-Stock’s outlines to figure out if you were leaving out or short-changing one of the “required” sections. Pretty cool, right?
Today, let’s see if we can put these ideas to work for us. Pick up a random picture book and determine which strategy it uses. Can you reverse engineer that picture book based on one of the structural outlines Bine-Stock provides? Try it, and I’ll do the same!