Whether you like to plan out your stories first, or whether your “story” is something you discover after your first draft, being able to identify what kind of story problem you are exploring is a critical step in refining and focusing your narrative. It’s also a great way to break your story and figure out what kind of story you are trying to tell.
According to Eve Heidi Bine-Stock’s How to Write a Children’s Picture Book Volume II (E & E Publishing 2004), there are only two types of story problems that picture books explore: “needs satisfaction/ frustration” problems, and “character transformation/validation” problems.
As I’ve mentioned before, Eve Heidi Bine-Stock’s three-part series How to Write a Children’s Picture Book is the MFA of books about writing picture books. Even though Bine-Stock doesn’t include a ton of specific exercises to help you work through her ideas, I still think these books dig into the craft of picture books more deeply than any other book or series out there.
In her section on storytelling strategies, Bine-Stock suggests that there are two basic problems that characters face in picture books, and three basic storytelling strategies used to tell these stories. Her analysis of storytelling strategies is awesome (and practical), and I’ll cover that in another post. Here, we’re going to briefly explore the two story problem-types she discusses.
Needs Satisfaction or Frustration Stories
In a “needs satisfaction/ frustration” story, the main story problem revolves around a character’s need (dramatized as want or desire) which the character struggles to meet (satisfaction). Some examples of these kinds of stories are: Corduroy by Don Freeman and Owen by Kevin Henkes.
In Corduroy, a sweet by lonely toy store teddy bear wants only to be taken home by someone who wants him. When a little girl notices he has a missing button, he sets off on a mis-adventure to find it (in order to make himself look new again). He gets into trouble, of course, but the next day, the little girl is there to buy him anyway. She sews a button on his overalls and the story ends as they are each happy to have a friend.
In my opinion, the key to these kinds of stories, is the sweetness and universality of the simple desire that drives the main character. Salina Yoon’s Floppy, about a little bear who wants to keep a Floppy bunny that he finds but knows he should return it to its owner, is another excellent example of this type.
The inverse of this type is the “needs frustration” story in which the character fails to meet or achieve their desire. In these kinds of stories, the protagonist fails to get what they want. Often, they ironically get what they need while learning some important lesson at the same time. Bine-Stock gives the story The Wolf’s Chicken Stew by Keiko Kasza as this type of story.
In this story, a wolf who loves eating leaves meals he’s cooked on the doorstep of an unsuspecting chicken in order to fatten her up for his chicken stew. But on the night he plans to eat her, the chicken and her many chicks see him and assume he is simply a generous benefactor. They make him a delicious meal and their gratitude creates a change of heart in him.
At the end of this story, Wolf’s change of heart is stated, but does not lead to a clear action, which is why I think Bine-Stock classifies it as a “needs frustration” story. It would seem to me, then, that when a change of heart leads to an action, which brings on the climax of the story, you have the “character transformation” story-type.
Character Transformation and Validation Stories
In a “character transformation/ validation” story, the main character has a problem that can only be solved by some sort of change of heart. In these stories, according to Bine-Stock, a character “must come to a realization, make a decision, or have a change of heart, usually in order to overcome a character flaw.” Examples of these stories are: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Bread and Jam for Frances by Russel Hoban, and Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion.
In Harry the Dirty Dog, for example, Harry loves being dirty. He loves it so much he runs away when it is time for a bath. After a day of enjoying freedom and getting dirtier and dirtier, he returns home tired and hungry. Only problem is, he’s so dirty no one recognizes him! He solves the problem by running into the house and jumping in the bath. Once he’s clean, Harry’s family recognizes him and they story ends with Harry is happy, safe, and sound back with his family. Character transformation at its simplest.
The inverse of this is the “character validation” story in which it is not the character that changes, but the world that surrounds him or her. Thus, the character traits that were thought to be bad are “validated” as good. Since non-fiction picture book biographies are often about people whose ideas or pursuits change the world, it makes sense that many of these types of picture books follow this structure.
An example of this type of story is my picture book Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters. In it, Muddy has “never being good at doing what he was told” and it is this character trait that gets him in trouble, but also gives him the persistence to succeed in the face of extreme poverty, racism, and a disbelieving public. In the end, his persistence is “validated” when one of his songs becomes a hit. A fictional example is the classic The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf.
For our exercise today, open up a random picture book (that isn’t already listed above) and simply identify which one of these story problems is being used. Then, write a sentence or two in which you reflect on how this helps you understand something more about the structure of picture books. If you have a picture-book-in-progress (or four, if you’re like me) what happens when you apply this idea to one of your stories? Does it help?