Crafting narratives that flow and feel natural is one hallmark of great writing. It’s one of those things: you know it when it’s working. And, of course, you know it when it isn’t. Something feels off. The problem for most writers isn’t simply identifying when a narrative isn’t working; the problem is knowing WHY it isn’t working. Because if you don’t know why, you can’t fix it.
Like I’ve said elsewhere, Eve Heidi Bine-Stock’s three-part series How to Write a Children’s Picture Book (2004) is the Mercedes Benz of books on writing picture books. These are MFA-level lectures— they are in-depth, craft-oriented, and full of specific examples. Having said that, Bine-Stock doesn’t include a ton of specific exercises to help you work through her ideas. Still, I think these books dig into the craft of picture books more deeply than any other book or series out there.
The first book in the series, which I briefly talked about in a previous post, is devoted to structure. The second volume, titled “Volume 2: Word, Sentence, Scene, Story” focuses on the specific mechanics of writing and storytelling. Some of the topics covered in this book include word order, parallelism, sentence focus, and storytelling strategies.
Action and Reaction
One of my favorite analyses comes in a chapter called, “Sentence after Sentence—Action & Reaction.” In it, Bine-Stock breaks down the basic structure of effective scene writing by showing readers the way that actions and reactions form a storytelling unit. Bine-stock suggests that the basic unit of a story (after the sentence) is the action-reaction unit. For those of you that are familiar with Jack Bickham’s “scene and sequel” idea, this will sound familiar. For more from Bickham, see his often referred to book on craft, Scene & Structure (Writer’s Digest Books 1993).
Within this action-reaction unit, Bine-Stock explains that there are two types of action, “An outer action is something a character does or says. An inner action is something a character thinks, feels, senses, or wants.” Reactions have this inner and outer character too.
One of the examples Bine-Stock gives is this one from Arnold Loebel’s classic Frog and Toad Are Friends:
…Toad gave his jacket to Frog [outer action]. Frog thought that it was beautiful [inner reaction]. He put it on and jumped for joy [outer reactions].
…Toad went into the house and stood on his head [outer actions]. “Why are you standing on your head?” asked Frog [outer reaction].
Notice here that when an inner reaction is involved, it is followed by an outer reaction that “dramatizes” it.
In my experience, closely following this action-reaction pattern creates a strong sense of cause-and-effect action both in your characters and your plot. It gives readers a strong sense of how your characters think and how those thoughts lead to action. This sense that one moment leads to the next is not only critical to picture books, but in all storytelling. It also helps you establish a very clear and precise narrative rhythm.
Putting the Action/Reaction Unit to Work
For new writers, I don’t think you should think too much about this until you are revising. It is better to just write and not get bogged down being overly critical about your ideas. But, using this as a guiding principle as you revise is a great way to raise the level of your storytelling. And the more you use it as a revision tool, the more it’ll become second nature to you as you write.
Keep in mind that this is a principle and not a rule. Your work does not always have to follow this pattern but when things feel off, it’s nice to know what might be wrong. If you get a lot of comments about your narrative flow feeling off, this is a likely reason.
The question for you today is: can you apply this to your own writing and use it to revise a work in progress? In the comments below, paste before and after versions of a short paragraph that you revised using this method and I’ll do the same!