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Writing Lesson Week Two: More Cohesive Story Structure Elements

Welcome to Week Two! This week we will cover more cohesive story structures. I think these structures are very helpful in creating strong, succinct picture books. Take your time and run your ideas through each structure to see new ways of looking at your story.


This week includes:

• The question and answer of a story and it's usefulness.   

• Typical three phase story structure of a picture book.

• A Storyclock Diagram: How to use it and storyclock analyzed samples.

• Examples of cohesive story structures:

      1) the journey

      2) circular story structure

      3) parallel story structure

      4) comparison story structure

• Your assignment

The Picture Book's Question and Answer

Picture books are so short and concise that each page and each word (and each illustration) in your story needs to move your story forward. Defining the the story for yourself can help you stay focused. One way to do that is to ask yourself "what is the underlying question?" and "what is the answer to that question?" in your picture book. Keeping that in mind might help in structuring, editing, and staying on point in your story. The question and answer could be asked and answered in different ways. The book we looked at last week, Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Tapback, might address the question: What happens to our things when they are worn out? or What do you do when you are left with nothing? The answer might be: If you bring your heart, soul, and creativity; you can always make something out of whatever you have. For There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly: What happens when you eat more and more? Answer: You die. Even concept books (which are books that explore a subject more than tell a story) have a question and answer.  Moving forward, I'll add my interpretation of what the question and answer is for some of the stories exampled in this lesson. 

The Three Act Picture Book Structure

The three acts are a beginning, middle, and an end.

1) Act One is the set up; the character and the conflict are introduced. Usually, a picture book starts on page four-five. You will notice the main character is often introduced on page four-five. The problem is often introduced on page six-seven. Act One moves the story into Act Two.

2) In Act Two, the character attempts to solve the problem and often runs into difficulties. The character again attempts to solve the problem—and then again. This moves the story into Act Three.

3) Act Three is the resolution. Usually the problem is finally solved on page thirty-thirty one. Page thirty two then ties up any loose ends. I call page thirty-two the Ba-bump. It's the last page that clinches the book and seals it up nice and tight. You may not want to use that term while meeting with an editor... it's just how I like to think of it. 

4) Just a note... before page four-five is the front matter. The front matter includes the front end-papers, the title page, and the copyright dedication page. You can refer to the layout page from the last lesson. The front matter adds up to a lot of real estate. Use that space to support your book. You can set the mood or tone, or use maps that show the world of your book. In one of my books, The Ghost Catcher, I used the endpapers to introduce the cast of characters. It is one of my favorite spreads from the book. Sometimes your best work for the book doesn't actually fit into the book but it could be considered for endpapers or a title page.

So, now I want to show you this nifty little thing: The Storyclock Diagram. 

The Storyclock Method

I found this method works nicely for children's books to brain-dump your themes, characters, and actions so that you can start to organize your storyplot. Often ideas come rushing in and it's hard to capture all the ideas at one time. If you use this method, you can get all your ideas out of your head and onto a page. Then, when your ideas have abandoned you, you have some material to work with. Setting your actions page by page around the clock will clue you in to where there are gaps in your story. You can strategically adjust your story to bring balance to the actions. It's also useful to plot your favorite stories for analysis. I've noticed the length of Act One and Act Three combined are often equal to the length of Act Two. 

Here is a storyclock diagram based on Caps for Sale. This act 2 is longer than other stories that I've plotted. I only added the actions to the clock.

Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina

This is one of my favorite books to read. It feels the same to me as Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon. I think it's the repetition and the simplistic action of the story.

I want to point out the sentence: "I think I'll go for a walk in the country," said he. Writing "said he" instead of he said, has more of a lyrical quality and keeps the focus on he instead of said.

Slobodkina uses "thought he" on this page too. The precision and care the peddler to check his hats, and the quiet repetition, gives a feeling of slowing down. The reader is transported to a time and place when people did mundane tasks with intention and purpose. It becomes comforting and lulling.

This is such a smart illustration of the sun smiling down on the peddler, yet not showing the peddler. Keeping the peddler out of our sight while he naps creates more mystery.

The repetition is a lulling way to elongate time on this page.

And creating suspense with this page turn.

This way of describing both perspectives is not only a lulling repeat, but it also sets up an action and a reaction on the following pages: "The peddler looked at the monkeys, The monkeys looked at the peddler."

REPETITION: The repeat of "You monkeys, you," and the rest of the repeat on this page creates a rhythmic pacing and becomes a baseline to to accentuate the peddler's increasing anger on the following pages.

CLIMAX: This is a lovely, funny parallel to a child having a tantrum.

CIRCLE: This page circles around to the beginning page. The only difference is we see the back side of the peddler instead of the front.

Again here is a storyclock diagram based on Caps for Sale. This act 2 is longer than other stories that I've plotted.

Cohesive Story Structures Examples

So, last week you were introduced to examples of cumulative and de-cumulative story structure. Here are other interesting organizing structures that can help bring cohesion to a story. Sometimes stories use more than one of these structures at a time.


1) The Journey


2) Parallel Stories (Sometimes added to the illustration only)


3) Comparison


4) Circular Story Structure

5) Cumulative (from last week)

Here is an example of a circular journey in Along a Long Road. It mentions under the dedication that it was illustrated with one thirty-five foot long illustration created in Adobe Illustrator. The front and back meet up as well, creating a circular path. I chose this example and the next example to show how simple and playful a text can be.

Along a long road

Going up

Around a small town and down

Into a tunnel

And out

Over a bridge

One, two, three

Along a long road going fast

Hitting a bump in the way

Stopped by the side of the road

Up again back on track

Along a long road gaining speed

Again and again and again

Along a long road going fast

Around a round bend near the end

And start all over again

JOURNEY / CIRCULAR: Along a Long Road by Frank Viva


JOURNEY / CIRCULAR: This road is circular, literally. This road lines up physically page to page, around the end papers, and across the cover to meet up to the endpapers on the other side.

REPETITIVE PHRASE: Along a long road.

REPETITIVE PHRASE: Along a long road.

REPETITIVE PHRASE: Along a long road.

The whale tail is an illustrative foreshadow of the next page.

REPETITIVE PHRASE: Along a long road.

PARALLEL: Viva chooses a rollercoaster track as an object which parallels the shape of the road in this book. The experience of riding the rollercoaster might be similar to the experience of riding a bike along this long road. Notice the use of the words "Around a round" I wouldn't be surprised to see a future book with the word play: Around a round (blank).

CIRCULAR: This page adds circular form to this book by ending back at the beginning. But this round is a little later in the day. Notice the bat and the moon.

JOURNEY: A Way Away by Frank Viva

JOURNEY: Another book by Frank Viva, this book is also designed around spacial play. The yellow arrow begins the path. The path physically lines up page to page. This book, like the previous book, was created with one long continuous illustration in Adobe Illustrator.

JOURNEY: This is our main character that begins a journey.

Here is our main character asleep. That's the end, but that's not all....

PARALLEL JOURNEY: ...This arrow marks the beginning of the path—you can now read the book in the other direction as well! I've seen other books that are designed to be read in two different ways, but to be able to read text back and forth from page to page pushes the boundary of a picture book.

This storyclock shows the two spreads which break the rhythm occur on pages 6-7 and pages 26-27. By looking at the storyclock you can see page spreads mirror one another. Since this book reads in either direction that break happens at the same spot.

More Glue

Along with the Journey, Parallel Stories, Comparison, Circular Story Structure, and last week's Cumulative / De-Cumulative structure, here are a few other concepts that could add cohesion to your story themes:

 1)  Time of the Day

 2)  Days of the Week

 3)  Months of the Year

 4)  Seasons

 5)  A Repetitive Phrase

 6)  Counting

 7)  Alphabet

 8)  Question and Answer—As in "Not a Box" by Antoinette Portis.

     (Not to be confused with a question and answer that I have suggested you

     ask yourself to keep your story focused.)

 9)  Point of View 

10)  Companions (Could be in the illustrations)

CIRCULAR / SEASONS Ox-cart Man by Donald Hall Illustrated by Barbara Cooney

Ox-cart man describes how a family would live off the land during the cycle of the year. In October he fills his cart....

...with contributions from each family member. The text uses repetition as a central theme. Repetition of words and actions that become cyclical.

The family works together.

JOURNEY: The ox-cart man travels for ten days with his cart and his ox... the market.

He sells his goods and his cart.

...and his ox.

Then he buys supplies.

And walks home.

The family makes more goods to prepare for the market next fall.

CIRCULAR / CUMULATIVE If You Give a Pig a Pancake by Laura Numeroff Illustrated by Felicia Bond

This book repeats a successful formula from the book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. If you give a pig a pancake unleashes a chain of events which might happen if you give a pig a pancake

The pig asks for syrup and then gets sticky, to needs a bath, to want bubbles, want a toy duck, etc—a mess ensues.,,

The story cycles around where the pig gets sticky from wallpapering, which reminds the pig of syrup and she'll want syrup...

... and a pancake to go with it.

CIRCULAR: Gabriella's Song by Candace Flemming Illustrated by Giselle Potter

Here is Gabriella's Song diagramed as a story clock.

CIRCULAR: Gabriella is walking home surrounded by the sounds of Venice.

A song forms in Gabriella's heart and she begins to sing it.

The song passes to the baker.

The song passes to the widow.

The song passes to the gondolier.

The song passes to the composer.

CIRCULAR: The story begins and ends with Gabriella's song.

ALPHABET / CIRCULAR: Chicka Chicka Boom Boom By Bill Martin Jr and John Archambault Illustrated by Lois Ehlert

ALPHABET: This book uses the concept of the alphabet as part of it's structure, and it is a fun books to read.

ALPHABET: This might be the first book to make characters out of the letters of the alphabet.


The capital letters become the parents.

CIRCULAR: The ending circles back to the beginning with "A" again coaxing the alphabet up the coconut tree.

JOURNEY / PARALLEL The Journey by Francesca Sanna

This book was inspired by the author/illustrator's interview with refugees in Italy.

JOURNEY: I have selected a few illustrations to show this family's escape from their war torn country.

Look at this poetic visual of war.

PARALLEL: Comparing the journey to migrating birds.

PARALLEL: Rain by Linda Ashman Illustrated by Christian Robinson

PARALLEL: The two characters have opposite reactions to the rain.


PARALLEL: We see in more detail the different reactions of the characters.

PARALLEL: The two characters meet.

A change happens.

Two parallel stories are shown in the book until they come into contact with each other and create a meaningful change.

JOURNEY / CIRCULAR: The Day the Babies Crawled Away by Peggy Rathmann

What a troublesome butterfly.

FRONT MATTER: This book has an extra page of front matter so we get a feel for the whole town—setting the scene before the story begins.

JOURNEY: Here we're introduced to the main character. In the illustration, you see one child (our main character) noticing the babies.

REPETITIVE PHRASE: The book begins with the repeated phrase: "Do you remember..." also the phrase "What a day When the babies crawled away!"

COMPARISON: There is a comparison by repeating the words "They took a short nap in a pile on you"

CIRCULAR: The ending returns to the beginning.

COMPARISON: The child was taking care of the babies the way the mom is taking care of the child. Before read: "They took a short nap in a pile on you". Where the mom is taking care of the child it reads: "you fell fast asleep in a small pile on me."

CIRCULAR: The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson Illustrated by Beth Krommes (The Caldecott winner for 2009)

CUMULATIVE: Notice the two-color illustrations and how the limited color palette help tell the story. This is page four-five and intro to our main character—the child, not the key.

CUMULATIVE / CIRCULAR: Remember in last week's lesson we learned that the end of a sentence leaves a lasting impression on the reader? This book is a perfect example. The sentences transition by picking up the last word of the previous sentence and using it to begin the next sentence.


JOURNEY: This illustration creates a feeling of a journey.

CIRCULAR: The story builds up to this point and then moves through the elements in reverse order.

CUMULATIVE /DE-CUMULATIVE: This story uses the cumulative structure we worked with last week combined with a circular structure.

The story moves back through the nouns

These last two lines read so well together.

Question: What is inside the house? Answer: Order and a comforting universe.

COMPARISON: THE Hueys in What's the Opposite? BY Oliver Jeffers


COMPARISON: One and All by Élisa Gehin

This book compares a single object to different groupings of that object. Here is a "person" and a "family".

Open the flap to discover a "crowd".

Another comparison.

Open the flap to discover a, "zoo".

QUESTION AND ANSWER: Not A Box by Antoinette Portis

QUESTION AND ANSWER: Here an unseen narrator is asking a question....

... and Bunny is answering.

And again...

This concept creates a very cohesive story. Not to be confused with the overall view of how your story asks and answers a question.

JOURNEY / CIRCULAR: Trashy Town by Andrea Zimmerman and David Clemesha Illustrated by Dan Yaccarino

A DAY: Trashy Town takes place over the course of a day—it could be thought of as a journey.

Page four-five: Meet Mr. Gilly.

Page six-seven: Here is the set up.

REPETITIVE PHRASE: The refrain: "Dump it in, Smash it down, Drive around the Trashy Town! Is the trash truck full yet?" is fun to read and ties the story together. Sometimes we think more is better instead of appreciating how wonderful simplicity can read.

Count how many times Mr. Gilly picks up trash. This page is the second time he picks up the trash.

This page is the third pick up.

This page is the fourth trash pick up.

This page is sixth.

ILLUSTRATED COMPANIONS: If you look back through the illustrations, you will notice that the rats have been with Mr. Gilly all along. Even at home in the bath! This page is seven.

Story Question: What's a day like for a trashman in Trashy Town? Answer: It's fun to clean up Trashy Town.

This book is only 24 pages, and this is the conclusion. Notice the rats? | Brooklyn, NY 

© 2018 by Kristen Balouch

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