Picturebook Endings

Picturebook endings are their own beast, due to the fact that picture books more than any other story are written for repeat reads.picturebook endings

Picture books without a twist at the end aren’t as much fun as those with a surprise ending that moves the story beyond the book.

– @taralazar

 

The so-called “open ending” that is gradually gaining more and more acceptance — first in young adult novels and then also in books for younger children — should be viewed as a modification of the linear code (in which a character goes on a journey, changes, then returns home).

– Maria Nikolajeva

For examples of contemporary picture books with open endings, see This Is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.

The great challenge of picturebooks — which is also true of other stories but less so — is the need to create a story which stands up to not only being read twice,  but 100 times. Much of the re-readability of a picturebook comes from its conclusion.

There is a growing tendency for picture book endings to be left open, and more often than not, they pose questions to which there is no easy answer. Often the themes are what Egoff calls ‘the darker side of human experience’, as if authors wish to insist that the security of childhood be shattered as soon as possible, or maybe inferring that it is fiction anyhow.

— Clare Scott-Mitchell, Give Them Wings, 1988.

THE IDEOLOGY OF PICTUREBOOK ENDINGS

How a narrative resolves, ‘ties up’ or ‘untangles’ (both metaphors are widespread), the complications of story is a recurrent concern among theorists, but is of special interest with children’s fiction. Here, the desire for closure, both in the specific sense of an achieved satisfying ending and in the more general sense of a final order and coherent significance, is characteristically a desire for fixed meanings, and is apparent in the socializing, didactic purposes of much children’s literature. There is an idea that young children require (that is both ‘demand’ and ‘need’) certainties about life rather than indeterminacies or uncertainties or unfixed boundaries. Even a genre such as fantasy, which might be expected to offer a site for a play of meanings and for resistances to fixed meanings, usually shows a strong impulse towards closure. … As readers we learn to look for some sense of completeness, both aesthetic and thematic, over and above the bringing of a series of events to a close. Aesthetic completeness is achieved in children’s literature through representation of symmetries, or movements from states of lack to states of plenitude.

Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature by John Stephens

PICTURE BOOKS AND THE CONCEPT OF THE NEVER-ENDING STORY

John Truby, in his book Anatomy of Story, writes about endings with a focus on film, but what he says about creating a ‘Never-Ending Story’ is particularly true for picturebooks.

You don’t create a never-ending story just by making it so good it’s unforgettable. The never-ending story happens only if you use special techniques embedded in the story structure.

He explains what he means by a ‘never-ending story’ by giving examples of stories which fail — stories which have limitations:

1. PREMATURE ENDINGS

This happens for three main reasons: early self-revelation, in which hero has a big insight, development stops, everything else is anti-climactic. Or the hero achieves his desire too quickly. Giving him a new desire doesn’t fix the problem, by the way, because then you’ve started a new story. Third, if your hero acts in an unbelievable way this can cause a premature ending because you’ve taken your reader out of the story.

2. ARBITARY ENDINGS

The story just stops. The reader will feel like the writer just got sick of writing, or reached the required 32 pages and had to quit.

3. CLOSED ENDINGS

This is the most common kind of false ending, and I suggest it’s the most common ending of popular picturebooks. ‘The hero accomplishes his goal, gains a simple self-revelation, and exists in a new equilibrium where everything is calm.’ Think of all those going to bed stories, which serve a purpose for young children. Or, if not bed, the child returns to the home after an adventure.

The thing is, ‘desire never stops. Equilibrium is temporary. The self-revelation is never simple, and it cannot guarantee he hero a satisfying life from that day forward. Since a great story is always a living thing, its ending is no more final and certain than any other part of the story.’

See also Natascha Biebow’s post on picture book endings, with a list of specific things you can do to create a sense of closure. Good if you’re currently stuck!

John Truby then offers tips on:

How to Create a Never-ending Story

You can ‘create an apparent equilibrium and then immediately shatter it with one more surprise. This reversal causes the audience to rethink all the characters and actions that have led them to this point…The audience mentally races back to the beginning of the story and reshuffles the same cards in a new combination.’ The movie example is Sixth Sense. We won’t be watching that the same the second time.

In other words, there’s a surprise ending. I make use of this technique in Hilda Bewildered. The limitation of this kind of plotting is that it is the most limited way of creating the never-ending story. ‘It gives you only one more cycle with the audience. The plot was not what they first thought. But now they know. There will be no more surprises.’ This is more a ‘twice-told tale’ than a never-ending story.

Truby recommends weaving a complex story tapestry using character, plot, theme, symbol, scene and dialogue. The permutations can seem infinite.

Tips to create an infinite story tapestry:

1. Hero fails to achieve her desire. Other characters come up with a new desire at the end of the story. This prevents the story from closing down and shows the audience that desire, even when it’s foolish or hopeless, never dies. I make use of this technique in Midnight Feast.

2. Give a surprising character change to an opponent or a minor character. This technique can lead the audience to see the story again with that person as the true hero.

3. Place a tremendous number of details in the background of the story world that on later viewings move to the foreground. Picturebooks lend themselves brilliantly to this technique, because detail and clues can be hidden in the illustrations, revealing themselves only after the story has been read. For an excellent example of this see Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner.

4. Add elements of texture–in character, moral argument, symbol, plot, and story world–that become much more interesting once the audience has seen the plot surprises and the hero’s character change.

5. Create a relationship between the storyteller and the other characters that is fundamentally different once the viewer has seen the plot for the first time. Using an unreliable storyteller is one, but only one, way of doing this.

6. Make the moral argument ambiguous, or don’t show what the hero decides to do when he is confronted with his final moral choice. As soon as you move beyond the simple good versus evil moral argument, you force the audience to reevaluate the hero, the opponents, and all the minor characters to figure out what makes right action. By withholding the final choice, you force the audience to question the hero’s actions again and explore that choice in their own lives. Jon Klassen’s hat books are excellent examples of this type of storytelling.

Writing: Creating Your Storyworld

creating a storyworld

When writing a story, the setting — or storyworld — should be an expression of the hero.

  • If the main character is enslaved, the story world should be enslaving.
  • If the character is freed, the storyworld should be freeing.

The storyworld should also exacerbate the main character’s weakness.

What Is A Fictional Storyworld Made Of?

No matter what kind of story you’re writing, spend time creating a rich and detailed story world.

  1. PERIOD – a story’s place in time
  2. DURATION – a story’s length through time. Maybe it takes place over a year, cycling through each season. Maybe it takes place over 24 hours.
  3. LOCATION – a story’s place in space — On a scale: a real place, fictional but based on a real place, completely made up, otherworldly.
  4. ARENA – inside that location, there will be an ‘edge’ to your story, kind of like a computer game.
  5. MANMADE SPACES – buildings, roads, bridges, cities, villages, houses, etc
  6. NATURAL SETTINGS – deserts, rivers, mountainsislands, forests, beaches, etc
  7. WEATHER – This might rely on pathetic fallacy, e.g. the character is sad so it is raining. Or sunny weather might make a sad character feel even worse.
  8. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY – There may or may not be some technology which your plot will rely on. In some genres (especially science fiction) this technology will be central.
  9. LEVEL OF CONFLICT – the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. If ‘time and place’ refers to temporal and physical location, this refers to the social one. What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? A ten dollar word to use here is ‘milieu’.

A Big Misconception About Setting

John Truby has said that some writers think that storyworld is only important in myth and fantasy stories. Not anymore. In the past storytelling didn’t care about storyworld that much. That’s because it slows down narrative drive. For a while, dwelling on setting was one of the worst sins you could commit. Whereas describing storyworld offers a 360 degree view, narrative drive is going in one direction at top speed. In this way, the two are direct opposites.

But an interesting storyworld is a vital basis for a successful story. In the last decade, storyworld has become hugely important in every medium. The viewer immerses themselves in the world you have created for them. The audience must want to visit this world again and again.

How do you describe your storyworld without slowing down the story?

  1. Hang the world on the desire line of the hero.
  2. Don’t stop and explain the entire world at the beginning of the story. At each step the hero takes to get the goal stop and explain another chunk of the story world.

How To Make A Storyworld Come Alive

The Chocolate War is set in a run-down Catholic boys’ school, an inhospitable place to anyone at the bottom of the pecking order. Cormier personifies the school, turning it into an inhospitable desert landscape, though it’s only a sports field.

The wind rose, kicking puffs of dust from the football field.  The field needed seeding. The bleachers also needed attention — they sagged, peeling paint like leprosy on the benches. The shadows of the goalposts sprawled on the field like grotesque crosses.

The Chocolate War, description of a boys’ Catholic school, Robert Cormier

Cormier makes the school setting come alive by using verbs usually reserved for people (kicking), and by giving the benches a disease only humans can get (leprosy). The word ‘sprawling’ is interesting because it’s so commonly used for things as well as people that we’re used to its metaphorical use by now. Suburbs can now ‘sprawl’ and we don’t consider this an example of personification. Yet ‘sprawl’ suggests the goalposts themselves mean to seem imposing. The goalposts have zero motivation of their own — this is obviously how the character feels about the goalposts. Verbs like sprawl are really useful to writers because of their status as ‘almost metaphors’. Use these and avoid heavy-handedness.

One beautiful thing we can do with any setting is to “seed” it with emotional triggers. These triggers are symbols which are important to the protagonist in some way, influencing what he thinks, feels, and does. … These setting triggers lead to emotional decision-making and the actions that result will change the story’s trajectory.

Angela Ackerman

 Fantasy Storyworlds

Create the world that serves your story and make no apologies or justifications for how that world came to be.

– Audrey Vernick

John Truby explains that in any fantasy, we have two tracks:

  1. the fantasy track
  2. the reality track it represents

Other stories tend to use the institution to represent the city, but fantasy stories tend to invert that and instead find a metaphor for the city. Instead of locking the city down to a regulated organisation, fantasy opens the city up by imagining it as a kind of natural setting, like a mountain or a jungle. One advantage of this technique is that it makes the overwhelming city a single unit, with special traits the audience can recognise. But more important, it hints at the tremendous potential of the city, for both good and bad.

Sometimes the city as ocean metaphor is used. In fantasy stories, the main way to do this is to make the city dwellers literally float. Not only does this give them the power to fly, but also, when characters float, ceilings become floors, nothing is locked down, and people can experience the ultimate freedom that comes from imagining things together. This floating is a metaphor for the potential that is hidden within the mundane city; when you approach the predictable world in a new way, suddenly everything becomes possible.  (Non-fantasy movies instead rely on the eye of the camera to convey the city as an ocean, with the camera gliding along gabled rooftops then dipping down below the “ocean’s surface” and into an open window.

Making The Absurd Rational

In story, unlike life, you can always go back and fix it. You can set up what may seem absurd and make it rational. Reasoning is secondary to postcreativity. Primary and preconditional to everything else is imagination–the willingness to think any crazy idea, to let images that may or may not make sense find their way to you. Nine out of ten will be useless. Yet one illogical idea may put butterflies in your belly, a flutter that’s telling you something wonderful is hidden in this mad notion. In an intuitive flash you’ll see the connection and realize you can go back and make it make sense.

– Robert McKee, in Story

Creative Block?

Don Draper’s advice to Peggy Olsen in Mad Men was to think about it hard for a really long time, then don’t think about it at all. I’m pretty sure the creator of Don Draper didn’t come up with that — I suspect it’s what all creative people learn sooner or later.

For those of us working with graphics, here is some more advice, tailored to the visual medium. I think it applies to illustration as much as to design.

How To Get Unstuck, from Eric Paul Snowden