Aerial Perspective In Picture Books

When looking at an image, how does the viewer get a sense of depth? The artist can add depth to an image using various tricks.

It starts with simple overlapping.

The chase for deep space begins by occluding one form with another.  With overlapping shapes we easily decide which is in front and which is in back.  From here we go on to explore other methods, color recession, linear and atmospheric perspective,  texture gradient shifts, amalgamating textures, diminishing edge acuity, diminishing ratios of contrast and on and on.

David Dunlop

But there’s more to depicting space than simple occlusion: The ratio of contrast between light and dark diminishes over distance. This visual effect is known as aerial or atmospheric perspective.

Claude Lorrain introduced the glowing obscuring effects of atmospheric perspective in the 1600s.  From the 1628 to 1668 we can trace Claude’s further development of atmospheric effects.

for examples see David Dunlop’s post

In an earlier post, Dunlop explains the Chinese history of this technique:

Long before Claude Lorraine introduced atmospheric perspective effects in the 1600s Chinese artists of the Song Dynasty had already developed these effects in their landscape painting in the 10th century 600 years earlier. Among their basic tenets was the principle of substance vs. absence. This meant that a misty amorphous air would lie in the space between receding forms, between mountains for example.

Atmosphere From China to Italy

Today there are various ways artists depict aerial perspective.

Change The Hue To Blue

Background scenery such as distant mountains tend to look more blue. (That’s especially true here in Australia, for anyone living within cooee of the Blue Mountains.)

Love le renard by Frederic Brremaud & Federico Bertolucci

Perhaps inspired by landscapes, even buildings can be blued out, even if the building is obviously not that far away! This lets the detail of the foreground stand out.

blue aerial perspective
In this image the general real life rule of ‘blue for distance’ is exaggerated.

People can also be blued out:

Or a blue outline may suffice.

The Wheel On The School

Whereas aerial perspective is more noticeable across vistas covering large distances, artists can also use it to create depth in very intimate settings, for instance when foreshortening:

by Claire Elan

At sunset, or in the (polluted) city, the blue is often swapped out for orange hues:

aerial perspective orange

Warms in the background, blues in the foreground definitely convey the feeling of a place cooling down after a hot day.

by Jamey Christoph

But not always. I feel the image below aims to convey atmosphere rather than time of day.

by Chuck Groenink

The general rule of cools in the background, warms in the foreground can also be inverted for a surreal, pop-art kind of look.

by Guy Shield

In a utopian setting where you don’t want any desaturation, you can change the palette. Often it will be cool colours for the background palette, warm for the foreground, but the cools are as bright as the warms.

aerial perspective change palette

Lower Opacity/Fade

The further away, the less vivid the colours. Or even if there are no colours at all, the background will seem more see-through. In digital illustration, this can be achieved by lowering the opacity of the background images.

aerial perspective in black and white, by Jon Klassen
aerial perspective in black and white, by Jon Klassen

Fantasy illustrators tend to make heavy use of this technique as it creates a highly atmospheric image — often dystopian.

fantasy aerial perspective
In a Near Future by Francesco Lorenzetti

The inevitable result: These atmospheres look foggy. I often think there’s a helluva lot of fog in fantasy imaginations. Sfmato refers to the technique of allowing tones and colours to shade gradually into one another, producing softened outlines or hazy forms. It is not a modern invention:

500 years before DaVinci introduced sfumato’s smoky edges and misty landscape backgrounds for his portraits Sung Dynasty Chinese artists had already discovered the value of obscuring mist as a segue between mountains and a method for creating a feeling of mysterious space within a landscape. Claude Lorrain perfected the sensation of obscuring atmosphere for European landscape painters. 200 years later his atmospherics would be admired and imitated by J.M.W. Turner.

By the mid 19th century photographers and painters were both employing the mysterious benefits of fog.  James Whistler worked on the reverse side of his canvases to exploit the neutral pebbly surface he found there which supported his soft edged misty evening landscapes.

David Dunlop


Background scenery might be more blurry if you want to draw attention to your foreground image. This is a natural consequence of taking a photograph using an SLR camera and can also be applied to art. (It’s also a natural consequence of being short-sighted…)

by Elly MacKay

aerial perspective blur

Or, you might blur out the foreground and leave the background layer in focus.

by Mike Bear

Frame With Very Dark Foreground

In this image of Beauty and the Beast’s castle, artist Petur Antonsson has used four distinct perspective layers, starting with almost black in the foreground, brightest for the focal point (the house), an ochre layer of trees and a misty, blue castle behind.

aerial perspective foreground silhouette

Darken foreground lines

thick lines
Here’s a rather extreme example of line thickening in the foreground.

Change the amount of detail

Use white lines as background scenery

Heidi aerial perspective
white lines forming a gesture of mountains in the background

The Snow Queen
thin white lines for the background building, thicker lines for the trees in the middle ground, full colour for the children in the foreground

Use unfilled objects (with dark lines) as background scenery

In Drahos Zac’s illustrations for The Pied Piper, there may be ominous reasons for avoiding the sepia fill on background buildings: The inhabitants of those particular buildings may have already died. This theory holds up when you consider some of the foreground characters are also left unfilled. This feels reminiscent of ghosts.

Pied Piper Drahos Zak

drahos zak2

Silhouettes As Background Objects

by Erwin Madrid

Or the silhouette might have a bit of detail. You can be as silhouette-y as you like.

Rootabaga Stories

Levels of Detail In Literature

writing the detail

The first job of the storyteller is to decide what to leave out and what to include in the narrative.

A good reader must fondle the details. A good writer makes details to fondle.


It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because of what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many.

Margaret Atwood

Even once on the page, not every detail is necessary for the plot. In which case, why keep it? Writers are told to cut, cut, cut.

Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something. Don’t use such an expression as dim land of peace. It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol. Go in fear of abstraction.

Ezra Pound

But don’t cut everything, just because it doesn’t advance the plot. There are multiple kinds of fictional detail, each performing different functions.

Here are some factors to bear in mind when creating rich and detailed scenarios:

  1. Not only too little information but too much creates anxiety.
  2. Humans value useful rather than necessarily true information.

If storytellers aren’t careful about detail, the effect can be unpleasantly disorienting:

Literary narratives present readers with dynamic environments that typically contain representations of fundamental features of the external world, including a physical place rich in inanimate objects and living beings. Among the latter, other humans with a distinct set of social relations are often particularly salient. Yet even though the fictive world must have sufficient dimensions of real-world environments for readers to navigate within it, so to speak, it is at the same time a highly artificial environment whose aspects have been carefully selected, unlike those of actual places and spaces. In everyday experience, organisms filter out an abundance of actions and entities that have no relatively meaningful claim upon their attention. Stepping into the street, a person will attend to oncoming traffic rather than the dead worm being eaten by ants or an inexplicably brilliant flower lying in withered leaves by her feet. In the moment before she crosses the street, these objects do not strike her as important stimuli or opportunities for action if a car is barreling rapidly down the street, and she does not attend to them. But a work of fiction is an intentionally produced, cognitive artifact, and if a writer describes each of these features of the environment as a character crosses the street, readers expect those features to have some relevance to the ongoing construction of meaning in the text. (The real woman crossing the street is likewise continuously producing meaning, but her priorities and the bearing of her environment on her well-being are rather different.) In offering itself to our attention as a meaningful, humanly constructed cognitive object, a literary work leaves us unprepared to filter out extraneous elements.

‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

James Wood has his own taxonomy of detail:

On-duty and Off-duty Detail

There is a conventional but modern fondness for quiet but “telling” detail: “The detective noticed that Carla’s hairband was surprisingly dirty.” If there is such a thing as a telling detail, then there must be such a thing as an untelling detail, no? A better distinction might be between what I would call “off-duty” and “on-duty” detail; the off-duty detail is part of the standing army of life, as it were—it is always ready to be activated. Literature is full of such off-duty detail. […] Nineteenth-century realism, from Balzac on, creates such an abundance of detail that the modern reader has come to expect of narrative that it will always contain a certain superfluity, a built-in redundancy, that it will carry more detail than it needs. In other words, fiction builds into itself a lot of surplus detail just as life is full of surplus details.

James Wood, How Fiction Works

Below, author Charles Yu shows he is a fan of off-duty detail:

Leave things lumpy. People want to know how the protagonist’s father’s dress socks looked against his pale white shins. People want to know the titles of the strange and eclectic books lining the walls of his study. People want to know the sounds he made while snoring, how he looked while concentrating, the way his glasses pinched the bridge of his nose, leaving what appeared to be uncomfortable-looking ovals of purple and red discolored skin when he took those glasses off at the end of a long day. Even if those lumps make the mixture less smooth, less pretty, even if you don’t quite know what to do with them, even if they don’t figure into your chemistry—they don’t have a place in the reaction equations—leave them there. Leave the impurities in there.

Charles Yu

There’s a great danger inherent in a writer’s choice of ‘telling detail’. The detail might ‘tell’ the writer’s own prejudices. Be mindful of the detail chosen to ‘tell’ the reader a character is:

  • poor
  • disabled
  • not white

In these cases, it’s generally safer to tell rather than ‘show’ via ‘telling detail’. Stereotypes are a useful shortcut between writer and reader, but only when writer and reader are complicit in their own privilege to the point where they don’t even see it themselves.

Umberto Eco had a term ‘wandering gaze’ which describes how when an audience is presented with a scene, for instance one which includes a semi-hidden gun, some members of the audience will notice the gun and others won’t, because everyone in an audience views a scene a little differently, no matter how carefully the artist/writer/film maker guides the eye.

Philip Larkin has apparently said of the James Bond franchise that we believe Hugo Drax will blow up London because he wears a Patek Philippe watch. In the words of Diane Purkiss, sometimes, especially in certain types of story, ‘descriptions simply add verisimilitude to an otherwise unconvincing narrative.

What are the types of story that expect us to derive very specific meaning from detail? Harlequin Romances and James Bond stories. From young adult literature, I’ll add the subcategory of books which are constantly dropping brand names as detail, the standout example being Gossip Girl.

Barthes’s Referential Illusion

Although surplus detail feels like it’s meant to denote what’s ‘real’, all it does is signify it.

Realism in general, it is implied, is just such a business of false denotation. […] Realism offers the appearance of reality but is in fact utterly fake—what [Roland] Barthes calls “the referential illusion.” […] those laurel-leaf haircuts worn by the actors in Hollywood “Roman” films signify “Romanness” in the way that Flaubert’s barometer signifies “realness”.

How Fiction Works

‘Random’ Detail

No detail in fiction is ever truly random, because the writer has chosen to include it, starting from nothing.

Therein lies the difference between fiction and real life. If I walk down a street I’m obliged to take in everything my mind registers, whether I want to or not, but the fiction author picks and chooses the detail most relevant to the reader.

When choosing detail, the storyteller:

  • evokes an atmosphere
  • paints a much wider setting with minimal clues to reader
  • might introduce or reinforce imagery (e.g. a stormy sky in the gothic novel foretells calamity)

In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes of the ‘Flaubertian Randomness of Detail’.

So the modern reader accepts a few things without question:

  1. The narrator notices stuff that ordinary people walking around would not notice, and can even make imagery out of mundane detail.
  2. For some reason, the narrator has gone to the trouble of writing it down.
  3. The narrator is able to pick and choose the detail which is relevant, unlike the rest of us, who walk down a street and take everything in, without any context for story. What we see when we walk down a street may well set off a chain of thoughts, but we’re not in full control of that chain.

‘The reader is happy enough to efface the labor of the writer in order to believe two further fictions: that the narrator was somehow “really there”, and that the narrator is not really a writer.’

James Wood, from How Fiction Works, p55

The world of sci-fi uses ‘chrome’ to describe a type of detail in fiction:

Chrome. From the chrome on an automobile. Scenic detail which has no plot significance but brings a place, character or period to life. (CSFW: David Smith)

Glossary of Terms Useful In Critiquing Science Fiction

Telling versus Lifeless Detail

Rose Tremain’s categorisation is simple:

Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one.

Rose Tremain

Lavish Backstories

Novelist Donna Tartt endows her characters, however minor, with lavish backstories. No detail is too small. ”Not everything has to serve the plot,” Tartt says. ”Dickens digresses. I like books that are big, busy and bustling. Novels are capacious. Those casual walk-on parts create the illusion of life, which is baggy with people you never see again and get to know fleetingly.”

from an interview with Donna Tartt, Sydney Morning Herald

Leave Out The Unrealistic Memories

Think of a significant moment in your life. Maybe you heard the Twin Towers had been bombed. Maybe someone died. Maybe a stalker chased you through a park.

Which of the details do you remember from that moment?

I’m thinking of one. I remember:

  • – What I said
  • – How I felt at the time
  • – Sequence of events
  • – How I felt afterwards

What I don’t remember:

  • – What he looked like, much
  • – What he said
  • – The colour of his eyes!
  • – His rippling forearm
  • – The sweat across his brow.

And this, fellow writers, must have consequences in fiction. When our viewpoint character looks back in time, don’t get too specific. Memory doesn’t work like that.

We all have an ongoing narrative inside our heads, the narrative that is spoken aloud if a friend asks a question. That narrative feels deeply natural to me. We also hang on to scraps of dialogue. Our memories don’t usually serve us up whole scenes complete with dialogue.

– from an interview with Lydia Davis

An excellent example of remembered detail can be found in the aptly named “What Is Remembered“, a short story by Alice Munro. In this story, an older woman looks back at a time in her life when she was unfaithful to her husband. The details she remembers in the close third person narration are signifiers — they have stuck in her memory after all else has faded.

It was in a small, decent building, three or four stories high, inexpensive rather than cheap-looking. All that she would remember about it would be the glass bricks around the front entrance and the elaborate, heavy hi-fi equipment of that time, which seemed to be the only furniture in the living room. […]

She remembered his hazel-gray eyes, the close-up view of his coarse skin, a circle like an old scar beside his nose, the slick breadth of his chest as he reared up from her. But she could not have given a useful description of what he looked like. She believed that she had felt his presence so strongly, from the very beginning, that ordinary observation was not possible. Sudden recollection of even their early, unsure and tentative moments could still make her fold in on herself, as if to protect the raw surprise of her own body, the racketing of desire.

Alice Munro

Robin Black is another short story writer who understands that memory has holes in it. When describing an event which happened 13 years earlier, here’s how she writes it:

Jeremy could only ever remember bits and pieces of those two weeks, the ones when [his daughter] was gone. Merciful amnesia, a friend once called it — except it wasn’t very merciful, because only the worst of it stuck with him. Or so he assumed. Like the first shock at her absence, as too many hours passed for it to be benign teenage tardiness; like walking the streets of London, night after night, as though she might have become a nocturnal creature waiting to reveal herself in the dark; like the dawning nightmarish realisation that he himself was a suspect in her disappearance.

A Country Where You Once Lived by Robin Black

Description Must Work For Its Place

Hilary Mantel is basically saying what Lydia Davis is saying, and demonstrates why writing in close third person is easier (and more modern-sounding) than writing in a truly omniscient voice, for what details would a god notice?

Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.

Hilary Mantel

Detail in Short Stories

Detail in a short story has to carry a lot of weight. Even more than in novels, everything means something.

In the short story, detail is transformed into metaphorical significance. In a novel, on the other hand, the particular can remain merely the particular. It exists to make the reader feel he/she knows the experience — to create verisimilitude.

Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity, edited by Per Winther

Raymond Carver offers a disclaimer: Even in a poem or a short story the language used to describe this detail does not, itself, have to be startling. Everyday words will still do the trick.

It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power.

Raymond Carver, On Writing

The Technique of Concatenation

Concatenation: a series of interconnected things.

Below, Julia van Gunsteren uses an example from Katherine Mansfield, who liked to build up imagery throughout a piece by ‘concatenation’ of details:

Little touches are placed side by side and concatenation prevails in Katherine Mansfield’s imagery. One of her methods is to heighten the pictorial atmosphere, by accumulations of comparisons for the same object. The images are swollen and blown up by extra additions.

“Every note was a sigh, a sob, a groan of awful mournfulness.”

“How extraordinary shell-like we are as we are — little creatures, peering out of the sentry-box, ogling through our glass case at the entry, wan little servants, who never can say for certain, even, if the master is out or in”

Julia van Gunsteren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism

Detail in Children’s Literature

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead won the Newbery Medal. A large part of that was because of her choice of detail. Stead makes every small detail matter. The Newbery judges chose the novel for making the small details important to the plot. Publishers Weekly added that even the smallest of details—Miranda’s name, her strange habits and why she carries A Wrinkle in Time with her—have a reason for their inclusion by the end of the novel.


Cookie. An element, not necessary to the plot, which rewards the reader who has been paying careful attention. Ideally, a cookie is a clever turn of phrase, an image, an allusion, or some other element of richness which the lazy reader will pass by Then the careful reader, who finds it, realizes that the author has left this small package just as a reward for paying attention … and that, in turn, encourages the reader to pay even more attention. (CSFW: David Smith)

Easter egg. Adapted from computer programming, a specialized form of cookie in which the author ‘hides’ some surprise, not germane to the story (indeed, often irrelevant or irreverent), deep within the text, to be discovered only by the closest possible reading. For instance, in Quest of the Three Worlds, Cordwainer Smith encoded, as the first letters of consecutive sentences, the phrases KENNEDY SHOT and OSWALD TOO, without disrupting the flow of his narrative. Tuckerizing is a form of easter egg. (CSFW: David Smith)

A Glossary of Terms Useful When Critiquing Science Fiction


Tips on writing memorable fiction with good use of detail, at Anne R Allen’s Blog


Are you a constant observer, consciously looking for things you can use as a writer?


I think I’m a very unobservant person, one who goes straight to concepts about people and ignores evidence to the contrary and the bric-a-brac surrounding that person. Stephen Spender said an amusing thing about Yeats—that he went for days on end without noticing anything, but then, about once a month, he would look out of a window and suddenly be aware of a swan or something, and it gave him such a stunning shock that he’d write a marvelous poem about it. That’s more the kind of way I operate: suddenly something pierces the reverie and self-absorption that fill my days, and I see with a tremendous flash the extraordinariness of that person or object or situation.

The Paris Review interview, The Art of Fiction No. 49, by W. I. Scobie


If you hear the term ‘authenticating detail’, it’s not easy to Google so here’s a link.


Present Everywhere, Visible Nowhere: Flaubert’s Eye for Detail at Fiction Writers’ Review

Key Words And Phrases in Middle Grade Fiction


‘Key words’ in storytelling is a slightly wider-ranging way to describe the  motif.

We all know people in real life who […] use a series of jingles and tags and repetitive gestures to maintain a certain kind of performance.

James Wood, How Fiction Works

At TV Tropes, you’ll find an entry for ‘Arc Words‘: Words or a phrase that appears throughout the story as an Arc or as a Motif.

"All the better to X you, my dear" is a fairytale example of arc words. Arc words are by design, memorable and repeatable.
“All the better to X you, my dear” is a fairytale example of arc words. Arc words are by design, memorable and repeatable.

Likewise, the arc phrase is employed by many authors of middle grade fiction.

Examples Of Key Words In Middle Grade Fiction

In Once by Morris Gleitzman the arc phrase word involves the word Once, which was introduced — most obviously — as the title.

Everybody deserves to have something good in their life. At least once.
Barney said that everybody deserves to have something good in their life at least once. I have. More than once.

Related to arc phrases are ‘catch phrases’.

The hero of Once is in a dire situation — he is a Polish kid in the Nazi era, dodging murder at every turn. It would be easy for this story to turn into a sob story, so Gleitzman has him use the phrase, “You know how…” whenever he’s telling the reader something terrible about his life. This is more of a character tic than a motif.

The first example occurs at the third sentence of the book, and these situations he describes only get more and more dire:

You know how when a nun serves you very hot soup from a big metal pot and she makes you lean in close so she doesn’t drip and the steam from the pot makes your glasses go all misty and you can’t wipe them because you’re holding your dinner bowl and the fog doesn’t clear even when you pray to God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Pope and Adolf Hitler?
That’s happening to me.

Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce is a middle grade novel which was written concurrently with the screenplay. My point is that the book was written by an experienced writer of screenplays. Naturally Cottrell Boyce made use of all he knew about screenplays when writing the middle grade novel.

In Millions, the first person storyteller narrator repeats the phrase, “To get X about it…

Judy Moody (series written by Megan McDonald) has a catch phrase — I don’t know if it’s a regional dialect but I’ve never heard it before: “Rare!” My seven-year-old started using this word only after reading it in Judy Moody, though she did use it in the general way rather than in the Judy Moody way, as an exclamation.

Joan Aiken’s raven, Mortimer, squawks “Nevermore!” in reference to the classic poem, which is funny because the stories are slapstick humorous whereas the poem is gothic horror. Apart from making squawk type sounds this is the only word he knows. Aiken adroitly contrives a surprising number of occasions in which he can use it.

Unintentional Pop Culture Spoofing

Chances are that looking back on your childhood experience of reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, you remember ‘lashings of‘ in reference to the picnics — lashings of cream, lashings of butter, lashings of ginger beer. If you happen to re-read those books the word ‘lashings’ doesn’t actually appear all that often. But for some reason it stuck! Helped along by Comic Strip Presents… Five Go Mad In Dorset parody. ‘Lashings’ became part of pop culture mostly as a derisive comment on Blyton’s unimaginative prose, I suspect (she could pump these out one per week). I’m sure this spoof does the popularity of the series no harm.

If Enid Blyton had belonged to a critique group, or had she been more of a stylist, her (over)use of the word ‘lashings’ may have been edited out. But as Blyton’s ‘lashings’ demonstrates, even unintentional overuse of a word can become part of its enduring popularity.

These repeated phrases are also called ‘refrains’. See another useful list of them here.

How To Write A Metaphor

how to write a metaphor
Some estimates suggest that one out of every 25 words we encounter is a metaphor. When writing, you’ll find yourself writing metaphor subconsciously as well as consciously. One pass of editing should focus on imagery, to nix accidental, not-so-great metaphors.

Metaphors are privileged areas for lying: by granting authors these limited flights of fancy, readers kid themselves into believing that what is not figurative in a text is somehow ‘truer’.

– Jason K. Friedman in Goth: Undead Subculture

Example: Good Metaphor

From Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly (by Dave Eggers), set in Tanzania:

A woman on the tour bus has ‘leonine hair, frayed and thick, blond and white’.

Tanzania = lions = good metaphor because it reflects the setting.


Here’s another from Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates), describing Frank’s place of work:

At first glance, all the upper floors of the Knox Building looked alike. Each was a big open room, ablaze with fluorescent ceiling lights, that had been divided into a maze of aisles and cubicles by shoulder-high partitions. The upper panels of these dividers, waist to shoulder, were made of thick unframed plate glass that was slightly corrugated to achieve a blue-white semi-transparency; and the overall effect of this, to a man getting off the elevator and looking across the room, was that of the wide indoor lake in which swimmers far and near were moving, some making steady headway, others treading water, some seen in the act of breaking to the surface or going under, and many submerged, their faces loosened into wavering pink blurs as they drowned at their desks.

There are several different metaphors in the paragraph above (fire and mazes included), though those first metaphors don’t really jump out because they have become a part of the language. (‘A maze of corridors’ has become cliche – though we shouldn’t despise the cliche too much – it gets its meaning across.)

The extended metaphor of the sea of swimmers is particularly well done because, although I’ve seen similar open-plan offices in my life, I had never made the connection that the workers in such an office are like swimmers. When Yates describes how each is at a different stage of submersion, I think, ‘Yes, that’s exactly how it looks’.

But the true brilliance of this extended metaphor is how it relates to the theme. Frank Wheeler’s mediocre suburban life is itself a form of slow drowning, even though at first glance, this cruisy job feels like a day at the beach.

The Sea = Frank Wheeler’s Workplace = A slow drowning disguised as a harmless environment = A very good metaphor because it echoes the theme.

Example: Bad Metaphor

Perpetrator: me, some years ago.

My story was set in contemporary New Zealand. High school students are in a car, making their way to a school ball. Comment below comes courtesy of a writing group critter:

Streetlamps flash-danced by, [1] and neon signs and traffic lights and ordinary people making their way to ordinary places. Why couldn’t everyone have this much fun, every night, everywhere?

[l1]Nice echo of Katherine Mansfield here, but I’m not sure of the purpose of it.

Exactly. There was no good reason  to include ‘flashdance’ in a contemporary story for young adults. Not when the setting is New Zealand. Not when flash-dancing should get the reader humming ‘What a feeling!’, if anything at all.

Flashdance = America = 1980s = bad metaphor. I took it out.

Related Links

Drag it Out: How to Use Extended Metaphors for Maximum Effect from Lit Reactor

Richard Dawkins Speaks About the Problem with Metaphors at Patheos

Composition In Film and In Picture books

Ah, composition. How things are arranged on the page… or on the screen. I have written before about how picture books have a lot in common with film, and that study of one equals study of the other.

Knowing how to manipulate an audience is far more important than knowing how to manipulate the technology of film.

Howard Suber, The Power of Film

Here is a useful YouTube video from Channel Criswell which introduces the topic of Composition in Storytelling. While the examples in the video are all from film, as I watch I’m thinking of the page composition of my favourite picture books.

Lewis Bond explains that composition in good films achieves two things:

  1. It draws your attention to the right thing.
  2. There is a subtext. e.g. Which character has control of the scene? How are they feeling? How have they changed? What are they about to do?

Power And Control

Composition is really good at depicting the power dynamics between characters. In fact, that is probably what it is best at. You may know this already. (Low angle means strong, high angle means weak etc.)

Harry and Hopper are shown from above to highlight how powerless they are — death is coming and there's nothing they, or anyone else, can do about it.
Harry and Hopper are shown from above to highlight how powerless they are — death is coming and there’s nothing they, or anyone else, can do about it.
This illustration of The Railway Children by Ji-hyuk Kim emphasises the powerlessness of the girl.

But control can be broken down further into two separate meanings:

  1. ARTIFICIAL CONTROL: The control of the aesthetics and where we should be looking. (What’s listed below: geometry, framing etc.)
  2. PRIMAL CONTROL: What subject holds more weight in the narrative at that moment in time? This could show the power dynamic between characters or even between character and setting. Nothing shows this more than size and scale in an image.
Here, Oliver Jeffers has given the father artificial control, but the Book Eating Boy has the primal control.
In Rules of Summer, Shaun Tan gives the umpire the artificial control but primal control belongs to that weird whatzathing.
In Rules of Summer, Shaun Tan gives the umpire the artificial control but primal control belongs to that weird whatzathing.

Control can also be conveyed by placing the subject right in the centre of the frame, though it can also mean loneliness and difference, as below.

This boy is the only one at school feeling sad.
This boy is the only one at school feeling sad.

Negative Space

This is an aspect of composition which is perhaps talked about even more in picturebooks than it is in film. What is the purpose of negative space?

  1. It is often used to show the vast expanse of the area.
  2. On a psychological level, negative space creates apprehension, as we expect something to take place in the void we see.
  3. In characterisation, negative space can be used to show that characters have no hope. Or perhaps it signifies the great distances characters must go before reaching their goals.
This story by Oliver Jeffers is all about loss. The first page of the app, seen here, gives the ominous feeling that loss is about to happen, using the technique of negative space.
This story by Oliver Jeffers is all about loss. The first page of the app, seen here, gives the ominous feeling that loss is about to happen, using the technique of negative space.
Oliver Jeffers makes much use of negative space. Here it is in The Incredible Book Eating Boy.
Oliver Jeffers makes much use of negative space. Here it is in The Incredible Book Eating Boy. In this case, it precedes the climax, as you can tell from the accompanying text.
William Stieg 1958 hammock
William Stieg 1958 hammock

While ‘negative space’ is a word from art world, when talking about picturebooks we might say that a scene has been ‘decontextualised’. This is when we see, for example, a child putting on a jumper, but without the bedroom scene. There are a number of reasons for decontextualising a scene in a picture book:

Cat and Garden by William Steig, 1960
Cat and Garden by William Steig, 1960. The negative space of the pathway serves to emphasise the character of the cat, who would otherwise be ‘lost’ or camouflaged in all that floral detail.
  1. This technique deliberately removes ‘ambience’
  2. And draws attention to the action rather than inviting the reader to linger on the picture (manipulating the pace of the story)
  3. Where words accompany the scenes the words feel more integrated with the illustration when the illustration is decontextualised, probably because there’s no clear demarcation between the edge of the picture and the start of the words.
Brian Wildsmith, Birds, 1967
Brian Wildsmith, Birds, 1967


When an illustration extends right to the edge of the page it is called an ‘unbound’ image.

This is an unnecessary term when it comes to film, since almost all frames in a film extend to the edge of the border. Many picture books are composed entirely of unbound images. In these stories the imaginative world becomes the focus of the story throughout. If the illustrator is creating an otherworld or a work of magical realism or something that is not entirely familiar to readers (as are bathrooms/kitchens/bedrooms etc.) then you’ll likely find mostly or entirely unbound images.

It’s also possible to have both unbound and decontextualised images i.e. unbound images can still have a heap of white space. I Went Walking is made entirely of this kind of image.

I Went Walking double spread

But in a large number of picture books you’ll find a mixture of bound and unbound images. When to make use of which?

Reasons to use unbound images:

  1. The reader is invited into the setting at selected moments
  2. The effect is greater when preceded by a sequence of bound images
  3. The removal of edges brings the reader into a room/forest/scene


Bound images are those which are set within a page margin or border, demarcate the setting as more distinctly separated from the reader’s world than unbound ones and may also serve to ‘contain’ or confine the character. In general, bound images separate the reader from the semiotic world of the story. Where there is both a frame and a margin, there’s a more emphatic demarcation of the two. Frames contribute to the ambience of a layout. A defined frame marks out the image as a representation to be viewed from the outside but can also afford additional meaning. A frame can either influence the attitude of the reader, or confer a symbolic attribute upon the character(s).

How to bind an image:

  1. Coloured ‘white space’. If the background image is anything other than white (the default) this binding colour is making some sort of statement. The ambience changes. (See Lucy’s Bay, Hyram and B, Wolves In The Walls.)
  2. The frame doesn’t need to surround the entire picture — it might just be on one side. This binds the picture less.
  3. A part of the illustration might extend out into the frame, for example a character might sit inside the framing block of colour thinking, to show that the main image on the page is part of a flashback.
  4. The frame might be part of the picture itself, e.g. in Voices in the Park the playground the children swing from itself forms a frame.  This is called ‘an experiential frame’, and the frame serves as a symbolic attribute. The playground as frame shows that the young characters are playful.
  5. Illustrators might use an actual frame from the world of the story (e.g. a window frame, door frame or picture frame etc.)


Mastering geometry helps to direct the reader’s eye.


  • Rule of thirds
  • Dividing the image into rectangles, or perhaps circles, arches and triangles
  • etc
Notice the very clear shape which guides the composition.
Notice the very clear shape which guides the composition.
The Dark
illustration by Ji-hyuk Kim when viewed as a thumbnail has strong geometry


Human beings are prone to find order where there may be none, and frames in cinema work to help the elements to appear in a much more uniformed manner. They tend to dilute the external details in an image, and our eyes are drawn to them because within the frame lies order, and hopefully, our main subject. But through this technique emerges deeper implications. These frames are often used as a partition to separate. The subtext: Why not use the frame to separate the worlds on both sides of the frame. It can show a contrast as simple as freedom versus isolation, or by showing a character’s passing through a frame, we see their decision to pursue a lifestyle, contrasted to those lifestyles that other characters are denied entry to.

Harry and Hopper window
You’ll find a lot of windows in picturebooks, though the meanings and metaphors vary. This window is a portal to ‘the other side’, the unknown, to the psychological state of grief.
Harry inside the room with the father hovering outside the door frame shows their psychological disconnectedness. Nothing the father can say will bring Hopper back. Harry must endure this grief alone, as we all must.
Harry inside the room with the father hovering outside the door frame shows their psychological disconnectedness. Nothing the father can say will bring Hopper back. Harry must endure this grief alone, as we all must.
Window as frame by Ji-hyuk Kim

Not all frames look like frames. Doors and windows and mirrors are obviously ‘framed’. But we can also see a character through the barrel of a shot gun or a noose or two hands, through legs, books in a library, or any number of other objects.

In the image below, the symmetry suggested by the architecture and the centre position of the tutor is juxtaposed with the children, who are lively and cannot be tamed.

The main character is framed by a door.
Jon Klassen makes much use of shadow as a framing tool. Here the shadow is cast according to an open door.
Even a bucket can act as a frame.
A cardboard box can have its own window.
Billy Twitters and the Blue Whale has some very interesting examples of framing. Here, the main character is framed by a whale's mouth, as he enters the 'portal' of personal space.
Billy Twitters and the Blue Whale has some very interesting examples of framing. Here, the main character is framed by a whale’s mouth, as he enters the ‘portal’ of personal space.
In fact, Billy Twitters and the Blue Whale open with this image. The mother is about to invade Billy's space by telling him to clean up his room, and so the story begins.
In fact, Billy Twitters and the Blue Whale open with this image. The mother is about to invade Billy’s space by telling him to clean up his room, and so the story begins.
In The Highway Rat, another framing device is used, again to signify a portal to a different kind of world.
In The Highway Rat, another framing device is used, again to signify a portal to a different kind of world.
An example of framing in Wolf Children
An example of framing in Wolf Children — using the window frame as a prison
from The Snow Dragon by Vivian French, illustrated by Chris Fisher
from The Snow Dragon by Vivian French, illustrated by Chris Fisher

One thing that is specific to film (and not to static images of picture books is ‘reframing’ (as demonstrated in the video). However, book apps are able to make use of this technique. I haven’t seen it done nearly enough (yet) but, on a touch screen device, finger gestures are able to take readers off screen to reveal something that wasn’t there before. One example of this occurs in The Heart And The Bottle app by Oliver Jeffers.

This is the main frame of one of the pages.
This is the main frame of one of the pages.
If you pull to the right, the left part of the page appears, which has the double function of showing negative space while allowing for pop-up images upon tapping.
If you pull to the right, the left part of the page appears, which has the double function of showing negative space while allowing for pop-up images upon tapping.

Eye-line of Subjects

What are the characters looking at? Whatever they’re looking you’ll want to look, too.

Oliver Jeffers emphasises the eye-line with a dashed line.
Oliver Jeffers emphasises the eye-line with a dashed line.
In Axel Scheffler's illustrations of The Highway Rat, there's often another character looking at the reader, as if to say, "Here we go again. Just look at this guy, will ya?"
In Axel Scheffler’s illustrations of The Highway Rat, there’s often another character looking at the reader, as if to say, “Here we go again. Just look at this guy, will ya?”


Parallel lines and converging lines can intersect characters or trap them in corners.

The intersecting lines of the room as well as the shadows of the table and chairs seem to trap the Incredible Book Eating Boy behind bars.
The intersecting lines of the room as well as the shadows of the table and chairs seem to trap the Incredible Book Eating Boy behind bars.

In the illustration below, Jon Klassen emphasises the way the characters lean back by framing them with architecture in the background.

Jon Klassen


Cameras are able to pull focus to highlight the subject of a frame, in the way of an SLR camera. Picturebooks are more like point-and-shoots in that they typically tend to focus everything in the frame, by the very fact that there is no camera involved in the process. However, picture book illustrators can still mimic this technique. Illustrators have for a long time mimicked the human eye, if not the exaggerated pull-focus of cameras, by using the rules of aerial perspective. Closer objects are also more detailed, but what about when they are not? Some illustrators of picture books create work which is equally detailed no matter how far the object from the eye of the viewer. This may be because they are creating a folkart feeling, which goes hand-in-hand with light and bright stories.

Rosie’s Walk is one such example.

Subject Close To Light

Here we have two compositional techniques to show 'enlightenment' that comes from books: The open door and the subject bathed in light.
Here we have two compositional techniques to show ‘enlightenment’ that comes from books: The open door and the subject bathed in light.


Alfred Hitchcock had a rule in which the size of the subject within a frame was in direct proportion to their importance at that point in the story.

In Rules Of Summer, Shaun Tan plays with scale a lot to lend a sense of foreboding.
In Rules Of Summer, Shaun Tan plays with scale a lot to lend a sense of foreboding.

Guiding Lines

Convergence Lines Rules Of Summer
This ‘part A’ image in Rules of Summer will be followed by a similar image but next time there will be something surprising where the lines currently converge.
This is a less ominous example which shows just how many books there are in the library.
This is a less ominous example which shows just how many books there are in the library.

Mirrors and Reflections 03: Mirror Moments In Literature

Illustrator unknown, circa 1935

Mirror Moment: a moment in midpoint scene of a novel or screenplay when the character is forced to look within and reflect on who he is and who he must become in order to achieve his goal. If he decides to continue on as he always has, he will surely fail (tragedy).

If the story is not a tragedy, the hero realizes he must either a) become stronger to overcome the odds or b) transform, shedding his biggest flaws and become more open-minded to new ideas and beliefs. One way or the other, he must better himself in some way to step onto the path which will lead to success.

from Story Midpoint & Mirror Moment: Using Heroes’ Emotions To Transform Them 

When I think of a ‘mirror moment’ I think of a movie, in which a character looks into a mirror, or a reflection in a shop, or perhaps even a father looking at his son or a similar variation. Novels allow for much more interiority, and therefore a mirror moment doesn’t need an actual mirror. The reader can be told just what any character is thinking (depending on the POV choice).

In her book Second Sight, editor Cheryl Klein says this of mirror moments in children’s literature, and I’ve heard it said by a variety of lit experts:

We base our first impressions of people off what we see and what they say — so your descriptions of your character’s appearance can be important to establishing him in the reader’s mind. I say “can” because too much emphasis on appearance can cut both ways. There’s a terrible cliche in fiction where the main character will stop and look in a mirror and catalogue his or her features somewhere in the first chapter in order to establish the person visually in the reader’s mind. But that never really works for me — partly because it’s such a cliche that it annoys me and marks the writer as less interesting than s/he could be, and partly because that description defines the character in the reader’s mind as someone who likely looks different than the reader, which perhaps weakens the reader’s identification with the character. (None of Sarah Dessen’s book covers feature the faces of her protagonists, at her request, because she wants readers to be able to imagine themselves into the lives of her characters.)

On the other hand, there are are certain types of novels — fantasy especially — where you really want to have the characters described so the reader can visualize them, because the point of the book is that the reader falls into this world and experiences it fully. Or, if your novel is written in first person, we want to see what that main character sees when she looks at other people, which will help characterise those other people for us (and characterize your main character by showing us what she notices about others). So it depends on the point you’re going for whether you’ll want to spend time on appearances.

Sarah Dessen Book Covers

I have noticed that readers differ in the amount of description they want for a character. I remember once writing a short story then uploading it to my writing group for critique. In the short story I’d mentioned about halfway through that the main character had a beard. I’ll probably always be amused by one beta reader’s comment: “It’s a bit late to spring a beard on us.” (My emphasis.) Now I look at beards on men and think of how the beard might suddenly ‘spring upon’ me… which has pretty much ruined beards, if they hadn’t sort of ruined themselves… Anyhow, moral of that story is that some readers didn’t mind learning he had a beard whereas others had already constructed a strong visual in their mind and didn’t want it altered. So if you are going to describe a person, do it early. That said, I’ve read plenty of popular work in which description is drip fed to the reader.


There is a term used in reference to literacy: Concretization. It is thought that children are better at ‘concretizing’ than adult readers, who no longer require it in order to follow a story. So it’s possible (hypothetically) that children’s literature might provide more in the way of description than books for adults.


Fairytales are not necessarily ‘children’s literature’, at least not until the Grimm Brothers saw a lucrative hole in the kidlit market, but mirrors and reflections have a long tradition in fairytales around the world:

from The World Of Angela Carter: A critical investigation
from The World Of Angela Carter: A critical investigation
This is my copy, showing Jonah with that classic 90s bowl cut. I prefer the version with the old man.
This is my copy, showing Jonah with that classic 90s bowl cut. I prefer the version with the old man.

In The Giver, by Lois Lowry, the absence of mirrors is significant to the story. In this book, individuality comes a far second to the welfare of the group, and this is symbolised by the absence of mirrors:

Mirrors were rare in the community; they weren’t forbidden, but there was no real need of them, and Jonas had simply never bothered to look at himself very often even when he found himself in a location where a mirror existed. Now, seeing the newchild and its expressions, he was reminded that the light eyes were not only a rarity but gave the one who had them a certain look — what was it? Depth, he decided; as if one were looking into the clear water of the river, down to the bottom, where things might lurk which hadn’t been discovered yet. He felt self-conscious, realizing that he, too, had that look.

Even in the absence of mirrors, Lowry  manages to create a ‘mirror moment’ by having the protagonist, Jonas, see himself in another person.

Another interesting thing about visual revelations in The Giver is that [SPOILER ALERT] we don’t know until partway through the book that Jonas’ world is devoid of colour. For readers who don’t like beards sprung upon them, I wonder if this works so well.


Related to the Mirror Moment is the Narcissistic Mirror Moment, in which the character gazes into a mirror but instead of having some sort of personal revelation, they have their delusions of grandeur confirmed.

Juliet Barnes from Nashville
Juliet Barnes from Nashville

The window cleaning advertisement in the header is from about 1935, illustrator unknown.

Must Characters Change? How Much?

character change don draper

Not all characters change in stories, but some sort of change must happen.

Michael Hauge uses the term ‘transformation’, and not every transformation is a character arc for the main character (however that is defined).

This transformation will occur on four different levels. The first three are:

Your hero’s external circumstances will change. She (or he) might be wealthier, more powerful, more successful, more admired; she’s is in a new relationship; she is no longer threatened by the villain or demon or disease she overcame; or (if she was unsuccessful) she might be alone, or disgraced, or deceased.

Your hero has changed internally. The arc of her inner journey might have made her more courageous, more loving, more moral, or (whether she succeeded or failed) wiser.

The world around your hero has changed. Her courage and sacrifice has made those around her safer, happier, wiser, more loving or more courageous themselves.

The fourth transformation may be harder to recognize and achieve, but will be just as powerful: you, the storyteller, will change.

Michael Hauge
World War 2 poster plan ahead allow for growing
World War 2 poster showing two boys, one smaller: “Plan ahead. Allow for growing”.

Useful Concept: Range Of Change

How much does your main character change over the course of the story? This needs to be determined at the start of the writing process.

If studying a character rather than creating one, it’s a useful aspect to consider.

Bear in mind that some authors, famously Chekhov, do not create main characters who change, and this is the very point. Mad Men creator Matt Weiner has said the same thing about Don Draper, making the point that in real life, unlike in most popular stories, people just don’t change all that much.

The Two Forms Of Character Development In Fiction

While Michael Hauge provides us with a useful taxonomy of storytelling transformation, others divide character development into two separate categories:

  1. A text can provide new information about a character that causes readers to see the character differently and in more depth
  2. Or the events of a story can actually change characters, make them more complicated.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer


Character Change And The Development Of Novel Plotting

Ford Madox Ford, quoted by James Wood in How Fiction Works, pointed out that in older novels — especially those from England — the novelist would begin at the beginning and work chronologically through their character’s life, telling us all about their education and other influences.

But a new development in the novel meant authors avoided starting ‘at the beginning’. When it was discovered that novels in characters could change, it was interesting to depict that change on the page rather than explain it. Ford Madox Ford describes this new type of novel by explaining how “you meet an English gentleman at your golf club. He is beefy, full of health, the model of the boy from an English public school of the finest type. You discover, gradually, that he is hopelessly neurasthenic, dishonest in matters of small change, but unexpectedly self-sacrificing, a dreadful liar, but a most painfully careful student of Lepidoptera and, finally, from the public prints, a bigamist who was once, under another name, hammered on the Stock Exchange … To get such a man in fiction you could not begin at his beginning and work his life chronologically to the end. You must first get him in with a strong impression, and then work backwards and forwards over his past.”

The Influence of HBO

Brett Martin explains how cable TV change the way characters (don’t) change:

Nate [of Six Feet Under] has good intentions, but he’s an amateur jerk. He’s a selfish narcissist. And the tragedy is that he never transcends that. He never grows up,” Ball said.

That inability is another defining theme of TV’s Golden Age. If man’s big struggle with his inner demons defined The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and their descendants, they also drew a crucial dose of their realism from the tenacity of that big struggle—the way their characters stubbornly refused to change in any substantive way, despite constantly resolving to do so. […]

It’s no coincidence that addiction is one of the major tropes of the Third Golden Age. Likewise, psychotherapy, with its looping fits and starts of progress and regression. Recidivism and failure stalked these shows: Tony Soprano searches for something to fill the gnawing void he feels; he fails to find it. Jimmy McNulty [of The Wire] swears off the twin compulsions of booze and police work; he goes back to both, while the rest of The Wire’s most zealous reformers find themselves corrupted. The specter of Don Draper’s past infidelities comes to him in a fever dream, in the person of an old conquest. And though he literally chokes the Beast to death, we, and he, know she will be back. […]

“Everything changed” after 9/11.”

“‘I’m going to be different. I’m so lucky to be alive. I’m going to value things more, do things differently….’ That’s what it was all about,” said [David] Chase of the period immediately following the terrorist attacks. “But then it sort of faded away.” Or as Tony Soprano morosely put it, “Every day is a gift. It’s just…does it have to be a pair of socks?” […]

the goal of a TV show, unlike that of a movie or novel, no matter how ambiguous, is to never end. One way to address that basic economic mandate is to create a world in which there is no forward progress or story arc at all, just a series of discrete, repetitive episodes—In other words, the procedural. But if you’re interested in telling an ongoing story while remaining true to your own sense of the world, it helps for that worldview to be of an endless series of variations in which people repeatedly play out the same patterns of behaviour, exhibiting only the most incremental signs of real change or progress.

Brett Martin, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad


To know that one is being taught a lesson or at any rate given a message leaves one free to reject it if only by dismissing plot or characters as cliches. But I had not realised how far the moral assumptions of film story-telling had sunk in, and how long they had stayed with me, until in 1974 I saw Louis Malle’s film about the French Occupation, Lacombe Lucien.

Lucien is a loutish, unappealing boy, recruited almost by accident into the French Fascist Milice. He falls in with and exploits a Jewish family, becoming involved with – it would be wrong to say falls in love with – the daughter, whom he helps to escape and with whom he lives. Then, as the Liberation draws near, he becomes himself a fugitive and is eventually, almost casually, shot.

The stock way to tell such a story would be to see the boy’s experiences – witnessing torture and ill-treatment, falling for the Jewish girl – as a moral education in the same way, for example, that the Marlon Brando character is educated in On the Waterfront.

That would be the convention and one I’d so much taken for granted that I kept looking in the Malle film for signs of this instruction of the school of life beginning to happen. But it doesn’t. Largely untouched by the dramas he has passed through, Lucien is much the same at the end of the film as he is at the beginning, seemingly having learned nothing. To have quite unobtrusively resisted the tug of conventional tale-telling and the lure of resolution seemed to me honest in a way few films even attempt.

Alan Bennett, from Untold Stories


Milepost character. A character who is absolutely unchanging throughout a story. A focus character’s different perspectives on him or him show us, in emotional parallax, how the focus character has changed. Examples include Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield and Bill Ferry in Lord of the Rings.

Glossary of Terms Useful In Critiquing Science Fiction

Another example is Don Draper of Mad Men. As soon as Don Draper starts to show he’s really undergone any sort of epiphany, the series ends. Don’s unwillingness to get with the times serves to underscore the massive changes experienced by Peggy and Joan.


Stories about character change are called ‘character driven’. The inverse is ‘plot driven’.

There has…been a notable shift in Western children’s fiction, beginning in the 1960s, toward a more profound interest in character, toward psychological, character-oriented children’s novels. In many contemporary novels for children, we observe a disintegration of the plot in its traditional meaning; nothing really “happens.” There is no beginning or end in the usual sense, no logical development toward a climax and denouement; the story may seem to be arbitrarily cut from the character’s life, or is even more often a mosaic of bits arbitrarily glued together.

Maria Nikolajeva, Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature

This isn’t to say plot is no longer of central concern.

From What Publishers Look For In A Children’s Book: An Editorial Perspective from Tina Nichols Coury

Is my plot compelling? Why will my readers want to turn the page?

  • The story has “a great beginning,” “a well-crafted narrative arc,” and “a satisfying ending.”
  • The story is built on “conflict,” “friction,” “tension.”
  • The story has “internal logic,” “believability.”
  • The story is “artful,” “crafted,” “rhythmic.”
  • The story “invites the reader to turn the page.”
  • The story creates urgency in the reader: “Must…find…out…what…happens!”
  • The story is full of “clever twists.”
  • The story is “exciting,” “compelling,” “fast-paced.”
  • The story “is not didactic.”

I don’t want to lift too much, but if you go to the article and read the bit about ’emotional impact’, it’s clear — without it being named as such — that character development is also important in modern children’s literature.


Travel time. A component of pacing. Characters don’t reverse important decisions in their personalities overnight. The emotional distance a character travels should generally be proportionate to the amount of travel time — measured in words — the change requires.

A Glossary of Terms Useful In Critiquing Science Fiction


When the [character] “change” feels beautiful … I think it’s because the character has confirmed what we’ve hoped or suspected all along. Maybe the character hasn’t changed at all, but rather has finally been put in a situation where her truest self can be revealed. … Stories, to my mind, are never about change. They are always and only about the possibility of change.

Bret Anthony Johnston

If you’re in the middle of writing something and find that you’re second-guessing your thumbnail character descriptions, see The Always/Only Test by Andrea Phillips and realise you’re not the only one.

The stages of character change as broken down by psychologists, from Psychwriter

Why People Don’t Change Their Spots from Social Learning

In the phrase [“to find myself”] lurks the idea that the self is a pre-existing entity, a self like a Platonic idea existing in a mystic realm beyond time and change. No, rather an object like a nugget of gold in the placer pan, the Easter egg under the bush at an Easter-egg hunt, a four-leaf clover to promise miraculous luck. Here is the essence of passivity, one’s quintessential luck. And the essence of absurdity, too, for the self is never to be found, but must be created, not the happy accident of passivity, but the product of a thousand actions, large and small, conscious or unconscious, performed not “away from it all,” but in the face of “it all,” for better or for worse, in work and leisure rather than in free time

Robert Penn Warren

iBooks Author: Making a Fixed Layout Children’s Picture Book

Lotta: Red Riding Hood made with iBooks Author available on the iBooks store for iPad
Lotta: Red Riding Hood made with iBooks Author available on the iBooks store for iPad

I noticed when searching for tips on how to make a picture book (of the sort most often produced for children), the term ‘picture book’ most often refers to a book of photos as far as iBooks go.

But I didn’t want to create a ‘photo book’. Nor did I want to use any of the fancy features of iBooks Author (IBA). After making 3 picture book apps, with all the bells and whistles, I didn’t want any music/narration/video/hyperlinks — I just wanted a plain old linear picture book. I didn’t want to spend 18 months on it, or spend weeks learning how to use new software.


I considered making my picture book with the Book Creator app, used by lots of schools when students are creating projects. Book Creator is certainly simple, and very good for use with students, but I’m not a fan of its page turns, and I want my pages to fill the entire screen.


As it turns out, iBooks Author is amazing for what it can do as well as for what it can’t. For example, you can’t hyperlink to an image.  [Now you can.]

IBA is not set up for ‘creating’ a picture book — it’s the equivalent of Adobe InDesign in that you come to IBA after you’ve created all the story and artwork and now want to lay it all out so that it looks nice.

(My favourite ‘creating software’ is Scrivener, by Literature and Latte. Others are using Pages.)

How do I set up an iBooks Author file to create a children’s picturebook? 


Download my very basic IBA picturebook template.

A children’s picturebook has no chapters and only one section. So do this first:

When creating a new document, don’t choose one of the templates — pick the plain one.

Delete its first chapter. You can’t get rid of the ‘section’ below it. Start your page one in the section, then add all the rest of the pages behind it.

Step-by-step instructions are here.

Although all pages after page 01 will be indented inside IBA, as if they’re children of the ‘mother page’ 01, the reader won’t see this incorrect hierarchy, and it doesn’t really matter for us as authors either, since the pages are all numbered correctly. Consider it an unfortunate limitation of iBooks Author, which is optimised for making textbooks, not picturebooks.

Picturebook Template in iBooks Author

Word of warning:  Don’t do what I did and at a late stage decide that actually you’d like to insert a page before page one. If you do that you’ll have to shift a whole heap of assets manually. At least, I never figured out a way to insert a page before the first one.


Disable Portrait Setting

It’s necessary when creating a Fixed-Layout Picture Book (FXL) that you don’t want the orientation to change when a reader rotates their device. To avoid this all you need to do is click the “Disable Portrait Orientation” check-box in the iBooks Author Document Inspector.

There are a lot of Internet lamentations about how people are still making FXL books in this day and age, when flowable text exists so use that instead! But no, unfortunately 2015 is not the year in which it’s suddenly easy to create beautiful, bug-free reflowable picturebooks for iBooks. Maybe next year, Apple?

The main problem with creating a FXL book is that it won’t be available to users of iPhones and iPod touches. There are many more iPhones in the world than there are iPads. This will affect the number of downloads you get. Now you can read one of these fixed layout picture books on the small screen which actually creates another issue: For which screen size should you optimise? our Lotta: Red Riding Hood was made for iPad, but now you can read it on an iPhone, the text is actually a little small.


What size should I create my iBooks canvases in my art software? 

2048 x 1496px. (That’s landscape)

When you place your image onto the page in iBooks Author, type 1024 into the metrics panel of the inspector. Position it at 0,0:

iBooks Inspector Canvas Size in Pixels

What size do I make the cover?

The cover is always portrait orientation on the iBooks Store.

768 x 1004 pixels

You may have noticed that IBA works with points. I don’t know why. But if you’re interested in more information on pixels vs points, dimensions etc. etc., I found this website the most helpful.


What do I do about the text? Do I add the text inside my art software, or within iBooks?

This seems obvious to me now, but was a question I started with. There is a huge advantage to adding the words in iBooks Author — the end user can make use of iOS features such as dictionary, highlighting passages, or I believe there’s a setting where they can have the words read aloud to them. Also, the font will look really crisp on the screen if you’ve added the words within iBooks Author rather than embedded them into the page in your art software.

The problem is, how do I know where the words are going to go, as I make my art in a separate program? I hacked around a bit and ended up pasting all the words into iBooks Author (before doing any art at all), deciding which size font fit best (for this book size 20 looked best for the number of words per page).

Next, I took an approximate (but close enough) screen shot of each page (Cmd+Shift+4), saved the screenshot as page1, page2 etc, then used this as a semi-transparent layer in my art software as a guide to where I’d put the words. That way, I was able to create the illustration to fit around the words.

Using Screenshot as Tracing Object in Artrage
Using Screenshot as Tracing Object in Artrage


Page Layout

For Lotta: Red Riding Hood I have decided to stick with a traditional verso-recto design, partly because this is based on a traditional tale, so I want a traditional feel. Bear this option in mind for more modern stories: Now that you’re working with a flat screen rather than on paper with a centrefold, your graphic design is not in fact limited by that pesky join in the middle. Here is an example of interesting, magazine-esque graphic design from a book called:

TRICKY VIC: THE IMPOSSIBLY TRUE STORY OF THE MAN WHO SOLD THE EIFFEL TOWER (Click through to find more about this book at Art of the Picture Book).

Here the double-spread has been broken into three distinct columns.

What should I put into the ‘Intro Media’ area?

I’ve bought children’s picturebook iBooks where the reader is subjected to a promo video of the picturebook as soon as we open it. I think this is the wrong way to use a promo video. After all, the user has already found your book, if not paid for it. Perhaps you can insert a video which provides a prologue of sorts to the story. I’m sure there are other creative ways to make use of this new digital medium. Let me know if you can think of any.

For now, I’ve decided to use this area for a landscape version of the title page. This works well. I feel an iBook picturebook needs a title page as well as a cover — after all, we’ve been conditioned as readers of picturebooks to expect end papers, a colophon and at least one title page before starting to read the story.

I designed the cover and title page pretty much simultaneously, since I wanted to use more or less the same assets to create both a portrait and landscape version of the same thing.

Here’s our front cover:

Lotta: Red Riding Hood cover for iBooks Store
Lotta: Red Riding Hood cover for iBooks Store

And the title page, which I dragged into the ‘intro media’ area in IBA:

Lotta: Red Riding Hood intro media for iBooks
Lotta: Red Riding Hood intro media for iBooks


What do I put into the Table of Contents Area?

You’ll need to put an image in there, maybe the digital equivalent of endpapers? I created an image related to the story, and now it doubles as a colophon. iBooks Author will show you with semi-transparent squares exactly where the page thumbnails will go, so make sure you don’t put anything ornamental or fussy behind there.

Table of Contents Background Image
Table of Contents as seen from within iBooks Author

Here’s what the same page looks like when it’s on the iPad. (Artwork is in progress during this preview.)

Table of Contents as viewed on the iPad
Table of Contents as viewed on the iPad

As you can see, Apple reserves some space for their tool bar/status bars.

I made a PNG file which you are welcome to use as a reference overlay when creating your background image in your art software. Turn it on and off as necessary to check you’ve positioned your illustration where you want it.

How do you preview an iBook on your iPad?

You need to have the iPad plugged into the Mac, with the cord. Then it will show up as a preview option. (You’ll also be reminded that you need to open iBooks.)

Important Update: Mid 2015, Apple changed iBooks so that you can now read iBooks on an iPhone as well as on an iPad. This has important consequences for how big to make the writing — bigger — and means that you’ll need to decide beforehand which device you’re going to optimise for: Will the words look a little too large on the iPad, or a little too small on the iPhone?

Next job, getting your iBook onto the iBooks Store.

  • I called the American Tax Office via Skype and requested an EIN. Strangely enough, we’ve been selling apps on the App Store since 2011 and have never needed one of those. It took no time at all — at least, it wouldn’t have, if the Skype connection had been better…. [Was it the connection, or my non-American accent?!]
  • You’ll need to download an extra piece of (free) software called Producer. (Whyyyy)
  • It took about a day for LRRH to be approved (or, overnight, since I’m here in Australia). A subsequent book seemed to appear on the iBooks store right away.
  • No, you don’t need an ISBN — it’s no longer a required field. (If you’re Canadian you might want to grab one anyway. I heard over your way, they’re free.)

The People Across The Canyon by Margaret Millar

Hear “The People Across The Canyon” read by Douglass Greene at Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

This is my favourite story from the excellent collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, partly due to how much I relate to the characters. When our daughter was 5 some new neighbours moved in next door. The adults were super unfriendly, but had two sons who were overly friendly. They would invite our daughter next door, but oftentimes she came back subdued, and once, crying. I never knew what happened next door, but I did learn more and more about the family, and had to stop my daughter from going over there. When you’re the parent of a child between around 4-8, it’s difficult to discern fact from fiction; children so often live in their own worlds. “The People Across The Canyon” encapsulates that confusion most beautifully.


A family of two parents and their 8-year-old daughter live in a house on the edge of a Canyon. The parents enjoy solitude. But one day, it appears a new family has moved into the house right across the canyon.

The 8-year-old starts talking about them, and has obviously been to visit them. She even points them out in town, driving in a cream sports car.

When the 8-year-old tells her parents that the Smiths would like to keep her for their own, the father thinks enough is enough, and they go to the house to confront the newcomers.

We learn at this point, though it has been foreshadowed all along, that Cathy has made these people up completely. What they thought was a television set glowing is actually a mirror, reflecting light.


You won’t be surprised to hear that Margaret Millar was born and bred in Ontario, given the proximity of The Canyon in this story. I imagine a vista  little bit like this:

Ontario Canyon Falls

Though with its ‘scratchy clumps of chaparral and the creepers of poison oak that looked like loganberry vines’ I doubt it’s as picturesque.

The canyon is symbolic, of course. There is a gap the size of a canyon between the world view of the little girl and that of her parents. As it turns out, though, Cathy is very much like her parents.


Marion Borton

Mrs Borton’s desire, set up at the very beginning, is for peace and quiet.

“There goes our privacy.” Marion went over and snapped off the television set, a sign to Paul that she had something on her mind which she wanted to transfer to his. The transference, intended to halve the problem, often doubled it.

Marion had her house, her garden, her television sets; she didn’t seem to want any more of the world than these, and she resented anyimplication that they were not enough. 

Paul Borton 

Paul Borton shares his wife’s desire for peace and quiet, but his main problem is marital harmony. We get the sense that he will be happy simply watching the TV, so long as his wife doesn’t turn it off mid-sentence. He is depicted as more worldly and reasonable than his wife.

Cathy Borton

8 years old, ‘gets along with everyone at school and never causes any trouble’, in the words of her parents, via the teacher.

Cathy responded to the sound [of the frog croaking] as if she was more intimate with nature than adults were, and more alert to its subtle communication of danger.


It’s significant that Mr and Mrs Borton are watching a drama on TV:

Paul went over and turned the television set back on. As he had suspected, it was the doorman who’d killed the nightclub owner with a baseball bat, not the blonde dancer or her young husband or the jealous singer.

While the parents get their fiction from melodrama on the evening television, while concocting stories about who may have moved in next door, their daughter is just the same as them, concocting her own stories with a mirror, while all the time it looks to her parents that someone is watching a TV. Though there is a canyon between Cathy and her parents, they are really just the same.

The television makes more than one appearance. Notice how we’re told the backstory of the television set. In this way, Millar attracts exactly the right amount of attention to it:

It was the following Monday that Cathy started to run away. Marion, ironing in the kitchen and watching a quiz program on the portable set Paul had given her for Christmas, heard the school bus groan to a stop at the top of the driveway.

This feels like a very modern story. These days it’s not TV that gets blamed when parents are criticised for neglecting their children — it tends to be phones and ‘gadgets’. But this feels like — if not a criticism — then a comment on how we immerse ourselves in screens and fail to see the problems our children are having, right in front of our own eyes.



Millar often delivers “surprise endings,” but the details that would allow the solution of the surprise have usually been subtly included, in the best genre tradition. Her books focus on subtleties of human interaction and rich psychological detail of individual characters as much as on plot.


Indeed, every good story with a surprising ending reveals subtle foreshadowing upon second reading:

“You know how sounds carry across the canyon.”

“I don’t hear any sounds.”

Why don’t they hear any sounds, if noise travels so well?

Of Cathy, the parents ostensibly discuss the prospect of new neighbours, but the reader is really being fed information about young Cathy, who we are to believe is lonely, and therefore prompted to make imaginary friends:

“It would be nice if she had more interests, more children of her own age around.”

We’re told numerous times that Cathy is shy, that she is ‘imitative’, and we’re shown that when Cathy prefers to play with ‘real people’ over watching television, she goes off to play with her dolls. She knows ‘every inch of the way’ across the Canyon.


Apart from the canyon, the mirror in this story is symbolic, reflecting back to Mrs Borton in particular everything she is not. The mirroring is two-fold: She watches Cathy looking at the mirror as a pretend television screen. She herself watches a lot of television; Cathy’s school teacher has expressed concern at the amount. In these ways, our children mirror our behaviour.

When she looks into the mirror, Mrs Borton starts to see her own image morph into the Mrs Smith of her daughter’s imagination. This image rapidly disappears, and she is left with nothing. The mirror has highlighted her deficiencies.


First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, 1962.

Can now be found in the following anthology:

Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives Cover


There are numerous picture books for children about the power of imagination, and these are told from a child’s point of view. In a sense, this short story for adults is the inverse of that — a picture book story of imagination but told from the parents’ point of view.


Using the same storyline, what would the picture book version look like?

In what ways are children more in touch with realities than the adults in their lives?

In what ways to children make glaringly obvious any deficiencies in their parents?

Developing Characters In Stories

Goodreads to Anne Tyler: You are noted for your skill in writing character-driven novels. Do you consider yourself a student of human behaviour? When working on character, do you turn to people watching or daydreaming—looking outward or inward for inspiration?

Anne Tyler: I figure we’re almost all students of human behaviour. That’s how we get along in the world—by trying to make sense of the people we have to deal with.

When I’m working on character, I search my memory for telltale traits or gestures that I may have noticed in some random passerby. For instance, the other day I met a delightfully scatterbrained woman who was wearing a plastic bracelet the size of a giant bagel. When she tried to write a note, her bracelet was so thick that her fingers couldn’t reach the pad of paper she was resting her wrist on. I loved that; I thought it said reams about her.


Here’s what Robert McKee has to say about characterisation in stories:

  • Characters are not people. Whereas people constantly change and are difficult to pin down, characters in stories stand for things about human nature that are unchangeable through the ages.
  • Be mindful of the difference between ‘characterisation’ (age, looks, IQ, job etc.) and ‘true character’ (that behind the mask).
  • True character can only be expressed through choice in a dilemma. How a character chooses to act under pressure will reveal the most interesting things.
  • Make sure you understand your character’s desires.
  • Don’t reduce characters to case studies. ‘Generally, the more the writer nails motivation to specific causes, the more he diminishes the character in the audience’s mind.’
  • What other characters say about your character is more revealing than what main characters say about themselves.
  • To create 3D characters, what you do is give them complexity by contradiction. The trick is to make the contradictions of their character consistent.
  • The protagonist has to be the most complex character in the story.

Catherine Tate was asked once, ‘Where do you get your characters?’ She told the journalist that there was a shop on such-and-such-a-street.

As Dean Norris said of his character Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad: “I knew all about my character before I’d read a thing.”

From an acquisitions editor:

Here is a problem I find in my own writing and one I see in a lot of submissions:
Characters so focused on their own agendas that they don’t react like normal human beings to what is going on around them.
Cardboard Characters from Novel Rocket


  1. Making use of Myers-Briggs Personality Types;
  2. How to Use Psychometric Testing to Create Believable Characters from Writer Unboxed.

Other Useful Links

4. Creating Authenticity in Fiction – Where do authors draw the line? a thought-provoking article from Carly Watters.
5. Why Your Novel Characters Need Real Flaws at Rachelle Gardner’s blog
7. What Is Character? Books which debunk the myth of fixed personality from Brainpickings
8. Under Development: Ways to Create Characters, from The Other Side Of The Story
9. Take Your Characters To Therapy from Writer Unboxed
12. CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT TEMPLATE FOR HEROES (based on Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey)