You have your characters, and you have a story in mind. Now it’s time to think about structure. Which of the following techniques will work best for your story? I'm using examples that are familiar or that I had on hand.
1. Alphabet: You must use every letter of the alphabet (in order) and there still needs to be a story, otherwise, it’s just a list. In HI, KOO! A YEAR OF SEASONS by Jon J. Muth, written in verse, he highlights the letters of the alphabet in succeeding order as he describes the seasons.
2. Compare and/or contrast: You are comparing two characters against each other. In the end, both story lines come together. Think city mouse, county mouse.
3. Counting: You don’t have to count to infinity and beyond, but the usual number is 10, and again, you need a story or it’s just a list. DOGGIES by Sandra Boynton teaches the children the different barks of dogs and one cat while learning their numbers.
4. Days of the week: First rule, list all or none. Listing the days of the week sets up an expectation for the reader. They know as the week gets closer to the end, something big will happen. Akin to the “ticking clock.” In THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR by Eric Carle, the caterpillar eats his way through the days of the week and morphs into a butterfly.
5. Ending where you started (circular): Story starts at home or place X and ends at home or place X. Another way the story could end where you started is repeating the opening phrase or a part of it at the end. Think Wizard of OZ.
6. Months: List them all in the proper order, and you still need a story line. In THE TURNING OF THE YEAR by Bill Martin, Jr., written in verse, he brings forth the joys of each season.
7. Question and answer: Character asks another character questions. In A SPLENDID FRIEND, INDEED by Suzanne Bloom, the duck asks the bear questions about what he’s reading, what he’s doing, what he’s thinking, is he hungry? Bear doesn’t answer, but the duck does.
8. Repetitive phrase: Kids love the rhythm of repetitive phrasing, but that alone is not enough. The story will still need one of the other structures listed. Two of my favorite repetitive phrases are “Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!” and “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom will there be enough room?”
9. Seasons: List them in order and don’t forget the story line. THE REASONS FOR THE SEASONS by Gail Gibbons explains the solstices, equinoxes, the earth’s tilt and orbit and what children and animals do in each season.
10. Story within a story: This is when an adult tells the child a story about something that happened to them (the child). KNOTS ON A COUNTING ROPE by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambaut has the grandfather telling the boy a story of his birth, he was frail and weak, but survived because of his strength and will to use that strength to deal with his blindness.
11. Taking a trip: The goal is not just the destination but getting ready for the trip and the struggles or discoveries along the way. THE BAG I'M TAKING TO GRANDMA'S by Shirley Neitzel tells a packing story from two viewpoints, the child’s and the mother’s. The child packs too many toys and no clothes, mother, of course, wants less toys and clothes. The boy outsmarts his mother and gets to take his toys.
Another category of picture books are mood books. These books typically don’t fit any of the above classifications. They are not problem oriented books, character or plot driven books, but books on wonderings, imaginings, inspirations or emotions, for example.
I WISH YOU MORE by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld is a book on wishes, wishes for inquisitiveness, friendships, treasures, peaceful moments and more.
Closing note: Take an hour on the library floor or the bookstore, pull out random picture books and see how many of the above techniques are used in the same story.
For my source and more detailed information, check out WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul.