Storytelling is storytelling, no matter what medium.
That is the second lesson I learned at the annual SCBWI New Jersey conference on June 4 and 5.
Not only that, I learned it on the first morning, at the first event, courtesy of renowned illustrator David Wiesner, who lives just down the road in Bridgewater.
Mr. Wiesner is a three-time Caldecott Award winner, famous for such picture books as Tuesday, Flotsam, Art & Max, and Mr. Wuffles. Mr. Wiesner’s books are dog-eared favorites in our two-kid family, but before the conference, I would have said we didn’t share much common ground as writers.
I’ve written two books of YA nonfiction. He creates adored children’s picture books. How do my stories of endangered tigers and life-saving dolphins relate to flying frogs on lily pads and alien cat toys?
Quite a bit, it turns out.
Mr. Wiesner spoke about the “unique artform” of the picture book. A stunning artist who uses no words—or so few words each seems wrenched like a ha’penny from Scrooge’s tight fist—he first surprised me by saying that his primary focus is always storytelling.
Then, he shared his process for crafting stories, and I want to highlight three crucial lessons I took away. These apply to any writer because, no matter our subject or tools, we all do the same thing: tell stories.
For example, his book Tuesday, about those flying frogs, was inspired by a single word. He’d been commissioned to create a cover for Cricket, the children’s magazine, and that issue was devoted to a certain croaking amphibian.
“I love vague art assignments,” he said. “Just a word to react to.”
After some noodling, he found himself drawing frogs in the air, riding magical lily pads, and he knew he had a great image. He also knew he had the seed of a book, but one cool cover wasn’t enough. He needed a story.
So he started storyboarding, throwing down one image next to another, just to see what would happen. He didn’t have a plot. He had no ending in mind, no message. But as he kept storyboarding, the rhythm of the images and the characters he was developing accrued their own momentum, their own logic.
“Something always comes out of the process,” he said. “If I could define who the characters were, I could unlock the story.”
For me, lightbulbs went off. Good storytelling is always about characters—oddball, conflicted, passionate characters, be they people, animals, insects, robots, real, imagined, whatever. Without characters, we don’t care. Pretty words and pictures mean nothing. Style won’t hold our attention. That all-important message, that puzzle-ish plot: sheer tedium.
Focus first on characters, Mr. Wiesner advised, and the story and everything else will come.
The second part of his message also struck home: we must embrace the tough ax-work of revisions. We should celebrate it, in fact. In example after example, Mr. Wiesner made clear that “the process is what makes things happen.” Each of Mr. Wiesner’s books began with a moment’s inspiration that took many years, even decades, to craft into a publishable story. Think about that. A picture book is 32 pages, give or take. His books use, perhaps, a dozen words.
Taking the time, and having the patience, to make each word and image count is what wins you a Caldecott.
Mr. Wiesner showed us draft storyboards, the half-formed, all-important middle stages of his creations. These always began as messy, rambling explorations that eventually, in fits and starts, grew more refined. During this process, many things changed, while others remained stubbornly the same.
Whatever else happened, those frogs kept flying.
In fact, as he talked, I became envious. Not of Mr. Wiesner’s success or talent, but because I longed for the limits of his medium. That he uses paint rather than a keyboard doesn’t matter. Rather, writing picture books had taught him, almost by force, to condense storytelling to its essentials. This was the third lesson I gleaned.
For most writers, words are cheap and hard limits are rare. Our computers can hold as many words as we disgorge. Our problem is conciseness, precision; we don’t know how to whittle. Yet in a picture book, “space is at a premium,” Mr. Wiesner said. Each spread might hold only a few panels, so “every time you turn the page, create anticipation.”
Of course, all storytellers build suspense, use cliff-hangers, seek a “page turner,” right? I think so, but I’m not convinced we write each scene, action, sentence with that urgency. What if, after every image, our readers had to turn the page? Could we convince them to keep going?
In his storyboards, Mr. Wiesner pointed out all the images that he cut; how he identified the one image that held the most excitement and all the necessary information. Once he found that, everything else disappeared.
“The space in between the panels is key,” he said casually, as if we all understood what he meant.
But to me, that remark reveals a key part of Mr. Wiesner’s genius.
He’s learned what to leave out.
For all his artistry, he knows that the blank spaces are as important as the images when it comes to storytelling.
Do we write like that? Do we ever value silence? Do we ever seek and relentlessly cut what doesn’t need saying, trusting our readers to fill in the blanks?
Pick up a picture book. Look at the space between the panels. Consider what goes unsaid.
Doesn’t it make the story more interesting?
Be sure to look back at Part 1: Gathering Your Tribe.
Jeff Campbell is the author of two nonfiction book for young adults, Daisy to the Rescue and Last of the Giants. He’s also a freelance book editor and has been teaching with The Writers Circle since 2014.