by Leslie Colin Tribble
Recently at my regional SCBWI conference I heard two different people mention the correlation between writing picture books and screen plays. What? What does writing a screen play have to do with writing children’s picture books?
I sat down with a friend, Jake Graham, who writes screen plays to see if I could understand this phenomenon and I discovered some interesting ideas. Read on – you’ll see these different forms are actually pretty similar types of writing.
I haven’t been in the picture book industry for very long, but in just a few short years agents and editors have gone from asking for word counts to be under 1000, to 500 and now it seems 300 is a good length to shoot for. That means every word must be absolutely the best choice. There’s no room for a mediocre word or sentence. Screen plays are the same. Each word, snippet of dialogue or scene description has to strongly convey the story. The perfect screen play is 120 pages which is the equivalent of a 120 minute movie – one page equals one minute of movie. Mediocre isn’t going to find a home in 120 pages either.
Move the Story Forward
In a screen play, the writer must move the plot forward or reveal something about the character in every scene. With the brevity of picture books, there’s a “scene” on each page, so every page has to count for something. Jake told me some of the best screen writers use index cards when writing. Each card is a scene – it has the slug line or heading, scene description, character description and action. The writer then lays the cards out and reviews the story. If an index card contains something that doesn’t move the story forward, it gets tossed. It’s a great pre-writing tool to structure the story better, but it’s also an excellent rewriting tool.
Picture book writers are told to make a dummy of their book to help with flow and page breaks. I think the index cards might be a useful tool as well. A dummy makes your manuscript already feel like a book and you might be more hesitant to make some of those cruel editing decisions. Index cards seem less permanent - you might be less horrified to throw out those precious words.
In a screen play, each character is known for their particular “one thing.” Every interaction with other characters, every action must be about that “one thing.” In writing picture books, I think this relates to understanding the main character’s conflict or desire. Don’t muddy the waters by suddenly bringing in another conflict or issue. Keep the plot about the “one thing” and its resolution.
Three Act Play
Screen plays are traditionally thought of as occurring in three acts – Act One is 30 pages, Act Two 60 pages and Act Three back to 30 pages. That’s pretty much the same in picture books, setting up the conflict, working to resolve the conflict and satisfying ending.
Jake told me the best way to write a screen play is to know the ending and work to get there. This allows you to have greater control over the scenes and keeps the script tighter. He suggests spending a lot of time pre-planning the story, which is hard to hear for someone whose writing consists of “winging” it. Planning and plotting was another refrain I heard more than once at the conference - that's an aspect of craft I’ll definitely have to work on.
After learning a little bit more about screen writing, I understand why the conference speakers suggested this medium as a way to become a better picture book writer. The two disciplines have a lot in common. Who knows? Maybe you’ll after looking into screen writing you’ll decide this is the writing you were meant to do!
*Note: The book, Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder was mentioned as a good resource for learning about screen writing.