Monday, January 13, 2014

Picture Book Workshop: Twist Endings

I recently sent some stories to my agent.  He liked the stories, but worried that the end twists weren't twist-y enough.

That got me thinking about twist endings in picture books.

On one hand, I get it.  The more clever your story, the better.  Editors see the same kinds of stories over and over again so yours has to be too clever, charming, insightful and fun to refuse.  Jeepers, right!

On the other hand, do young readers need big twists in their stories before they even fully understand what a predictable ending is?  (That's an idea for another blog post though.)  Right now, if I want to see my stories published - and I do - I need to make sure I can master a twist ending.

A lot of times when I'm looking to learn something specific, I'll go look for a book on it.  The problem is, most books on writing craft are for longer works such as adult fiction.  What works for adult fiction does not necessarily work for a picture book.  Yanno?

But I did find a lovely little essay on Twist Endings by sci-fi author Charles Gramlich.  I borrowed it on my Kindle so it didn't even cost anything.

Mr. Gramlich had two good points which I wanted to share.  One, in order to write a twist, you must first know what the audience will expect.  What's the predictable ending?

Then, you have to figure out how to turn it around.  (Easier said than done.)

The other point wonderful point he made was about being careful not to trick your readers too much.  An audience that has come to care about a certain character will be upset if you pull a twist and make that character something that the audience doesn't like.  For example, if you write a bully story about poor little Billy, and the twist at the end is that Poor Little Billy is, in fact, the bully, your readers aren't going to like that.

The twist has to serve the story but not overwhelm it.

I looked through my stacks to find some good examples of picture book twists.

In LITTLE PEA by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Jen Corace the whole concept is a bit of a twist.  Little Pea does not like to eat candy for dinner, you see.  But he has to eat it every night.  The bonus twist is that when he has finished eating the candy that he can't stand, he is rewarded with dessert: spinach!  Hi favorite!  Yum, yum, yum!

In a slightly more straight-forward story, BACKBEARD AND THE BIRTHDAY SUIT by Matthew McElligott, Backbeard is a mean, smelly, disgusting pirate who ruins his clothes when his birthday party gets too rowdy.  He goes to town to get new clothes, but they don't really have pirate clothes.  He ends up getting a boater hat and a colorful suit.  One twist is that he likes his new look, even though he looks kind of ridiculous. 

At the end, he is worried if he will be accepted by this crew.  What's the predicable ending?  Well, because it's a picture book, he's obviously going to be OK.  But the story is clever in how it gets to that point because the crew doesn't even recognize Backbeard at first, then they do, in fact, think he looks a little silly.  They have a big pirate brawl.  In the end, because he is still the same old mean, smelly, disgusting Backbeard underneath it all, his new look is accepted.

This, to me, is a good picture book twist.  I don't think you want something that blows the top off of reality, like a Twilight Zone episode, but you want a good, justified ending that had some surprises along the way.

Is your ending twisty enough?  I guess only the editors and the readers can decide!


Mirka Breen said...

"do young readers need big twists in their stories before they even fully understand what a predictable ending is?"

I hope you do write this post, because you got me thinking hard with this. I'm quite certain those twists are for the adults who read the books to kids. PBs are unusual in that they must amuse and engage different generations at once.

Julie_c said...

I agree, Mirka. I don't think it's the child reader who needs the surprising twist ending at all. In fact, I think it's comforting sometimes for them to be able to predict what's going to happen. But I haven't had any luck selling those kinds of stories. At least not yet. ;)

Jan Coates said...

I agree, as an adult I really like twist endings, as long as they completely fit into the story. My PB, Rainbows in the Dark features a girl helping a young blind woman pick out clothing at a used clothing store. The twist, which I still like, is that the blind woman gives the girl tickets - to her concert, at which she is the star cellist. But in writing PBs, I find it crazy hard to think of cool twists most of the time. Thanks for the post.

Johnell DeWitt said...

This is good advice. It's actually got me puzzling over one of my stories that I've been uncertain about. Thanks.

Julie_c said...

Thanks so much Jan and Johnell. I think the thing about twist endings in picture books is that a picture book also has to have a sense of balance and justice to it that an adult book doesn't necessarily have to have. For example, GONE GIRL. That was a twist-palooza - but it was without hope or really, justice. There's quite a lot to cram into a little picture book when you think about it.