You have built your character and selected your Narrator. The Narrative Structure is done; meaning you know what is going to happen in the Beginning, in the Middle, and in the End of the story. Now, it is time to write (or revise) the story.
How are you going to narrate the story? The intuitive answer tells us to order the events by the time they happened and write! This is how we humans experience life, and this type of narration has been around as long as we have been telling stories. However, this style isn’t the only one and some stories are far better not to be told this way.
In literature, under the umbrella name of Narrative Device, we have more options to narrate the story.
Be careful to not mistake the Narrative Device for the Narrative Structure. Narrative Structure is Beginning-Middle-End, whereas Narrative Devise is How the Narrator organizes to tell this Beginning-Middle-End. As we proceed further and study the examples, the concept and the difference will become more clear.
In this blog post, we will look at different Narrative Devices in the published picture books.
As stated above, the chronological narrative is the oldest and the most frequently used Narrative Device in the history of storytelling. Our brain comprehends a story framed in chronological order better because it corresponds to our understanding of time.
Most picture books are written in a chronological narrative.
Reverse Chronological Narrative
As the name suggests, in the reverse chronological narrative, the narration starts from the End and continues in the reverse time order. This means the story starts from Z, the next scene is Y, next X, and so forth, until B and finally A.
The story of Before She Was Harriet (2017) by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome starts as Harriet as an old woman. The story moves back, stage by stage: before she was a suffragist. But before she was general Tubman, but before …. . Story weaves back Harriet’s life until her childhood.
Picture books with the reverse chronological narrative are not very frequent. Be careful about the difference between this type of narrative and flashback. Most books are mistakenly categorized as reverse chronological narratives because they have flashbacks!
Common Mistake: Flashback and In Medias Res are NOT reverse chronology
Flashback is when the writer takes out the reader from the current story and brings the reader back to an event (or sequel of events) in a character’s life. However, in a flashback, an event is narrated in chronological order. For example, a 60-year-old character flashbacks to memory when he was 30. During the flashback, we see when he was 30 and then 31 and 32. Then the flashback finishes and the story comes back to the current time when the character is 60 years old. Whereas in the reverse chronology, the story would be when the character is 60, then 58, then 50, then 40, until the story arrives at the beginning—most possibly childhood.
Flashback is a literary technique and deepens the meaning of the current story by giving the backstory. The reader understands the character’s motivations better. We see this technique anywhere in books or movies.
The movie Citizen Kane (1941) begins with Kane on his deathbed, whispering Rosebud. The movie flashbacked to Kane’s childhood.
The childhood and the adulthood of Kane are told in flashbacks to show the audience what in the life of wealthy Kane was missed. This movie was a pioneer in masterfully using flashbacks in the film industry.
In the Harry Potter books, flashbacks explain many characters’ backstory.
In medias res is a type of Narrative Structure when the story starts from an event from the Middle, continues back to the Beginning and the Ending. In medias res is discussed in this blog post before.
For example, the story in Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code (2017) by Laurie Wallmark and Katy Wu, starts with the middle-aged Grace. On the third spread, the story flashbacks to the 7-year-old Grace (Beginning) and continues with her education and her work (Middle) and finally, ends when Grace is retired (End). It WOULD be a reverse chronology if the story started with the retired Grace and continues with Grace’s adulthood and eventually her childhood.
Epistolary (Diary & Letter)
The word epistolary stems from the Latin word epistola, meaning a letter, a message. Epistolary refers to any story written in letters, a diary, or a book made up of newspaper articles, emails, and text messages.
Examples of stories told through letters are abundant. Although, I encountered some picture books, published traditionally AND recently, which start with a ‘Dear NAME,’. However, if you cut the ‘Dear NAME’, the story still has its full meaning, as a first-person POV tells us the story. This is not the correct usage of Epistolary Narration. Here are some good examples of picture books that narrate the story only through letters.
Yours in Books (2021) by Julie Falatko and Gabriel Alborozo is a story of an owl who orders books by writing letters. The owner of the bookshop is a squirrel and the picture book consists of the letters these two exchange. As the story develops we see that the owl changes. At first, he wants to be alone and has no interest to leave his home. In the two last spreads, we see that the owl leaves his home and visits the bookshop. In the bookshop, he reads books aloud to other visitors.
Can I Be Your Dog? (2018) by Troy Cummings is the story of a stray dog, striving to find a home.
The story consists of the dog’s letters between the dog and the recipients’ rejection letters. Another example is Dear Dragon: A Pen Pal Tale (2016) by Josh Funk and Rodolfo Montalvo which is the story of a boy and his pen friend—a dragon.
Another example of epistolary is The Day the Crayons Quit (2013) by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers.
Letters could be written as postcards: Love, Agnes: Postcards from an Octopus (2018) by Irene Latham and Thea Baker.
A more recent example with a funny tone is Tabitha and Fritz Trade Places (2021) by Katie Frawley and Laurie Stansfield.
For diaries, Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss created The Bug Diaries Books that include titles like Diary of a Worm, Diary of a Fly.
Epistolary is not necessarily a useful Narrative Device for funny books. On the contrary, it can be used to discuss serious and tough topics.
The story in The Quiet Place (2012) by Sarah Stewart and David Small consists of twelve letters a Mexican immigrant girl writes to her aunt who hasn’t immigrated with her. Through the letters, the girl explains how she feels after leaving her home country.
Epistolary can even address politics. The story of Dear Mr. President (2019) by Sophie Siers and Anne Villeneuve is about a boy who shares his room with his elder brother. He wants to build a wall in the room. Through letters, he discusses building a wall with Trump. It is funny and serious!
For the sake of completeness, I should also mention other Narrative devices. Although they are not applicable in writing picture books.
- Real-Time Narrative
- Stream of Consciousness
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