Monday, 14 July 2014

Aptly ever after

This post was originally published on Picture Book Den, a blog about picture books by picture book authors and illustrators.

Back in April, Natascha Biebow wrote a Picture Book Den post about picture book openings and why it’s important to get them right. I think endings are equally important, so I thought I’d write a post about them.

When I was reading picture books with my own children we were always disappointed by stories that ended inappropriately. Perhaps most disappointing of all were picture books that seemed to have no proper ending at all. We’d turn the page, expecting to discover how the story finished only to find that it was already over and we were at the back of the book. I think there needs to be a satisfying sense of conclusion when one reaches the end of a picture book, whether the story winds down gently or ends with a spectacular flourish or unexpected twist.

Some of the best children’s storytelling in recent years has come from Pixar, the animation studio that created the Toy Story trilogy and several other modern classics. While Pixar’s films are always visually impressive, the company attributes its phenomenal success to its motto – “Story is King”. Here’s one of Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling that’s also a great piece of advice for picture book authors.

Rule 7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

I’m a great believer in writing an outline before writing a story – even a short story like a picture book’s – and that means coming up with an ending before starting the first draft. I know that some authors dismiss outlines as limiting, claiming that they like to ‘discover’ the story as they are writing it. That might be true if the outline were a fixed document but, like most authors that use them, I’m constantly tinkering with the outline as I write the story. If a better ending occurs to me, I see if I can rework the outline to accommodate it. Writing a story with an outline is like going for a walk in the country with a map. You have an idea of what’s coming up, but you can always opt to take a different route and end up somewhere else if it takes your fancy. With a map, a walker is less likely to end their walk stranded in the middle of nowhere; with an outline an author is less likely to end up with an unsatisfactory ending.

I don’t know whether the authors of the following picture books use outlines or not, but here are three stories that all have satisfying endings that feel just right. I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers, but if you haven’t read any of the stories mentioned below and want to avoid any hints as to how they end, you might want to skip over that paragraph.

The Great Dog Bottom Swap

Peter Bently

Illustrated by Mei Matsuoka

This is the tale of a Dog’s Summer Ball that starts well, but ends in disaster. It’s a farcically funny story, deftly written with lots of amusing incidents throughout. And – as if that weren’t enough – the text on the final spread reveals a twist that makes the reader see the whole plot in an amusing new light.

Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose

Dr. Seuss

I can’t think of another picture book ending that made me and my children laugh quite so much as this one when we first read it. The story concerns Thidwick, a kindly moose whose generosity is exploited by a collection of creatures who set up home in his antlers. When a group of hunters arrive, the overburdened Thidwick’s chances of survival look slim. The image on the last page gives the story an incredibly funny, totally unexpected and somewhat shocking ending.

The Gruffalo

Julia Donaldson

Illustrated by Axel Scheffler

I know that The Gruffalo has had plenty of praise heaped on it already, but that’s because it’s such an exemplary piece of picture book writing. After the mouse’s death-defying adventure, Donaldson ends the story calmly and quietly. Having repeatedly escaped being eaten himself, the mouse (and the story) comes to a stop as the mouse sits down to enjoy a meal.

What are your favourite picture book endings? Let me know in the comments box below.