T. A. Hernandez
Writing and Illustrating Picture Books: Part 2 - Literary Devices
In my last post, I talked about the importance of word count limitations in picture books and how you can let the words and pictures work together to tell your story. Now I want to talk about how literary devices such as alliteration, repetition, and rhyme can be used in picture books and some pitfalls you may want to avoid.
Why use alliteration, repetition, or other literary devices?
As in any other type of writing, the language you use can greatly affect the story and the way it is interpreted. You have to choose your words carefully, keeping in mind what you're trying to say with the story and who the intended audience is. Picture books are most often going to be read aloud, which affects the words you use and how you use them. The words need to be relatively short and simple so that children can understand them, so obviously you're not going to try and emulate your college biology textbook here. Alliteration, repetition, rhyme, and other poetic devices can also be a helpful tool, and chances are you've seen them crop up regularly in picture books. For example, alliteration can be useful because of the way we hear the words when the same sounds are read together. It can help readers (and young listeners) focus in on a particular part of the text. Repetition can help children remember important characters, events, and settings, while rhyme and rhythm can add a fun, musical element to a story.
Here are some other literary devices you'll see in picture books. I'm not saying you have to use all of them, but I think it helps to keep some of these things in mind as you're writing and think about what might enhance your story...and what might be entirely unnecessary.
Onomatopoeia - Bang! Whiz! Pow! Crackle! What's not to love about these words that sound exactly like what they are?
Personification - Any time you see a story about talking animals or automobiles with emotions or toys that come to life, that's personification.
Hyperbole - Tall tales and other exaggerated stories can be a lot of fun for young readers and writers alike.
Irony - This is another fun one that can be used for comedic affect or just to give a story an unexpected twist.
Rhyming: Proceed With Caution
Books that rhyme seem to be especially trendy, and when they're done well, they're great. It can be tempting to want to go with this technique by default because it seems fun, and maybe there's a perception that a rhyming story equals an instant recipe for success. Unfortunately, I've seen several rhyming picture books that just didn't work, so if you decide to do this, please proceed with caution.
Some of the more common issues that rhymes in picture books seem to suffer from:
Rhythm and beat that just doesn't flow - This is probably one of the harder parts of writing in rhyme. It's not just about finding words that sound similar. It's about arranging those words into a beat that flows well and sounds good when you hear it out loud. If you miss the mark on this one, it can throw everything else off.
Forcing rhymes or using near-rhymes that don't really work - If you have to force a word into the story just to make it rhyme, readers and listeners are going to be able to sense that something is off. Near-rhymes can work occasionally, but if used too often, they can feel forced and off-putting as well.
Forcing the plot into a rhyming pattern just for the sake rhyming - This is the big one for me. The rhyme shouldn't dictate the story, and you shouldn't force the story into a rhyme just because you think it will sound cool. That very well may be true, but you also need to consider what the most effective way to tell the story is. Is it through a rhyme? Maybe. But if not, don't force it. One thing that might help is to start off by writing the story in a regular, narrative format and then converting it to rhyme afterward. That way, you'll be able to get the story out without being constrained by rhyming patterns, and you'll be able to evaluate which way is really the best way to tell the story.
Please leave a comment and let me know what you think of these tips. In the next post in this series, I talk about about the illustrating side of things. After that I'll start working through various parts of the self-publishing process for picture books.