Ready to outline a children’s book?
It might not as simple as you think. Whether you just want to write and publish a children’s book without much care for how it does or if you’re looking to make money with children’s books, you still have to understand this process.
Some folks have made the mistake of making a children’s book author mad, by stating that they would love to write a children’s book someday, since it’s not nearly as hard as writing a real book.
There’s this idea that since children’s books are, in some ways, simpler than adult fiction, they must be easy to write, and the people who write them must not be particularly talented writers.
This isn’t true and we’re show why below…
Learning to write children’s books is a process unto itself, and it’s a skill that needs to be developed just like any other kind of writing. And just like any other kind of writing, it comes with a unique set of challenges.
For example: outlining.
Whatever book genre or age group you work with, you’re going to need to at least try to outline your novel.
But how can children’s book authors outline theirs?
The process is similar, but believe it or not, there’s different things children’s book authors need to keep in mind.
This article will cover some tips and tricks for getting your next children’s book outlined and ready to draft.
How is a children’s book outline different from a novel?
This is sort of a trick question.
The thing is, children’s books are still books—in other words, they’re still stories.
This means that writers sitting down to outline their children’s books should ultimately be outlining a story in the same way that someone writing adult fiction would.
Here’s where things differ: in children’s books, the story is much shorter, much more streamlined, and generally contains some kind of message or allegory. The allegory isn’t a requirement for children’s literature, but it’s pretty common.
What does this mean?
Instead of mapping out countless subplots and fleshing out endless backstory, you’re going to want to keep things short, tight, and super focused on the core components of a story. If you’re writing a children’s book series, it’s even more important to dial in this process so you can outline all of them at once, before starting to write.
What is the basic structure of a children’s book?
Before we get into teaching you how to outline your children’s book, we should cover basic structure.
Like a book has a front and back cover that structure the book (telling you where the book begins and the book ends), it’s important to cover what should be included, before diving into the steps to outline your children’s book.
The basic structure of a children’s book shouldn’t differentiate too much from an adult fiction book. Stories are stories, and all of our stories have a core structure.
However, you’ll want to really zero in on these core components when writing a children’s book.
You don’t have a lot of space, so everything needs to be clear, concise, and intentional—there’s not as much room for meandering between acts as there might be in adult fiction, where readers are willing to sit down for three hundred pages and hear you out.
Let’s go over the basic structure of a children’s book. These pieces will be the bones of your outline.
Side note: if you’re writing middle grade fiction, you’ve got a little more room to work with things like romantic subplots and side characters. Your outline might not need to look quite as bare-bones as this, and may look a little more like a young adult outline.
When thinking about how to outline your children’s book, remember, your children’s book will have four basic components:
Let’s get started.
1. Beginning of story
The beginning of your story should introduce the characters, themes, setting of the story, and conflict. We should have a clear sense of the world the characters live in, the rules for the universe, and who our main cast of characters are.
When starting the outline for your book, remember to start the action sooner rather than later. Many children’s books begin the action as soon as your open the story – typically on page one or page two.
There may be some characters our main cast encounters on their journey, and it’s fine to introduce those in the middle, where the bulk of the story takes place. But all of our main characters should be introduced in the beginning.
This introduction should be clear in a children’s book. It should be obvious where the story is taking place and what that setting looks like, and it should be stated very clearly who we’ll be following throughout the narrative.
It should also be very clear what sorts of conflict the characters will need to grapple with—is it an internal conflict, like the need to acquire more cookies, or is it an external conflict, like the need to take down a bad guy threatening the village?
2. Middle of story
This is, for all intents and purposes, your second act. Most of the story will be in the middle. The characters should grapple with the conflict introduced in the first part of the story, and they should work to overcome different challenges in order to meet their goal.
If you’re writing allegory, ask yourself what sorts of challenges represent their real-world equivalents.
For example: in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, an enormous toxic self-help ox represents the sort of selfish and aggressive self-help advice that can ruin people’s friendships.
A character following that advice has to grapple with having become too aggressive.
The obstacles in the middle of the story should tie to your theme, and they should work toward solving the central conflict.
Don’t be afraid to introduce fun new characters for your main cast to interact with or new settings for your characters to travel through! Just keep it all as simple and easy to follow as possible, so it’s not confusing.
It should always be crystal-clear why characters are doing what they’re doing.
3. Story climax
Just like in adult fiction, this is your big hurrah. This is where your characters overcome that central conflict you’ve been building up to the entire time—the monster is defeated, the mouse finds his way home at long last, et cetera.
Pay special attention to the climax section of your story as you begin to outline a children’s book.
The climax should be a very clear resolution of the conflict introduced in the first part of the story. If you set up an evil groundskeeper, for example, the conflict should involve our characters handling him, and the way they handle him should speak to the message and themes of the book.
Do your characters throw him into a pit? Do they realize he’s just misunderstood and befriend him?
The way your characters handle the climax should be a culmination of their character arc.
For example, a shy character might finally work up the nerve to stand up to her bully, or an aggressive character might learn to be soft and kind to her friends. Not to sound like a broken record, but again, this should be a very clear culmination from the character we met back in the beginning.
4. Ending and Wrap Up
The ending of your children’s book is going to be the most important part in terms of theme. The ending should immediately follow the climax—the princess marries the prince, and they live happily ever after!
The way the book ends tells us the overall message and ties up the theme. If the characters defeated the groundskeeper with violence and they’re all celebrating, we’ve learned that violence was an acceptable and understandable way to handle this conflict.
If the characters gather around and vow to stay best friends forever despite the events of the story, we learn that friendship can endure even the toughest hardships.
A note on morals: while adult fiction tends to question our morality and offer tons of grey space for our principles, children’s fiction tends to be simpler.
This isn’t to say that children’s literature can’t grapple with intense issues, like grief or social injustice issues like racism, and it isn’t to say that children’s literature can’t grapple with those issues with nuance and understanding.
What I mean here is that children need a simple, clear message that ends the story on a satisfying note. This means that whatever your message is, it shouldn’t be difficult to pick apart.
How to Outline a Children’s Book With Ease & Impact
Now we know what the basic structure for a children’s book looks like, which means we’re ready to get started! Here are a few tips and tricks to use to make sure your children’s book outline is as good as it can be:
1. Identify Your Theme
Before you get started on your plot, identify your theme, especially if you’re setting out to write an allegory.
What problem are the characters going to solve? What does that problem represent—does it have an analogy to real-world conflict, and if it does, what is that real-world conflict?
For example: a cruel and vicious groundskeeper might represent a mean parent or an unjust government leader.
These analogies should be kept in terms that children understand and relate to, so it’s best to stick with issues children face. Parental struggles, friendship problems, school problems, etc.
Children also deal with things like grief and trauma, so if you’re writing about something like that, just make sure you’re keeping the child’s perspective in mind as you outline a children’s book.
2. Know Your Characters
In a children’s book, it’s especially important to have recognizable, memorable characters. Make sure you have only as many characters as you need to tell the story, since a story with too many characters can get confusing.
It’s also important to make sure these characters are distinct and motivated. If your book is illustrated, making them visually distinct will be a huge help.
Otherwise, make sure the character’s names don’t look the same (Sarah and Sandra might be a little confusing), and make sure each character has their own strong characterization and motivation.
It can also be helpful to give characters a unique trait or quirk, like a hairstyle, special power, or catchphrase.
These can get gimmicky, so don’t rely on them for characterization, but if your genre calls for it, play around with it! The ponies in My Little Pony, for example, all have distinct colors, styles, and special powers.
3. Find Your Conflict
Once you’ve got your theme and your characters, you’re ready to identify your conflict.
The conflict should arise naturally from the distinct characters you’ve created and the setting you’ve put them in—if the characters and setting all totally gel with each other and there’s no tension or potential for tension between them, you might want to rework it.
If your story is going to involve some external conflict, like an alien invasion, you should still have some internal conflict for your character to work through. Maybe your character needs to learn to be brave, for example.
Identify these and keep it in mind for your climax.
4. Map Out Your Plot Points
Now that you’ve got all that, it’s time to hit up the basic structure we talked about earlier.
Go through and map out your beginning, middle, climax, and end. If you’ve only got one of those pieces in mind right now, that’s fine! Write it down and fill in the rest as it comes to you.
If you’re working with an illustrator, it might be helpful to use a storyboard format to outline.
Even just sketching some stick figures or describing what you want to go on in the scene can be helpful.
For tips on this, try looking at movie directors’ and comic book writers’ storyboards for inspiration.
5. Plan for Variety
Finally, you should plan a few different endings for your story. Children’s books are short, and you might need to play around with different versions of the story. Maybe in one version, the climax goes differently, or the ending has a more serious or less serious note.
You don’t have to go crazy, necessarily, but having these alternate versions readily available will be helpful when it comes to getting feedback.
This way, you can ask your readers which versions they prefer and why, and if you need to head back to the drawing board, you won’t be left with absolutely nothing.
Step-By-Step Process to Outline (and Write) Your Children’s Book
So, how do you outline a children’s book?
Well, the first step is to identify your theme. This will help set up what your story is about and give it direction.
Next, know your characters–this includes their goals and motivations as well as any major conflicts they might be facing.
Then, come up with plot points that illustrate how these different aspects of the story play out over time.
Finally, plan for variety by having subplots or side stories that tie into but don’t overshadow the primary storyline in order to keep readers engaged throughout the entire process!
If this sounds like something you’d enjoy trying yourself, register below for our free online class on writing children’s books where we’ll cover all of this and more!