Writing Lesson Week One: Cumulative and De-cumulative Story Structure


Hello! Welcome! I'm so glad you’re here! I want you to know upfront that even though I am a published author, writing is not my natural form of expression. I have taken many writing courses hoping to easily piece together concepts swirling around in my mind so that I could write books to illustrate. I have been less than happy with what seems like an ocean of prose and no lifeboats. I've noticed the artistry of writing becomes so important that the story, or the book as a form, is forgotten. The writing courses haven't been that helpful, even though well-intentioned. I know I have been guilty of putting artistry over function in my illustrations, but we don't need to talk about that. :) So, I've created this course to share what I've found that brings cohesion to ideas and expression in a delightful way.


I hope this course inspires you and creates a supportive structure for you to get your ideas into book form. I've put together a collection of books that I think are exceptional. These books are the best of the best so keep that in mind as we review writing examples from each week’s theme. I’ll include a book list at the end of the lesson—I hope you find these books inspiring.


I want to ask that you please don't share the course content. I worked hard to put this together and I've tried to keep the price very accessible so anyone can take this course. Thank you! 


This week includes:

• How I make a dummy or a working prototype of the book.

• Examples of cumulative / de-cumulative story structure.

• Your assignment




The Book Dummy


Once I have an idea of some characters and some actions that will take place in the book, I like to move to a book dummy because as, you turn through the pages, it's obvious what is working and what is not. Each time you turn through a dummy, little changes become obvious and each pass-through tightens up the story. My heart does a little dance when the book is working and throws little jabs at me when it's not. (Tip: read to the age-appropriate audience for insight on what's working and what is not—it's amazing the clarity that comes to you when sitting with a 4-year-old.) I keep reworking my book dummies until they're tight, feel fluent, and don't "jab" at me as I read through them.


The real secret is to get the ideas out of your head and onto paper right when they arrive. Record your ideas in more detail than you think you will need. You should have a place to put your ideas as soon as they come to you. Lately, I have been using one of those storyboarding journals from Moleskine, but here are a few more options for capturing your ideas: (note: Click for download of pdfs and the dummy for the dummy making lesson.) Here are some other ways I get my story out of my head and onto paper. Choose what works for you, but don't rely on your brain to remember the idea. Get it out on paper in whichever form.


1) Picture book layout thumbnail page. 

2) 9 page pdf indicating spreads for a 32 page picture book.

3) How I make a dummy. (Click for a detailed description.) 

4) I tape pages on the wall as a layout of the whole book and tape my sketches into place.

     •orange pages are: front and back cover 

     •white: endpapers 

     •green: the book starting page 1 and ending page 32


You can see by looking at books what the general children book sizes tend to be. You'll want to keep in mind how it will fit on a shelf (too small and it gets lost—too big and it doesn't fit) or how it fits in a child's hands. That said, if your idea calls for something unusual—then give it a try and follow your gut. 

A 32 page picture book is most common. It used to be that publishers didn’t stray much from this page count, but more and more there are picture books that exceed 100 pages. (note: Added or subtracted pages need to be in multiples of four.) Here are three examples of picture books with longer page counts that are in the market now.

48 pages

104 pages

112 pages

This week we are going to take a close look at cumulative story structure. In a cumulative tale, sometimes also called a chain tale, action or dialogue repeats and builds up in some way as the tale progresses. One satisfying aspect of an cumulative story is that it starts simple and builds upon itself. Often this story structure collapses under the weight of the build-up in a fun or ridiculous finale. These engaging stories make for a great beginning-to-read choices because children can anticipate the progression of the story by the predictability of it's pattern. Here is an exceptional example of the classic There Was An Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly by Simms Taback. Make sure to hover over the image for the descriptions of each page. 

Joseph had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback, the Caldecott winning picture book for the year 2000, is  based on a yiddish song Simms loved as a boy. Joesph’s story is about an overcoat getting worn through use and transformed to nothing. I am calling this "de-cumulative" since it keeps the same satisfying structure only in reverse as the cumulative stories.

Simms has illustrated many books using a cumulative story structure: Too Much Noise, There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly (Seen above), Joseph had a Little Overcoat, and This is the House that Jack Built.

Here is a description of Simms Taback by a friend of his: "He is always giving. Simms offered more—more interest, more time and attention, more care a bit like a loving mom with a pot of hot soup" —Reynold Ruffins. I think his generosity is reflected in his detailed illustrations of connected community. 

Here are a few more examples for our study of this format. I want to broaden the idea of this format to books that increase or decrease in plot turns, humor, characters or objects, and may or may not have the repetition of words. So you can see the variety and effect that either increasing and decreasing these elements can bring to a picture book. Take your time reading the descriptions. 

So—you can see the variety and effect that either increasing, decreasing, or doing both can serve as a supportive structure in a picture book. 

Some other things to keep in mind while creating stories:

1) Repetition

2) When to break repetition or when to make the response different.

3) Long, languid sentences—short snappy sentences.

4) Sounds of consonants in your words:

   Soft Sounding Consonants: L, M, N, and R 

   Hard Sounding Consonants: B, C, (when it's a hard C), D, K, P, Q, and T

5) How can your story build / cumulate?

6) How can your story decrease / "de-cumulate"?

7) Does your story have parallel themes of building and decreasing? | Brooklyn, NY 

© 2018 by Kristen Balouch

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