Writing With Pictures: The Inside Story of a Wordless Picture Book

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

_pandamorphosis-cover-for approvalWordless picture books are a special sub-category of children’s books. Even digital books are going wordless. What does it take to create such rich non-verbal tales? All the drama, action and emotion are conveyed with illustrations, not words.

I spoke with Anne Belov, the author/illustrator of Pandamorphosis, a new picture book available on the iPad and on Kindle. Pandamorphosis is a children’s story about a cat who transforms into a panda.

BB: What was the original idea for this story, and how does it differ from the story that finally got published?

AB: The original idea was completely different from where I ended up. I began with the idea that a little girl saw an “adopt a panda” notice on a zoo website. Her parents told her the panda wouldn’t come to live with them, but she placed her adoption request anyway. One day a black and white bus pulled up in front of their house and a panda got off, carrying a suitcase. They spent the day playing dress up and riding a bike together. I added a cat. But I kept getting stuck. At this point the cat started showing up in almost every drawing, and I realized that the cat was an important character.

When I had the pieces of the story, I scanned everything and printed up a rough dummy, so I could see how it flowed—and I could see the holes. At that point, the story completely changed. I got the idea that the cat would actually turn into a panda. I started over from scratch, with a girl, a cat and pandas. A suggestion was made that it would be interesting to know which panda had been the cat, so I added a collar and tag to that panda so you could follow her through the story

BB: Pandamorphosis is a wordless picture book. When it was still a words-plus-pictures book, did you write the words then draw the pictures? Did you use a computer or a pencil?

AB: I started out with individual pieces of paper but soon realized I needed a dedicated sketchbook to keep the drawings organized. On a storyboard template, I started by writing the actions and dialog. Then I would draw rough sketches. All the writing and sketching in my sketchbook was in pencil. Something happens in your brain when you go through the physical act of drawing or writing by hand. I didn’t start scanning images into the computer until later in the process.

I started a practice of setting my timer for an hour a day (usually while I had my coffee in the morning) and committed to do as much as I could in that hour. I move more quickly with this schedule than I did when I told myself, “Today I am going to complete the storyboard.”

025 AB PandaBB: At which point did you decide words weren’t necessary?

AB: Even while I was still working with the original adopt-a-panda premise, I kept cutting text. When I changed the story idea, all the text went out the window. I had seen David Wiesner’s wordless picture books and was intrigued by the way he used visual details to tell the story. I also read Scott McCloud’s books Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics. They helped me understand the different ways I could advance the story both by what I put in, but also what I left out.

The visual details advance the story. All around the bedroom are panda-themed items. Then you realize the wallpaper has a bamboo pattern, as does the bed-frame. I used clocks throughout the story to help show time passing. Some ideas weren’t the result of conscious thought, like when one of the pandas picks up a panda slipper, and then starts carrying it around with him. It’s almost like I enter an altered mind state.

BB: Right up to the end, you were changing the order of some of the panels in the book. Can you elaborate on that?

I did eight or more different book dummies. Sometimes I would change one or two drawings (still in the rough sketch stages) and just paste them in on top of the existing page. Eventually I decided I needed to do a finished drawing or two.

This is where all my fine art training came into play. I’ve been painting for over forty years, and have worked in a wide variety of media. I spent two years doing nothing but very detailed colored pencil drawings after getting out of graduate school. I knew about composing drawings to lead the reader to turn the page and about creating dynamic compositions.

020 AB PandaI also determined that I wouldn’t really know what the finished book was going to be unless I did final drawings, rather than unfinished pencil sketches. I knew this was a risk because an editor might want me to re-draw the whole thing, but I decided to approach it as an educational investment. If it were never published, I still would have learned a great deal from it (and have a massive amount of very cool artwork).

I replaced more than half a dozen finished drawings in the final book, and at least ten additional drawings were needed. Only two of them were double page spreads.

When I got the go-ahead from my publisher to add more pages to the book, it enabled me to separate out some of the action, which had the effect of focusing on one small part of the story. This was especially useful in the sequence where the cat transitions into a panda. Spreading things out more lead to some late decisions about picture order and proximity that I am very happy with.

BB: Any other thoughts on the art of telling a story through pictures? How do you sustain the drama?

AB: Scott McCloud’s books were such an integral piece of my understanding how to tell a story with pictures. I also read Uri Shulevitz’s classic book on telling a story through words and pictures. Many picture book authors and illustrators are reading McCloud’s books. David Weisner’s books were very influential.

I thought about the arc of the story and how the action and composition would move that forward. The wordless format is fascinating. It’s kind of funny that has just taken me many, many words to describe the process of creating a wordless picture book. One of life’s little ironies.

Want more information on how to make the words you write count? Check out Beth Bacon’s 4 Weeks to a Powerful Marketing Strategy course starting October 6.

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