Search for Surprise: Crafting PB Plot Twists

With Picture Book Idea Month 2012 just weeks away, it's time to start strategizing. This year, I'm shooting for an even higher level of idea quality in a quest to unearth stories that spark a lasting excitement and beg to be written. For every PiBoIdMo idea, I'm seeking combinations of characters, settings and conflicts that allow for one key element... SURPRISE.

Surprise is absolutely essential in children's writing. It separates a good story from a great story and it also separates published books from unpublished manuscripts. Surprises come in many forms, from secrets revealed and reversals of fortune to defied expectations. There are limitless ways to surprise an audience. Then why doesn't everyone just go off and craft a few brilliant, Caldecott-worthy picture books with mind-blowing twists?

Go look at Esphyr Slobodkina's classic picture book, Caps for Sale. What makes this book so special is the perfect little twist at the end. It's an ah-ha! moment that's shared by the cap peddler and the reader, and it arrives through a simply told conflict between a hapless protagonist and some pesky monkeys.

Now, it's easy to say, "The end of a picture book should be surprising, yet seem satisfying and inevitable." Great. Thanks for the help. What's much harder to say is, "And here's how you do it." How and where do these kinds of great endings in children's literature originate? Twists and surprises don't just pop out of thin air, people. Or maybe sometimes they do? Should plot twists arrive only after the foundations of character and conflict are laid? Does the spark of a truly great story idea begin with the ending?

Every writer's experience and process are different, and there's no singular way to construct a story. But if anyone out there has any handy resources or brilliant insights into approaching children's story ideas with surprise in mind, chime in, please.

  • What's your favorite picture book plot twist or surprise ending? 
  • Know of a biography or writing guide that shares insights on crafting plot twists? 
  • Any tried and true formulas for developing seeds of stories that lend themselves to surprise? 

Please share in the comments!