As we’re working to edit our nonfiction picture book manuscripts, let’s talk about the main story problem.
Establishing the main story problem in the beginning of your story provides the tension a story needs. It lays the foundation for every scene to be built upon. It gives your MC a goal to work toward through the entire duration of your story. Plus, it engages your reader (and editor!) and compels him to read the entire rest of your story to discover how our MC solved the main story problem at the end.
Stories that do not establish the main story problem in the beginning lack sufficient tension and consequently tend to ramble. Without the main story problem in place, scenes lack purpose. Your MC appears to be wandering down bunny trails or chasing a wild goose. Readers feel uninterested in the MC and have a hard time connecting with the story. They have a vague sense that they’re watching a series of unrelated events and will put aside the book for something more engaging.
In the beginning of our nonfiction picture book, as authors we therefore have three basic options:
Option #1: Establish the main story problem.
Option #2: Hint at the main story problem.
Option #3: Lay the foundation to establish the main story problem later on in the beginning.
For example, let’s pretend our picture book is about an ostrich named Olivia. The main story problem is that someone has stolen Olivia’s ostrich egg from her nest.
Here is an example of how we could establish the main story problem on the very first page of our picture book as in Option #1:
“Where is my egg?” Olivia cried. “Somebody stole my egg!” (We know someone has stolen her egg.)
Here is an example of how we could hint at the main story problem on the very first page of our picture book as in Option #2:
Olivia took a long drink from the river, then headed back to her nest. She wanted to double check that her egg was safe and sound. (We wonder if something has happened to her egg.)
Here is an example of how on the first page of our picture book, we could lay the foundation to establish the main story problem later on in the Beginning, or Act 1, as in Option #3:
Olivia was quite forgetful. Every morning she forgot to brush her beak after breakfast. On chilly fall days she forgot to wear her warm scarf. And she always forgot whether she should look left or right—or both ways—before she crossed the road. (We know nothing yet about Olivia’s missing egg. But we know she is forgetful, which establishes the foundation for the main story problem when in an upcoming scene we learn she is so forgetful, she forgot to keep watch over her egg and somebody stole it.)
These are fiction examples, but the same holds true for nonfiction especially when you are writing a biography, an historic event, or using creative nonfiction where you’re incorporating fiction techniques to convey the information to your reader.
So look carefully at the beginning of your manuscript. Did you establish the main problem (or idea) in the beginning?