A Hero's Journey with Farmer Falgu

When I’m mulling over a new picture book idea, I often take a large white paper and scribble all over it. Call it a spider diagram during a hurricane. I don’t see patterns yet – but I’m jotting down all ideas around the idea, words that remind me of the idea, ideas that give birth to more ideas.

Find out more about spider diagrams here

 The spider diagram reveals a picture - with broken bits of web, ideas glinting through the gaps, I gather those ideas into a new image. That new image needs a structure.  As much as I’m creative with ideas in the beginning, when I'm playing, when I'm daydreaming, I still need the comfort and safety of structure to organise those chaotic thoughts into a cohesive narrative. Yes! Picture Books have a structure and story arc as much as novels. 

Allow me to tell you a story. The year was 2012. I had published one picture book in 2006/7 and nothing had happened since then. I had a computer full of stories – some that did see the light of day many years later. But many that will never be dusted off.

            I sat down to write my first Farmer Falgu story. (Yes it's a series and find out here about how it became a series). 

Farmer Falgu series was illustrated by Kanika Nair and published by Karadi Tales, India. Available for sale in the UK from Letterbox Library.

I had a general idea of the story – it was going to be about noise and sounds. I had somehow stumbled upon the character – all I knew was that he was going to be a farmer in a farm full of animals. Perhaps it was my childhood growing up in small towns and villages, next to farms, perhaps it was reading all these English books about farms – who knows how our subconscious works and how ideas come up to the surface.

            Reading that story again and dissecting it during a course I taught, I realised it uses a number of structural devices. The first one - The Hero's Journey is what I'm going to talk about now.

How does Farmer Falgu Goes on a Trip map to the Hero's Journey? Is Farmer Falgu going to fight evil villains and jump over aeroplanes and risk his life to save a precious treasure? Not really! At least not in this book.

a)     Spread 1 sets up the problem. Jumping straight in, there was no setup for who Farmer Falgu was and where he was – because that’s what the pictures will do.

b)    Spread 2 shows us the inciting incident – Farmer Falgu sets off on a trip to be away from the problem. Hence the title

c)     Spread 3 – shows character – Farmer Falgu is kind and compassionate despite his troubles. But this spread also sets up a future problem. 

     Every action must have an equal and paying off reaction in fiction. 

d)    Spread 4 shows the problem caused by spread 3.

e)    Spread 5,6 & Spread 7,8 make the problem worse. And they add to the problems.

f)      Spread 9 – Farmer Falgu is rid of the new problems caused by his kindness. But he hasn’t yet solved his original problem.

g)    Spread 10 – False hope. Farmer Falgu thinks he has achieved his goal.

h)    Spread 11 – Nope! He was wrong.

i)      Spread 12 – Farmer Falgu ponders over his original problem and he thinks about the problems over the rest of the spreads. He has a final epiphany. Yes! He has solved his problem.

j)      Spread 13 – He returns home with a changed mindset. Nothing in his farm has changed. But Farmer Falgu’s realisation over the course of his journey has changed his attitude.

With some exceptions of deadly battles and evil villains, this is a hero’s journey. Farmer Falgu, our hero, set off to solve a problem, confronts confounding problems, has a false sense of achievement and then loses hope and then finds the thing that makes him happy. He has gotten what he needed, not what he wanted.  

To make this easy for picture book writers, I have a handy storyboard planning tool here. 

            Based on the above dissection, here are some tips for you to take away on your own stories.

  1. Think about your character and story as a hero’s journey. See how it maps out in terms of spreads.

  2. The planning doesn’t need to come before the writing. If you’re like me and prefer to free write, write the story, from start to finish. Make it fun and interesting and then go back and review the structure.

  3. Check the pacing with respect to the narrative. See if you have more spreads in the beginning and you’re rushing to the end.

  4. Make sure the problems are progressively complex or accumulating. In picture books, it’s a lot of fun to add to disasters culminating in a big spread of glorious hullabaloo.

  5. Check if the character has an internal need and an external want.

Happy Structuring!

Chitra Soundar is an internationally published, award-winning author of over 40 books for children. She is also an oral storyteller with a loud voice and she also writes trade fiction, non-fiction, poetry and theatre. Her stories are inspired by folktales from India, Hindu mythology and her travels around the world. Chitra regularly runs writing workshops in schools across the world. Find out more at www.chitrasoundar.com.

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