Thursday, July 1, 2021

Story or Illustrations, Which Comes First?

Contributed by Karen Cioffi

While most authors know the answer to the title question, whether story or illustrations come first in picture books, some newbies don’t.

The story should be written first then the illustrations should be created to enhance each scene (page or spread).

My reason for writing this article is because of a rewrite client I had. She created her own illustrations, which were good, but she wrote the story around her illustrations.

The sole purpose of the story was to describe the illustrations through a very weak storyline.

For this article, I’ll say she visited the pyramids in Egypt and the protagonist's goal was to find the largest pyramid.

He trekked through Egypt and talked about the things he saw on his quest, which related to the illustrations.

Being an artist, she wanted her readers to SEE everything she saw. She tried to incorporate as many tidbits of information about her journey into the story, and she wanted to do it visually.

The storyline and the characters were there just for the illustrations.

This doesn't work.

The story and the illustrations should complement each other. The illustrations enhance the story; they show what's not written.

The story itself must be properly written with story and character arcs.

While her primary focus was the illustrations, she did want an engaging and marketable fiction story to go with the illustrations, and after a couple of critiques realized what she created didn't work.

That's when she came to me.

I've worked from illustrations before. It was another rewrite project, but those illustrations were created for the story. I was able to rewrite the story around them.

With the pyramid client, the illustrations were the focal point. It's not a good idea to force a story around illustrations.

You may feel you have leeway if you're self-publishing, but if you want a quality book that you’ll be proud to be the author of and one that will engage readers, you need to follow the rules of writing for children.

As for my client, I recommended she create nonfiction books. This way she could spotlight the illustrations without bogging them down with a forced fiction story.

So again, a fiction story should be written before the illustrations are created.

But... there are no ironclad rules.

There are certain circumstances where text can be written around the illustrations. This could happen if you're working on a picture book with an illustrator. Or if the book is created primarily to tell the story through illustrations for young children.  You get the idea.

The general rule: Story first then illustrations.

This article was first published at:


Karen Cioffi is an award-winning children’s author. She runs a successful children’s ghostwriting, rewriting, and coaching business and welcomes working with new clients.

For tips on writing for children OR if you need help with your project, contact her at Writing for Children with Karen Cioffi.

And, check out Karen's The Adventures of Planetman picture book series, along with her other books.


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Terry Whalin said...


Thank you for this valuable article for every picture book author. The story has to be central then the illustrations are created.


Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

I always enjoy reading Karen’s articles on writing for children even though I rarely write for them. Still, I almost always find something in her advice that could also apply to other genres. Love this.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson.

Linda Wilson said...

I agree that the story needs to be crafted first. Studying picture book models can be a big help.

deborah lyn said...

Thanks Karen! I agree "The story and the illustrations should complement each other. The illustrations enhance the story; they show what's not written."
An aspiration of mine, has been to illustrate children's books. I always expected to get into the story first, then to enhance and support the story with the art work. The art work should follow, adding emphasis to the story's path. Your article is timely and important for all writers. Thank you.

Karen Cioffi said...

Absolutely, Leon. Many things can be the catalyst for a story. But when having a full set of illustrations for an intended picture book, it's usually difficult to write around the illustrations. The story flow/arc and the character arc of other aspects of the story might be affected.

Karen Cioffi said...

Thank you, Terry. That's the usual process and it works!

Karen Cioffi said...

Carolyn, I'm so glad you like the article and find tidbits of information for writing in other genres from my articles!

Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, that's the best way to learn how to write picture books - studying picture book models. Thanks for sharing that!

Karen Cioffi said...

Deborah, you should definitely get into picture book illustrations. You're an amazing artist! And yes, text and illustrations are closely connected in children's picture books. I just read recently that PB illustrations should show what's not being said or enhance what is said.
I always think of the new author who might say, "Mario flicked his black curly hair from his bushy eyebrows. His dark eyes narrowed."
The illo will show exactly what he looks like without the PB author wasting words on it.

One Last Edit: Re-think before Submitting

Think of a story as a string of pearls. If you don't have a string, you can't put the pearls around your neck.                      ...