Story Skeletons: Teaching Plot Structure with Picture Books

Use picture books to teach young writers how to organize plot logically. This article includes examples of basic plot structures, along with picture books that use those structures.

Picture books are quick reads, lots of fun, and often gems of characterization, mood, and dialogue. They are also perfect for teaching the young writer how to organize plot logically.

Many writers start new works by capturing tidbits of ideas on scraps of paper. But how do we make sense of those ramblings? This question leads to a classic step in teaching writing often called prewriting. It also points to what I consider one of the most important early steps in story making - creating organization through plot structure.

In prewriting, many teachers use a variety of story-mapping techniques to help children see relationships between ideas, including clustering, webbing, and listing items and actions that belong to the beginning, middle, or end of a story. All of these techniques are helpful, but do they go far enough? How does a student know which items listed in the "middle" section of a story map should go first, second, third? Sometimes it is the sequencing of the action in a story that can cause the student to falter. This step can be mastered through the use of visual and textual examples of standard plot structures.

When I introduce the idea of structuring a story, I talk about how our skeletons hold us up - otherwise we'd be… "puddles!" (The kids shout it out.) Stories have internal structures that hold them up, too. Knowing what the skeleton of a story looks like early in the process makes knowing what to write next in the drafting and revising steps a lot easier.

Below is a list of some basic plot structures, along with picture books that use those structures. Sharing these picture books will help students better understand how to shape their own story making.

Please note that the grade levels below indicate the suggested grade level of the writer or prewriter (storyteller). These grade ranges reflect the difficulty of the plot structure being taught, not the reading or listening age. The open-ended grade levels highlight the fact that many fine picture books can be used as examples for writers of all ages, even adults.

Cumulative or Toppling Stories

Cumulative stories such as Rhonda Gowler Greene's This Is the Teacher add repeating elements as the story progresses, until the plot finally topples over at the end.

Like the traditional tale "The House That Jack Built," the stories below add repeating plot elements and characters in the text as the story progresses, until the whole structure topples from its own weight - usually with humorous results.

Decreasing Stories

Carole Lexa Schaefer's The Biggest Soap has a "decreasing" plot structure — the soap that Kessy is sent to but becomes smaller and smaller as the story goes on.

Traditional tales based on a decreasing story structure include "The Tailor" and "Ten Little Monkeys."

"Increasing" Stories

Bill Grossman's My Little Sister Ate One Hare is a counting story with an "increasing" plot structure — the items on the sister's menu grow more outrageous, until the story finally reaches a satisfying conclusion (she throws up).

While cumulative stories use textual repetition that piles up until the whole story collapses (often under the weight of pure silliness), stories with an "increasing" plot structure proceed logically to arrive in a planned way at a satisfactory conclusion. Traditional tales based on an increasing story structure include "The Little Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly."

Simultaneous Increasing and Decreasing Stories

Parallel Stories

Stories within Stories

Allen Say's Kamishibai Man is a story within a story: the tale the elderly storyteller tells reveals why he no longer performs his art.

With more advanced writers, explore the plot structure of the framing story and compare it with the structure of the inner story. For example, in The Day Jimmy's Boa Ate the Wash the inner story closely resembles a cumulative plot that heaps one silly event on top of another, while the framing story is told in a linear fashion.

Stories with Linear Time Lines

Stories with "Around the Clock" or Full-Circle Time Lines

Lisa Wheeler's Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum has a full-circle time line. After a menagerie of animals escapes from a bubble gum mess, a bear and a hen get stuck and start the story again.

Stories with Rising Action

The stories below are marked by rising action leading to a climax and a final denouement.

Teaching Strategies

  • If your students are using clustering techniques during prewriting, have them cut out their ideas and glue them to a visual diagram of one of the plot structures. This will give visual learners a template for the drafting step.
  • Cut up a story into sentences and distribute them. Have the students line up in the order they think the story should be told. If it is a story with rising action, are they in line from least to most tense action? If it is a story with a decreasing or in creasing plot line, are they lined up correctly? (Hint: To make this even more visual, have the kids sit on the floor and use cushions, chairs, and stools so that their heights range progressively up or down.)

Professional Resources

Web Connections

The websites below about teaching writing with picture books may be found on the Book Links website. Click on "Web Connections," then "May 2006" to access the list.

About the author

Shutta Crum was the recipient of the Michigan Library Association's Children's Services Division 2002 Award of Merit as Youth Librarian of the Year. She is also the author of Click!, listed above. For more information, see her website.

Used with permission from Book Links magazine,, S. (2006). Story Skeletons: Teaching Plot Structure with Picture Books. Book Links, May, 2006 (31-34).


You are welcome to print copies for non-commercial use, or a limited number for educational purposes, as long as credit is given to Reading Rockets and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact the author or publisher listed.


Thank you for the opportunity to view this material. It will really help me assist my less vocal writers to develop their skills

I write, edit and artist the cover of my short stories and mini stories in all categories. 5 to 15 pages for the mini stories no more no less and 16 to 35 pages form the short stories no more no les. It took 35years to perfect this idea for easy reading and short tention span youths. leaves you with a desired feel after break at work or home for 5 to 10 minutes. You will be refresh after a complete book in so few pages. Easy to download as files no binding or shipping cost. Read from you iphone, ipod, and read more even your child can learn to read with mom or dad. After all they want to be a grown up too. Thank YouAutor: Williejames J.Forks

At, we have numerous lessons using picture books. Here are links to three: Using Picture Books to Teach Characterization in Writing Workshop (, Using Picture Books to Teach Plot Development and Conflict Resolution (, and Using Picture Books to Teach Setting Development in Writing Workshop (

Loved your article. Will definitely use it for my writing. As a picture book writer I know how essential the picture book form is to getting story structure. It is always a struggle developing a fluid and satisfying story in 300-1000 words. Thinking in pictures also helps. Your article enlightened my process. THANK YOU!

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