I had a lot of questions when I was first learning how to make a picture book dummy. What’s the difference between self-ended and separate-ended books? What page does my story start on? Why do I see some authors’ manuscripts starting on page 6, while others start on page 4? Honestly, it made my brain hurt.

I had some writers tell me not to worry about it, that someone else would figure all of that out. Great! I thought. Music to my ears!

But then, somewhere along the way, I realized: Wait a minute. I’m writing PICTURE books. It’s probably important to think about the VISUAL aspect of the book. I took the time to learn how to dummy and made it a part of my writing process. And you know what? My stories are MUCH STRONGER because of it.

Nowadays, I firmly believe that making a picture book dummy is essential, so I would never send out a story without having made a dummy.

That being said, I remember the way I hesitated to create a dummy. I had to look up multiple sources, from multiple blogs/books, in order to understand it fully. Initially, I didn’t bother to learn it because it was a little bit hard. (In other words, I was a little bit lazy.)

Here’s the deal. It’s actually not that hard! The unknown seems intimidating, until you take the time to learn it. Storyteller Academy’s “Dummy Creation Guide” is the best explanation of the picture book layout that I’ve come across, hands down. Read this post, print out the “Dummy Creation Guide” and spend a weekend learning how to dummy. I guarantee your stories will thank you!

So…here’s a dumb question: What’s a dummy?

A dummy is a mock-up version of a picture book. You can physically hold it and turn the pages, just like you would a published book. This differs from a storyboard, which is a flat sheet of paper, on which the different scenes/pages are drawn out.

Author/illustrators will be expected to submit a full dummy to publishers. But dummying is not just for them! Writers need to learn how to make a dummy, too, even though they will only be submitting a manuscript.

What do you learn from making a dummy of your story?

What’s the benefit?

You learn a ton! Here are some problems you might solve:

  1. DOES YOUR STORY FITS INTO 32 PAGES? Is it too long? Too short?
  2. PACING. Does your problem get presented by the third page of your story? Is there a section that slows the story down unintentionally? Is your climax around page 30/31?
  3. WHAT TO CUT! By adding illustrations, you suddenly see all of the unnecessary words in your manuscript. You don’t need to say he’s a pig, because clearly he is a pig. Cut that out!
  4. DO YOU HAVE ENOUGH ACTION SCENES? Are there parts of your story that are dialogue-heavy, without good visuals? Fix it!
  5. IS THERE ENOUGH VARIATION? You don’t want all of your images looking the same. See where you can spice it up.
  6. DO YOUR PAGE TURNS WORK? This is where dummying has a leg up over storyboarding. Something unique to picture books, as opposed to other forms of writing, is the importance of the page turn. A page turn can change the scene, change the time, and act as a drumroll, leaving the reader in suspense. Page turns are where the magic happens, and there is no better way to figure them out than by physically turning the pages on your own story. Depending on the layout, there are either 11, 14, or 15 page turns. How many do you think your story has?

At what point in the writing process do you create a dummy? This is a great question, and I think it depends! In general, I’d say most author/illustrators tend to "dummy as they go.” Whereas, most authors with no intention of illustrating (me!) tend to make a dummy at the end. But I know there are plenty of author/illustrators who write the manuscript first and dummy at the end, and there are plenty of writers who will dummy throughout the writing process.

Two main ways you can use the dummy:

  1. DUMMY AT THE END. Making a dummy is the final step, after writing your manuscript. For those that consider themselves writers and not illustrators, this usually feels most natural. I typically write a manuscript, until it gets close to where I want it, and then lay it out in the dummy format. This helps me see areas that need work. I will often go back and revise the dummy several times. But, the dummy, for me, is more of a final step, the finishing touch.
  2. DUMMY AS YOU GO. Making a dummy is an integral part of creating a picture book. For many (especially author/illustrators), images and scenes typically come before the words do. Or maybe, you’ll have a mix of images and words. In Storyteller Academy, the dummy IS your manuscript. While you can certainly have a manuscript to work from, Storyteller Academy is more about re-dummying, than re-writing. While Storyteller Academy’s way of working felt foreign to me, it opened my eyes to a new way of creating picture books.  It got me thinking visually, and my manuscripts have benefitted greatly.

I don’t think one way is better than the other. Now, I kind of go back and forth between these two ways of using dummies.

I’m still hesitant. Are you sure I need a dummy?

Yes, yes!  I’m sure. And I guess I would wonder why you are still hesitant. I think there are three main reasons writers resist learning how to dummy:

  1. I CAN’T DRAW. Unless you are an author/illustrator, this is not about drawing. It is a tool for figuring out the layout of the book. Nobody is going to see your sketches (again, unless you are planning on illustrating). Stick figures are perfectly acceptable! Plus, the process of dummying is actually quite fun! You get to cut and paste and doodle. You get to use a different part of your brain and take a break from the computer.
  2. IT’S NOT MY JOB. Oh, but it is! If you are a picture book author, then you had better understand the product you are trying to create. Editors and agents will certainly be thinking about pagination. How many manuscripts must they see that are great, but won’t fit into a 32- page picture book format? Why not set your manuscript apart, by already having that figured out? That’s not to say you necessarily submit a manuscript with page numbers. However, you should know that your story fits into 32 pages and darn well be ready to add page numbers if they ask.
  3. I DON’T KNOW HOW. Well, it’s no wonder. It’s confusing! There are several different layouts: self-ended books versus separate-ended books, 32 pages versus 40 pages. The Storyteller Academy “Dummy Creation Guide” (link below) is the best source I’ve found on the different dummy layouts. Use the "Dummy Creation Guide" we've linked to and compare it to a stack of recently published picture books. You'll understand picture book layouts in no time.

But how do I physically make a dummy?

As for how to physically make a dummy, there are a lot of different ways. For a vertical layout, I will take eight pages (8 1/2 X 11) and fold them in half, to get 32 pages. While more expensive, I also love using Field Notes notebooks. They're so easy to use, and I can fit the notebook into my purse to take to a coffee shop. For a horizontal layout, I usually staple 16 unfolded pages together to get 32 pages.

I add construction paper for the covers and for separate-ends (colored-ends), if I want them. Then, you can either use Post-it notes or tape (Scotch Magic Tape is the easiest to use for revising pages.) to add your illustrations and words. You can either write the words on Post-its or cut up your typed manuscript. The whole point is to be able to move things around. Play around and see what works for you! As you can see, I don’t do it the same way every time.

    

 

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that dummying is absolutely essential. Once you learn how to do it, I know your stories will improve, and I bet you just might have a little fun, too.

 

 

Ryan Roberts is gaga for GOODNIGHT MOON, infatuated with Ferdinand the Bull, and psycho for SOPHIE’S SQUASH. When she’s not obsessing over picture books, she’s busy being a mom and veterinarian in the Pacific Northwest.