Sunday, February 9, 2020

Choosing a Structure for Your Picture Book Biography

By Donna Janell Bowman

Dear reader-writer, I understand the struggle. Writing picture books is challenging. Informational picture books and picture book biographies can be especially toilsome because of the research and the challenge of artistically shaping facts into a picture-book-sized narrative. My own stacks of saved (I don’t know why) revisions are evidence of the struggle. And I’m not alone. In my coaching, critiquing, and teaching of kidlit writers, I’ve noticed that a few specific craft elements cause exceptional angst, especially with narrative biographies. Among them is structure.


There are several ways to define literary structure. For today’s purposes, I’m referring to how you order or arrange your text to customize your storytelling. Yes, I said storytelling. And, yes, I’m talking to you. Remember that you are not writing facts, you are writing a factual story. That’s why it’s called narrative nonfiction. Publishers and their respective editors might have house styles that influence their preferences, but there’s no doubt that a fresh approach can make the difference between a rejection and acquisition. So, let’s think outside the box and get creative.



Before You Choose Your Biography Story Structure, Know Your Story

  • What point of view will you use?
  • What is the scope of your narrative—your character’s entire life or a specific time period?
  • What makes your character notable? An invention, a creation, activism, an exceptional accomplishment?
  • What kind of action and obstacles are involved in your narrative arc?
  • What are the primary themes of your narrative? In other words, what inspiring message or character traits will readers glean from your tale?
  • What tone and voice will best capture your character’s spirit on the page?
  • What age range is most appropriate for your story, 6-8 or 8+?

There are No Prescribed Rules About Structure. Here are Some Options:

Linear - The good ole classic chronological approach - Point A to Point Z (not necessarily an entire life). Examples include Jen Bryant’s The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, and Cynthia Levinson’s Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Reverse Chronology - How about a story structured from ending to beginning—or from the character’s old age to their youth? That’s how Lesa Cline-Ransome crafted her verse biography Before She Was Harriet, illustrated by James Ransome.

Basic Non-Linear - You can rearrange the chronology for storytelling purposes, as long as you don’t confuse your reader. For example, as a hook, begin with a mid-scene, mid-action segment from what would be Act II or III, and then a flashback to fill in relevant backstory. From that point, you could intersect the narrative with that opening scene and carry it through to the story’s end. Adjust your structure to fit your story. Examples include Laurie Wallmark’s Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code, illustrated by Katy Wu, and my newly released King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara, illustrated by Adam Gustavson.

Alternating Time & Tense - This tricky non-linear approach works especially well with high-drama stories or interesting points of view. Often, the narrative alternates between present tense and past tense. I chose this structure with my book Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler, as did Leda Schubert with Monsieur Marceau, illustrated by Gerard Dubois.

Episodic - Rather than a single narrative, this rare approach includes disconnected episodes, with a common theme. See Elvis is King by Jonah Winter and Red Nose Studio for an example.

Parallel Structure - Do two bio characters share the stage in your story? Consider a parallel structure, as Andrea Davis Pinkney did with Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song, illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Or perhaps a metaphorical comparison between a character and a natural phenomenon, as Hannah Holt did with The Diamond and the Boy: The Creation of Diamonds & The Life of H.Tracy Hall, illustrated by Jay Fleck.

Concept Structure
- Related to Episodic, this structure capitalizes on the character’s achievements. A biography about a baseball player could be structured in innings, an actor’s story could unfold in Acts, an athlete’s story could be revealed by laps, etc. Take a look at Alan Schroeder’s and John O’Brien’s Abe Lincoln: His Wit and Wisdom from A-Z—an alphabet book. Or Jonah Winter’s book, Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs. Inequality, illustrated by Stacy Innerst, which is structured as a court case. See how clever that is?


Verse - Verse and rhyme don’t only fall into the Voice category. Poetry has structure. If your story is poignant, elegant, fluid, or extremely emotional, free verse can be a powerful option. Consider how the lyrical verse approach to Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova, by Laurel Snyder and Julie Morstad, complements the fluidity of the ballet subject. Likewise, Bethany Hegedus’ Rise: From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, illustrated by Tonya Engel reflects the poetry of Maya Angelou.

Rhyme - Rhyme can give life to an otherwise dry topic, or it can mirror the liveliness of a character. Kathleen Krull chose rhyme for her rollicking picture book biography, Fartiste: An Explosively Funny, Mostly True Tale (which is, in fact, 100% factual), illustrated by Paul Brewer. Can you imagine a more fitting structure for a flatulence artist? As an example of the versatility of rhyme, Julia Finley Mosca chose rhyme for The Girl with a Mind for Math: The Story of Raye Montague, illustrated by Daniel Rieley.

There are no templates or rules for writing a picture book biography, and there’s no limit to the creative structures that could be imagined. Picture books are an art form and writers are half of the artistic team behind them. Go ahead and experiment with the structure of your narrative. You might just elevate your storytelling, bring your character to life, and slay that nagging angst.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Donna Janell Bowman is the author of award-winning and lauded nonfiction books, including Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee and Low, 2016), Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Peachtree, 2018), and STEAM-infused King of the Tightrope: When The Great Blondin Ruled Niagara (Peachtree, 2019). Donna has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and enjoys teaching, coaching, and meeting readers through school visits. She lives in central Texas.
www.donnajanellbowman.com
Facebook.com/donnajanellbowmanauthor
Twitter: @donnajbbwrites


 










ABOUT THE PRIZE

One lucky winner will win an autographed copy of Donna Janell Bowman’s new picture book biography, King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara.

Leave one comment below about what struck you in the post.
You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered NF Fest participant and you have contributed one comment below.  
 


166 comments:

  1. Donna, thanks for pointing out how many different types of structures there are for picture book biographies—and encouraging writers to invent one of there own. Gail Hartman

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  2. Wow! This post is "full"! I'm going to read this over and over to figure out which structure I'll try for my next NF. Thank you so much for so much!!!

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  3. Thanks so much for this! I've been keeping a list of structures I notice (or ones I think might work and I want to try, but I haven't seen yet). This gave me a few more ideas. Thanks for this very helpful post.

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  4. Great ideas. Thank you for sharing.

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  5. Thank you for this wonderful resource, Donna! This post is going right in my notebook.

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  6. Thanks, Donna. It is so interesting to consider the various structures. I have put in requests at my library for most of the examples you cited.

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  7. Terrific descriptions and examples of various structures. Thanks.

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  8. Wow I loved this post. So many creative ways I never even thought of. Thank you so much and I'm going to try to implement a different approach on my next story. Thanks again. Karen Brueggeman :)

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  9. Thank you Donna for these breakdowns.
    What struck me most after reading these was your comment on how a "picture book is an art form" and how we form our portion of the art, is up tp us.
    Many thanks.

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  10. Great breakdown of possible structures that are non-linear ! Especially love the mentor texts that accompany each structural possibility - time to put some books on hold! Thank you for this great post!

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  11. The breakdown of different story structures is very helpful -- thank you, Donna! I find so refreshing how these different structures all have the same objective -- to deliver NF in a creative and engaging way. I'm intrigued by the parallel strucutre -- highlighting two personalities in one book. Nancy Churnin's 'Martin and Anne' come to mind. Thanks for list of mentor texts.

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  12. Wow! Thank you for explaining all the non-linear structures so clearly and for giving examples. I'm heading to the library to check some out asap!

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  13. Your analyzation of picture book structures is valuable and accessible. I appreciate you including mentor texts to give us examples of how it's done. Thank you, Donna Bowman.

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  14. I learned so much reading this and will likely print it out as a useful reference - so many different ways to write a factual story! Thank you for breaking it down for us!

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  15. Great list of structures - thanks! This will come in handy, as I've got a bio-story I want to explore this year.

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  16. Outlining different structures definitely helped me find the right frame for my current WIP. Thanks for posting so many mentor texts!

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  17. Thanks, Donna, for this super clear structure outline!

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  18. I love how precise and scientific this breakdown of structures is. Thank you, Donna! And giving us examples for each structure was so instructive. I can't wait to read these books.

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  19. Thanks, Donna, for your listing of different structures for biographies. This is such a useful post.

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  20. Thanks for laying out all of these different types of structures for bios. I tend to get stuck in a rut so I'm grateful for the inspiring titles to have a look at. -Sara Ackerman

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  21. Thank you for sharing suggestions and examples of published titles for nonfiction structures, Donna.

    Suzy Leopold

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  22. Lots of info here! Thanks for the questions about the story before beginning and all the options for telling the story.

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  23. Good article on a not-so-simple topic. My favorite line is; "Remember that you are not writing facts, you are writing a factual story. That’s why it’s called narrative nonfiction." I am facing that challenge (write) right now.

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  24. Thank you for the interesting look at structure.

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  25. Really interesting look at structure! Gets me thinking!

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  26. This is such a gem. Printing and saving! Thanks, Donna.

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  27. Thank you Donna, for all the new ideas on how to rewrite my biography. My wheels are spinning and so is my eagerness to read your books and many of the others you mentioned.
    Melanie

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  28. Thanks for sharing all these possible structures for writing picture book biographies. I appreciate the examples you gave for each one. I want to fine the books now!

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  29. Intriguing information, especially the Concept Structure with so many creative choices!

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  30. Great post, Donna! Thank you for the descriptions of the various structures for picture book biographies and the accompanying mentor texts.

    This will definitely come in handy, as I've have a biography that has been screaming at me for the past 5 years to be written.

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  31. WOW! This post is a goldmine for PB bios, I never knew there were so many different kinds of structures! Thank you

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  32. Thank you for this thorough and clear post about PB biographies. I've enjoyed your bios, Donna, and I appreciate learning about your process/approach!

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  33. Thanks, Donna. This list will be so helpful in choosing the best structure.

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  34. Thank you for the information. I had never thought about the many different structures. Using the right one can really propel the story.

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  35. I love the reminder about all the types of structures for non-fiction work. (I'm copying your post for quick reference as I write.) Thanks!

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  36. Thanks, Donna, for explaining the different structures and for providing excellent examples.

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  37. Thanks Donna for ways of approaching your PB biography through different structures. I love the idea of a concept book - ie: a baseball player written through innings.

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  38. Donna, thanks for your excellent primer on structure and reminder to explore "how" we tell stories. I am keeping this list on a virtual desktop sticky note!

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  39. Donna, I found your breakdown of structure options really clear and helpful. I'm especially intrigued by the "parallel structure" option, especially after recently reading MARTIN and ANNE by Nancy Churnin. This structure seems like a wonderful way to help young readers make connections (which is a literacy skill focused on in the classroom!)

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  40. Great thoughts and categories. Thanks.
    Kelly

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  41. "Picture books are an art form". Thank you for that encouragement!!!!

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  42. Thanks for all the options and examples for structure!

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  43. So very helpful! Appreciate the effort you put into providing examples of each option, too! Thank you!

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  44. What excellent information--really got me thinking. I too am printing and saving. Thanks so much!

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  45. Donna, excellent post! I think once you find the structure or way into the story, the rest falls in place.

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  46. This is something I have struggled with. Thanks for the advice!

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  47. Thank you, Donna! This is an amazing post. I've never seen such a clear definition of literary structure. I've saved this for reference.

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  48. Donna, thank you for your excellent tips on story structure and options.

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  49. I second what Marcie Atkins said...thank you!

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  50. What an informative and inspiring post! Your analysis of text structures helped to clarify the many different options we can try, depending on the information we are trying to convey to our readers. The mentors texts will serve as great examples to guide us on our way. Thank you!

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  51. Thank you for inspiring me to take another look at the structure of the manuscript I am currently working on - I think it will be an interesting exercise to restructure it.

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  52. Thanks for the list of structures.

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  53. What a great post! Thanks for the structure examples and books that used them. So helpful!

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  54. Wow! Thank you for this post about different structure choices to consider and explore. And, thank you for the mentor text examples as well!

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  55. Such an informative and excellent post. Thank you for clarifying so many structures and especially for the books highlighting each one.

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  56. You gave me a lot to think about in regards to the structure of a PB biography or narrative non-fiction. Thanks.

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  57. Wow! Your post is loaded with information and is one that I'll be returning to in order to digest more fully. I love your bullet list of thought-provoking questions and your fantastic list of NF story structure options complete with example texts. What great additions to any resource library! Thank you - Priscilla

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  58. This is hugely helpful, Donna! Finding the right structure can make all the difference, and seeing all of these different possibilities really opened things up for me!

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  59. Donna, some of the structures you presented seem very effective, but difficult to achieve. I use chronological structure a lot of the time I will have to experiment with some of the other structures.

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  60. Oh, wow, Donna, I had no idea there were so many different bio options! Thanks for opening my eyes :)

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  61. Thank you for this information. After writing mainly YA NF, I'm struggling with learning how to focus and condense when writing for younger audiences. This will help.

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  62. Thank you for the very helpful information about structure along with mentor texts to study.

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  63. My little library is certainly getting a workout fulfilling all the requests I've been putting in these last few weeks. Each post is chock full of information Your post came at a great time as I start research on a new subject. Thank you!

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  64. Thanks for all of the suggestions. I adored the RBG book!

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  65. What an inspiring post. I love that you have supplied examples for each structure type. Thank you!

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  66. Great post with so many helpful examples to study that illustrate your points. Thanks so much

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  67. I love seeing so many alternatives for structure. I am thinking now about the concept structure. Thanks so much, Donna!

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  68. Oh my word, just when I thought I knew how I wanted to structure my narrative, you've given me lots of options to consider. And WAY more interesting than what I had in mind--thanks, Donna!

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  69. Wow! This is one of those "I must print this post" posts. I am pretty happy (so far) with the structure I'm using on a WIP, but I love how you've set them up and given examples. What a great reference. Thank you!

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  70. Your bullet point questions to ask yourself before picking your story structure are very helpful. I asked some of these questions with a nonfiction idea I started researching, but now with your specific questions, I can now organize the information better. Thanks for the post!
    -Ashley Congdon

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  71. This is so helpful, the way you explain the different story structures.

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  72. This is wonderful information, Donna! Thank you--and I agree with many above, your story structure information is something I'm planning to print as well!

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  73. Fantastic summary! Thanks for reminding me of the many options for bios!

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  74. This is so helpful and informative! I appreciate the various examples and titles provided. What resonated most with me was your recommendation to know your story before you choose a structure. Your advice prompts me to think more critically about the interplay between these two, how the thematic elements of a story can help guide the structural form that story takes.

    Celia Viramontes

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  75. I love structure, and your post is so incredibly helpful in providing examples and models, and so many formats I had never considered. Thanks so much!

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  76. Thank you! I especially appreciate the list of questions before you choose your structure.

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  77. So informative! For me, I have to have the structure first before I begin writing and this was so helpful. And of course, it would be amazing to experiment. Such flexibility!

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  78. These are great, so much here to get the creative wheels turning.

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  79. Slaying that nagging angst feels amazing! Thanks for sharing insights to make that possible.

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  80. So many options for structure! Thanks, Donna!

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  81. Donna, thanks for this mini-master class on NF structure. What an amazingly helpful resource.

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  82. Thank you both for this list of structures and for the list of mentor texts.

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  83. Wonderful post about structure complete with mentor texts. Thank you!

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  84. I can't wait to explore all of the samples you provide of the different structures. Thanks!

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  85. Wow! Such an amazing discussion of structures & incredible list of mentor texts. Thank you so much! I feel like I just attended a master class in #PB #biography structure from the comfort of my own desk!

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  86. This is a great post with much insight on structure and how it can form a story. You've inspired me!

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  87. Great examples of structure. Thanks so much. So many options to explore!

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  88. This is so timely! I'm going to print it and use it side-by-side with my MS during revisions. It's been a struggle for me. Thank you!!

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  89. Lots of great ideas for structuring our stories. I might try reverse chronology in my next biography. Thanks!

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  90. So entirely helpful and so many options to consider -- thank you so very much for sharing!

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  91. Just wow. I love how you've described the advantages of particular structures. What a fantastic resource this is. Thank you!

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  92. This was a welcome and helpful look at different ways to structure the storytelling. I am struggling mightily with how to open a biography, and this gave me an "Ahha!" moment. Thank you!

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  93. I love books where the form meets the theme or topic. Clever indeed!

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  94. It's so helpful to see all the ways structure can enhance the narrative. Thanks for including examples. I especially like the reminder that "picture books are an art form and writers are half of the artistic team behind them."

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  95. Thanks for breaking down these different structures for us. What a wonderful post!

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  96. What a great post and set of examples for different story structures. Time to read!

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  97. I never realized there are quite so many options for telling my story. The Concept Structure looks to be very interesting (I can't wait to check out those examples). I've tried verse and a couple of the others. This is inspiring me to see what other formats might work even better for my narrative nonfiction. Thanks!

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  98. Thank you! This is EXACTLY what I needed to hear today as I sit down to revise a pb bio.

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  99. This post started me thinking about how to restructure a narrative NF story that I set aside for awhile. Thank you!

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  100. Thank you for these explanations!

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  101. Thanks for proposing so many different ideas!

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  102. Amazing structure ideas, thank you! Be Inspired, Nicki Jacobsmeyer

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  103. Thank you so much for posting all of the different ways to write biographies. I enjoyed the detailed explanations of each.

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  104. Thank you! This is great!

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  105. As always, your input is incredibly helpful. Thanks!

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  106. Thank you for such great examples of books with the various structures! It really solidifies the concept!

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  107. Kathleen Cornell-BermanFebruary 10, 2020 at 6:07 PM

    Thanks for clarifying the various structures for biographies. I also appreciate the great book example you included.

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  108. Thank you for clarifying the structures so concisely. Some I never knew. Now I can say my WP book is alternating between time and tense.

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  109. I've starred this post for future reference. I tend to lean towards one or two structures. This will remind me to experiment with others.

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  110. Thank you for all of these interesting possibilities for uniqueness.

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  111. Such a range of different story forms for narrative non-fiction. I especially like the idea of linking a life to the 'life' of an object or natural phenomenon. Thank you :-)

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  112. What a great post! And thanks for all the titles. A rhyming bio releasing this year is Yursa Swims by Julie Abery. It's amazes me how she tells that story is so few words and in rhyme!

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  113. I love the reminder that the writing is a part, not the whole.

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  114. Thank you for sharing these great choices for structuring a biography .

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  115. Thank you for the list of books to study!

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  116. Donna, this is awesome. Thanks for the info. I'm talking about Biographies in my PB class and this is
    so informative. Thank you :) Hope all is well!

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  117. Thanks for the lovely comments, friends. And good luck with your works-in-progress!
    For anyone interested, I'll be teaching another online picture book biography class (or two) through my website. Subscribe to my e-newsletter for updates.

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  118. I've been struggling with structure on a pb bio and this post is gold. Thank you!

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  119. Thank you for the examples of each structure and for the questions to think about before we even start writing!

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  120. My Goodness! This hit me where I live. I am so struggling to turn my MG manuscript into a PB biography.

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  121. Thanks so much for this informative post. Structure is difficult and I love seeing the different types with mentor text examples.

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  122. Wonderful resource...thanks Donna! Making me rethink some of my pieces as to structure.

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  123. Thanks Donna! This litany of structure choices is awesome and will be posted by my desk! I'm working on three PB biographies and this post has opened my mind to new approaches. Can't wait to try some!

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  124. What a great post, overflowing with information. I'm saving this for some re-reads. Thanks!

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  125. Donna, this is an amazing post! Having a structure plan makes the blank page a little less scary.

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  126. THANK YOU for giving book examples. Very very helpful!❤️

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  127. Getting a sense of what my structure should be - I'm just beginning on this journey. Thanks!

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  128. Wow! What an amazing wealth of information! Thank you!

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  129. Donna, thank you so much for this informative post! I really appreciated the mentor texts you listed with the PB bio structures you shared.

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  130. This is such a great post. I need to print it out so I can refer to it often ... of course if I follow Cynthia Levinson's advice from today's blog I can always clip it electronically and put it into Evernote. May have to give that a try!

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  131. Thanks for all the definitions and examples of different narrative structures--very helpful!

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  132. Such a great post - helpful as I consider how to start a new story idea. Thank you!

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  133. I have one NF book that I have re-written in 4-5 different structures. There are so many choices that it is difficult to figure out which one is most effective because they all are -- just in different ways.

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  134. Donna, thank you for providing these wonderful examples/mentor texts of the various structure options. Invaluable!

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  135. Perfect timing for me, I hadn’t thought of all these structures. Great info!

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  136. I’m saving this post - structure examples and also add to my list of books to read next. Thanks Donna!

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  137. Thanks, Donna. I love this list. So much to consider.

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  138. Who knew there were so many possible structures? Thanks for sharing!

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  139. It's great to know that structures for PB bios can vary. I've heard elsewhere that younger kids need things to be chronological (with the possible exception of an isolated scene at the beginning of the story) or they get confused.

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  140. Loved the sample titles given here in each category. I have a rhyming nonfiction, so those examples will be most helpful.

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  141. Thanks for a great post, Donna! I look forward to reading your latest book! I loved how you broke NF biography writing into categories around structure and you added in helpful mentor texts too!

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  142. Thank you for your post on NF story structures! And, I can't wait to read your book! He is in my pile of ideas that I will never get to. Ha.

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  143. I am playing catch up and just got to this today. I am SO glad I did! This is so helpful. Thanks!

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  144. You've provided an extensive list of difference structures. This is so helpful.
    Thank you!

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  145. Your explanation of "concept structure" has given me a few ideas already. Thank you!

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  146. Printing your post out for my NF files--thanks soooo much for all the definitions!

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  147. Thanks for the definitions & examples of all the structures. Definitely printing this out!

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  148. Thank you for all the wonderful information in this post, Donna! I'll be checking out these mentor texts in the near future.

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  149. This list of structures and example texts is helpful! I also like this question: "What tone and voice will best capture your character’s spirit on the page?" Creative biographies emerge when an author selects a structure and voice that suits her goals and theme for a particular biography.

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  150. This was very helpful, Donna. I have research and not sure how to present it in an interesting way. I'll definitely use this information to help me try out a few drafts.

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  151. THANK YOU for this most meaty nitty gritty break down of PB biography structure.
    Maria Johnson

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  152. Thank you for a great menu of choices!

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  153. Thanks for a clear list of options. Gives us several structures to try on.

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  154. I love these structure suggestions! And I agree--the concept structure sounds super clever!

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  155. This is a very informative post on structures. Thank you!

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  156. Working on bios this year. Thanks!

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  157. Structure is really where I feel the weakest, so I appreciate the tips. Still working on this!

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  158. Donna, your post opened up a lot of avenues and ideas for me! Your bullet points about knowing your story before diving into the options for story structure helped me to focus. Then, describing the types of story structure while giving examples of books for us to read has helped me to think about some of my ideas in a new way. I was especially drawn to the parallel and concept story structures and will be brainstorming about that. Thank you!

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  159. What a wonderful overview of structural possibilities for pb bios. So much brain food. I'll be printing this one out for sure for handy reference and inspiration.

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  160. I've recently learned that thinking about my stories in many different ways can yield great benefits. Thank you for giving an overview of so many different structures to try!

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