The all important opening scene- part 1

The opening scene of a picture book is so important:

  • it introduces the main character/s (who)
  • it introduces the main problem or conflict (what)
  • it introduces a world (when, where)
  • it sets the emotional tone (via the writer’s voice and the illustrator’s pictures)
  • and if it works, it can hook readers in instantly.

But if an opening scene doesn’t work, people won’t want to read the book. As Norm has said to me on many a facetious occasion – ‘no pressure, Picasso’. It took me a while to get an opening scene I was happy with, so I’ve put together some posts outlining the process.

The opening text for The Last Viking doesn’t spell out an obvious scene, so I found it quite a challenge to illustrate. The text goes like this:

Young Josh is very brave.

He’s not afraid of anyone or anything – except maybe the dark and the sound of ghosts whistling in the trees at night.

Pirates worry him a bit, of course, and so do boy-eating dinosaurs, and monsters under the bed. He’s also just a little afraid of dragons and vampires.

But other than those few things, Josh is as brave as a lion.

Sort of.

The text introduces the character (Josh) and the main conflict (Josh suffers from fear). So, we have our who and our what. But it doesn’t specifically say where or when the scene takes place. This would be up to me as the illustrator to decide.

Norm had seen some illustrations of mine, where I’d drawn a young boy dressed as a knight and various other characters. So his initial idea for the opening illustration of Last Viking was to have Josh dressed as each of the characters mentioned- a ghost, a pirate, a dinosaur, and so on. However, I couldn’t imagine Josh dressing up as characters that he was afraid of, and I didn’t think it would set the right emotional tone. That is, if Josh is afraid, the picture needs to be scary.

Here’s the very first sketch, and a stretched-out landscape version.

original thumbnail sketch
original thumbnail, adjusted to landscape format

It seemed to be a bit too prescriptive- it spelt out the text. it’s not a good idea to draw exactly what the text says, otherwise there’s no point in having the picture. There was also a big Bill Watterson influence here- he’s one of my favourite cartoonists, creator of Calvin and Hobbes. But it seemed a little too cartoony and needed a bit more reality.

Calvin and Hobbes
Calvin and Hobbes was a big influence on my illustrations for this book, particularly when Josh moves back and forth between his imagination and the real world

I came back to the costume idea. I still couldn’t imagine Josh dressing up as pirates or ghosts… but maybe a cowardly lion would work. I remembered being in a costume shop once when I was very little, and a man dressed as a devil scared the bejeebus out of me. So I tried a quick sketch of Josh in a similar situation.

I was tempted to leave out the vampire s reflection

It wasn’t the right place to start the story- it’s not about a costume party, it’s about a boy who’s afraid of things. But it wasn’t a wasted sketch, because it showed me an option that wouldn’t work.

An early note in my roughs says, “Need to show Eric’s character- fearful, worrier, imaginative. A lot to show!!” (At an early stage of the draft, Josh was briefly called Eric). I tried another version where Josh is guarding the nursery where his expected baby brother will sleep. It shows his creative, imaginative side, as well as his caring side, but doesn’t show his fear as clearly as it could.

The signs say, "Keep out monstas and dinosaurs and girls except mum by order of Eric" and "Look! Free garlick for vampyrs"

I kept coming back to the idea of Josh in his bedroom, as it seemed the most natural place. The problem I kept having with showing Josh scared in bed was that he would be covering up his face with the bed clothes. Then you couldn’t see him, and you need to be able to see him to introduce him properly. And where should Wolverine go? I kept getting stuck. I wanted the reader to feel Josh’s fear, but I wanted the reader to empathise with him- not easy, when most of us see the fears of childhood as, well, childish.

I updated Josh’s face and added the text in…

eagle-eyed readers will see that the text here is different to the final version

…then I tried another take on it- what if it was morning instead of night? Josh seemed like the sort of kid who would build a cubby (i.e. a kid like I was), so I put a cardboard fort in his room. This would foreshadow his ingenuity when he builds the cardboard Viking ship later on. This variation also allows us to see the close relationship between Josh and Wolverine, which has been missing in the other roughs.

at one point I thought of using a cardboard texture behind the text

But this image was missing something important- fear. It needed to be dark, nighttime. Or maybe it could be both- a picture that showed his room at night, as well as during the day?

I was getting closer. But it would be another few weeks (or months, I’ve lost count) before I had a scene I was happy with. It kept changing right up until the final colour proofs.

Next week- more roughs.

Author: James Foley

James Foley makes children’s books for children who read books. If you’re a child and you’re eating his books, you’re doing it wrong. His books include Brobot, Dungzilla, Gastronauts, Chickensaurus, Toffle Towers, My Dead Bunny and There's Something Weird About Lena. James lives in Perth with his wife, 2 kids, and a labrador. He is a massive Marvel movie nerd and comes from a long line of queuing enthusiasts. Follow him on FB/twitter/insta/youtube @jamesfoleybooks, or at .

3 thoughts on “The all important opening scene- part 1”

  1. The suspense is killing me! What did you choose?! What did you choose??!!
    Even if you decided it not quite right for the opener, that last pose of him on the bed with his pup is VERY sweet 🙂

    1. Lol 🙂 in the end I chose both. I’ve got three more posts lined up showing this process, so you’ll see the final double page spread in three weeks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: