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Once Upon a Time
Every story has a beginning. The best beginnings grab our attention and make us eager to read on. The best beginnings give a sense of sort of story we’re going to get so we can settle in and take the ride without the distraction of confusion. The best beginnings have voice. The best beginnings set us in a specific time and place. The best beginnings let us meet the main character in an engaging way. And surprisingly, the best beginning for your book or story may actually be the last thing you write for that story, not the first. Let’s look at some opening lines from recent books and how they’ve done these important things.
“The sirens behind us wailed, growing louder with every passing second. I tightened my grip on the door handle. The police were closing in, and our old car wasn’t built for a fast getaway.” Return Fire by Christina Diaz Gonzalez
This beginning cannot help but grab our attention. We are in a tense situation and it doesn’t sound like we could possibly end up okay. But this opening also gives us a certain amount of wiggle room, because just throwing the reader into a tense moment won’t work if we don’t have a chance to care about the main character. So we don’t open as they are captured, but when they are teetering on the edge. Will they get away? Will they not? That time where this works out will also be time for the writer to make us care. As you can see, the author chose to write in first person. This gives us a quicker connection to the main character, which can be helpful when you’re jumping into this much action, but first person also comes with the burden of carrying off the voice in every single line of the narrative. Let’s look at how this same high power opening can look in third person.
“CRACK! BANG! Josef Landau shot straight up in bed, his heart racing. The sound—it was like someone had kicked the front door in. Or had he dreamed it?”
Refugee by Alan Gratz
Here we open with the main character in a very vulnerable position, in bed. We often tell writers not to start with the main character in bed but this would be a situation where it works because something big happens to the character while he’s in bed. Though written in third person, we get the thoughts and the physical sensations of the main character right away. And that sensation signals the main character’s emotions and helps us care about what happens next.
“There I was, standing outside the Selinsgrove police station in the pouring rain. I needed to get inside, but the door was locked shut. I needed information—fast!
Hero Dog by Hilde Lysiak/Matthew Lysiak
Hero Dog is for younger readers than Return Fire or Refugee, but we again begin with certain elements that grab reader interest: a police station and a driving need to get inside the police station. The addition of pouring rain ups the stress both because it’s so unpleasant to be in the rain and because it shows the desperation of the character even more. You have to be desperate to stand out in the rain.
“We stood together, looking up at the new house—Father, Mama, Nanny Jane, Piglet, and me. It was large and old, almost falling down in places, with gently bulging walls and a steep, tiled roof that was etched with lichen. The sign on the gatepost read Hope House.”
The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange
This opening is slower that the three previous but it contains several things to grab the reader. We get great visual of a creepy old building that the main character is going to have to live in (and readers love creepy old buildings). We also get the wonderful contrast between this falling down building and its name: “Hope House.” The house may have hope, but it doesn’t sound like anywhere we might want to live. Notice also the naming of characters. “Nanny Jane” is an interesting choice for the grandmother, and who doesn’t love the name “piglet?” Is this a pet? Is it a younger sibling? We’re interested to find out.
“Closing her fingers carefully around the small box in her blazer pocket, Livy craned her neck to see through the jam of bodies all shoving forward to climb onto the bus. She panicked as she saw the boy’s black spiky hair disappear up the stairs to the upper deck. She had to get on this bus.”
The White Tower by Cathryn Constable
This opening gives us another nice contrast. On the one hand, the setting seems so normal: a person getting on a busy bus. But the author stirs in the character’s urgency about this spiky-haired boy and the mystery of the small box in the main character’s blazer pocket. Giving us a sense of mystery right away (without being confusing) is a terrific way of engaging the reader.
“As we enter the school gym, the heat hits me like a steam train. I scrunch my nose to keep sweat stink from entering my nostrils. The gym is always hot, but today it feels hotter.”
Unschooled by Allan Woodrow
This opening combines sensory detail with voice to carry a very flat opening (walking into a school gym) and making it something more interesting. The use of an unusual simile (like a steam train) grabs us where “like an oven” would just pass right over us. Keep that in mind as you choose similes and metaphors for your work. They work best when they fit the situation (the character chooses “steam train” because “steam” gives us the sense not just of heat, but of humidity) and when they’re unusual enough to make the reader think about it. And the scrunched nose to avoid sweat stink is a nice bit of voice and reaction.
“It was like an alien had landed. Really, it was that weird. Like an ancient creature from another planet had crashed into Katie’s day. She should have been at home studying, not sitting on a plastic chair in a hospital corridor trying to make conversation. And there were only so many times you could ask someone if they wanted anything from the drinks machine and not feel like an idiot when they refused to acknowledge you.”
Unbecoming by Jenny Downham
This opening is just bursting with voice and does so without using first person. We end up wondering why Katie is stuck in a hospital waiting room, but we’re also eager to hear more from this girl whose go-to simile is about aliens. This is a girl with an interesting view on life.
Notice how every one of these openings takes place in a specific time. They aren’t telling us stuff about the character’s whole life or background or situation. They’re taking us in. They’re thrusting us into a story moment. That’s one of the best ways to engage the reader: thrust the reader into a specific story moment where something momentous is happening or is about to happen.
Now, reread each of the openings.
Think about what you might expect from a book that opens with the words above. Which ones do you suspect are going to have a funny voice? Which ones do you expect will have a lot of tense action? Think about what you learned from the opening. Then look at the opening of your most recent work in progress:
- What is it doing to engage the reader?
- Is it opening in a story moment?
- What does it reveal about the story overall?
Don’t be afraid to change your story opening. Actually many (if not most) writers will tell you that the opening changes (sometimes more than once) between first draft and final book. Often we have to get all the weak openings out of our system before we can find the great one that works for the book or short story. But during that important revision process, check your opening. Is it cracking a door into your story that the reader will be eager to step through? If not, why not? Answer that, and you’ll find that perfect opening that works for you.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.