Rules of Engagement
“You’re only as good as your opening line.”
–– Richard Peck
The opening line is a promise to your reader of the type of tale about to unfold. Although a secret formula may not exist, a review of over one hundred children’s books offered insights about how the first sentence functions.
The most common approach to an opening sentence aims to initiate the reader’s immersion into the story world, which may be accomplished through introduction of characters, setting, plot, point-of-view/voice, or theme.
Character: In Storycraft, Jack Hart relates “the default option for any narrative opening is to begin with the name of the protagonist and a strong verb.” Of note, this is an especially common convention when the main characters are non-human.
“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”
—The Hobbit, by J.R. Tolkien
“Lucky Trimble crouched in a wedge of shade behind the Dumpster.”
—The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron
Setting: Ground your reader in time and/or place. This approach is particularly useful when the setting is a strong force in the narrative, or the story takes place somewhere other than the here and now: a foreign land, a fantasy setting, historic fiction, a futuristic novel.
“There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.”
—Holes, by Louis Sachar
“Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock topped with cement, covered with bird turd and surrounded by water.”
—Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko
Plot: Start with the inciting incident, a problem, conflict, or set the plot in motion with the main character leaving on a journey or a stranger arriving in town.
“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”
—The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
“When my brother Fish turned thirteen, we moved to the deepest part of inland because of the hurricane and, of course, the fact that he’d caused it.”
—Savvy, by Ingrid Law
“The monster showed up just after midnight.”
—A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness
Point-of-View/Voice/Tone: The voice and tone of the first sentence should be congruent with the rest of the book. Don’t write a melodramatic or action-packed first sentence simply to hook the reader if that type of opening isn’t in harmony with the overall gestalt of the story.
“As summer wheat came ripe, so did I, born at home, on the kitchen floor.”
—Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse
“Froggy Welsh the Fourth is trying to get up my shirt.”
—The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, by Carolyn Mackler
Theme: This approach is more common in classic adult literature, though J.M. Barrie used this approach in Peter Pan: “All children except one, grow up.”
The Opening Sentence
Most writing craft books discourage the use of a quotation for the first sentence, because it can lead to reader disorientation. First, a character quotation may preclude identification of the narrator’s voice/point-of-view. Also, the reader hasn’t met the characters yet, so the quotation is tossed out without any context. But don’t tell that to E.B. White:
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”
As with many first sentences, the above quote from Charlotte’s Web utilizes more than one strategy. White introduces both the main character and the inciting incident. Some first sentences don’t fit neatly into any of the above categories. For example, the first line of Katherine Patterson’s Bridge to Terabithia: “Ba-room, ba-room, ba-room, baripity, baripity, baripity, baripity…Good.”
What’s the ideal length of an opening sentence?
A short first sentence may entice the reader to indulge the writer for another sentence or two. For example, Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan begins, “I am Ivan. I am a gorilla. It’s not as easy as it looks.” However, in this case, the short sentences are consistent with the voice of the narrator and would not sound organic to many other stories. Thoughtfully constructed long sentences can pull the reader along like a roller coaster ride or a boat floating down a river.
“When Jamie saw him throw the baby, saw Van throw the little baby, saw Van throw his little sister, Nin, when Jamie saw Van throw his baby sister Nin, then they moved.”
—What Jamie Saw, by Carolyn Coman
“Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.”
—The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
Which strategy will most likely result in that illusive “killer” first sentence?
The answer is that different techniques work best for different stories. A killer opening sentence may be short/long, action-filled/quiet, concrete/metaphorical, etc. But all “killers” must in some way intrigue, surprise, or delight the reader with specific, unexpected details, or unique language/voice. Killer first sentences usually raise a question in the reader’s mind, compelling him to read on in search of an answer.
“I was born with water on the brain.”
—Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
“The best time to cry is at night when the lights are out and someone is being beaten up and screaming for help.”
—Monster, by Walter Dean Myer
“Kidnapping children is never a good idea: all the same, sometimes it has to be done.”
—Island of the Aunts, by Eva Ibbotson
“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”
—Feed, by M.T. Anderson
In The First Five Pages, Noah Lukeman comments on first sentences: “the same intensity of thought applied to the opening line should not be confined to the opening line—a common malady—but rather applied to the text in its entirety.” Now that’s a killer idea!
Shelly Jones is a January 2014 graduate of the MFAC program. To find out more about Shelley and her writing read her “Meet the Grad” interview.