Okay, imagine an editor.
Or an agent.
A tired, exhausted editor or agent who has worked hard all week reading submissions, editing manuscripts, and maybe even wading through the slush pile. They come home late on Friday night. They toss their keys on the counter, kick off their shoes, and stare longingly at the sofa, wanting nothing more than to cozy up in flannel pajamas and watch all the shows backlogged on their Tevo.
But they can’t. They still have work to do.
They need to read conference critiques.
So they pour some coffee, gather the submissions, and flop down in an easy chair with a mixture of dread and anticipation. Will tonight be the night? Will they stumble upon the next great debut author? Will they crack open the shell and discover a pearl or just another oyster?
That question may possibly be answered on the very first page.
After all, how many times have you browsed through a book store, and opened a promising novel only to find yourself disinterested after reading the start of chapter one? That’s how important the first page is. It’s the first impression. The first chance to make them sit up in their easy chair, smiling as they continue to read. And it all starts with the first line.
One of my favorite books on writing is HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL, II, by James N. Frey.
In it, he advises writers to create first lines that ask a story question:
- “A story question is a device to make the reader curious. Story questions are usually not put in question form. They are rather statements that require further explanation, problems that require resolution, forecasts of crisis, and the like.”
So keeping this in mind, let’s take a look at some children’s books with powerful openings that raise story questions, starting with . . .
“Farmer Brown has a problem.” CLICK CLACK MOO: COWS THAT TYPE, by Doreen Cronin
Now that’s a great opening. The story question it raises is, What is Farmer Brown’s problem? And, it also gives the reader a preview of what the entire story is going to be about—Farmer Brown’s quest to find a resolution.
“Walking back to camp through the swamp, Sam wondered whether to tell his father what he had seen.” THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN, E.B. White
Another great example. What did Sam see? Will he tell his father or not? And of course, we can’t leave out another example of E.B. White’s brilliance: “Where is Papa going with that ax?” CHARLOTTE’S WEB
“The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World.” GOING BOVINE, Libba Bray
Okay, first off—this line instantly grabs me because I’m OBSESSED with Disney World. But even without it, I’m still intrigued. Why did he almost die? And why in the world was that the best day of his life?
“Somehow I knew my time had come when Bambi Barnes tore her order book into little pieces, hurled it in the air like confetti, and got fired from the Rainbow Diner in Pensacola right in the middle of lunchtime rush.” HOPE WAS HERE, Joan Bauer
I love this line, because I’m a sucker for run-on sentences. (And I’m also obsessed with Joan Bauer.) But not only does it raise a question, it also sets the tone for the story and gives you a great taste of the main character’s distinct voice.
Here are some more great examples:
“Wemberly worried about everything.” Wemberly Worried, by Kevin Henkes.
“Sometimes I wonder if my friend Evelyn is from Mars.” I’M NOT, by Pam Smallcomb
“I’m lonely.” SWIM SWIM, by Lerch.
“Life was going along okay when my mother and father dropped the news.” SUPERFUDGE, Judy Blume
“After all this time, I still ask myself: Was it my fault?” RED KAYAK, Priscilla Cummings
“There was something odd about Enton.” THE HOUSE ON FALLING STAR HILL, Michael Molloy
“You wouldn’t think we’d have to leave Chicago to see a dead body.” A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO, Richard Peck
“Murders!” LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER, Deborah Wiles
“For months, I had wished and wished the baby would be a girl, a little sister.” ROAD TO TATER HILL, Edith M. Hemingway
“Froggy Welsh the Fourth is trying to get up my shirt.” THE EARTH, MY BUTT, AND OTHER ROUND THINGS, Carolyn Macker.
“There are some kinds of trouble you never see coming, like those thunderstorms that start from nothing at all.” DESERT CROSSING, Elise Broach
“You can hear me, can’t you?” SHADE, Jeri Smith-Ready
“After spending the afternoon checking in campers, tracking down a lost hiker, and foolishly breaking up a water gun fight while—duh—wearing a white tee-shirt, I am more than ready to celebrate the last day of school by slipping into a most delightful poolside nap.” JUST FLIRT, Laura Bowers
Okay, you caught me—the last one is mine. (And isn’t finalized yet.) What I’m hoping to accomplish with my opening line is to give readers a taste of my narrator’s chaotic life and her personality.
And by now, I’m also hoping that your mind is churning with ideas and possibilities for your own opening lines. So let’s take advantage of that momentum and do a fun exercise. I want you, (yes, you,) to grab a pen and paper. Set a timer for ten minutes and jot down as many opening lines as you can think of. Be brave! Be bold! And if you get stuck, take a look around you for inspiration.
For example, before writing this paragraph, I looked out of Border’s dirty window. So I could write, “Rose Walker likes to keep her windows dirty.”
Just don’t over-think.
Don’t obsess or worry about being cliché. Let go and have some fun. I will if you will. Are you ready? GO!
. . .
Tell me the truth. Did you do the exercise? I hope so because I did. Here’s my list:
- I hate math.
- Never in my wildest dreams did I think anyone would find out.
- Seriously, it was such a mistake to crash my car into Hilary Bank’s Porsche.
- My feet hurt, my head aches, and if George thinks I’m going to put on that stupid costume again, he’s out of his mind.
- I could really use a cup of coffee right now.
- What in the world is he staring at?
- She is so dead.
- For the love of God, someone please shut that kid up!
- The wind blew across my face, bringing with it the smell of dank regret.
- There’s something about the way he looks at me that makes me feel so stupid.
- Two of the most terrifying words in the entire English language: Bikini season.
- I really would like to punch the person who invented skinny jeans.
- It was Mama who told Jacob to take his gun.
- I don’t believe in blind dates.
- All he needed to do was hide the evidence.
- Bailey Jones talks too much.
- Too many people have suffered already.
- I used to think he was king.
- In my past life, I thought I had all the answers.
- This year’s softball tryouts were a total crock because there’s no way Amy Smith could be considered varsity material.
Okay, there are a lot of stinkers in this list and you can tell that I was heavily influenced by my environment. But come on, admit it. That was fun, right?
And now that your creativity is loose and warmed up, it’s time to bust out your own critique submission and take a long, hard look at your own opening line. Does it raise a story question? Will it hook the reader, making them long to read more? Is it going to make the editor cringe or smile?
Is it a pearl or an oyster?
In closing, I don’t think it’s possible to write an article on dynamic opening lines without including what is, in my opinion, the best first line EVER:
“Marley was dead, to begin with.” A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Charles Dickens.
*Sigh.* Now THAT’S the way to start a story!
And for those of you who are feeling brave, post your own list of jotted-down opening lines in the comments section, or share with the class your own favorite published first lines. Tomorrow, we’re going to cover the rest of page one. Until then, happy writing!