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Writing for Kids
Writing for Kids : Writing Great Beginnings

Writing for Kids

Writing Great Beginnings

By Laura Backes

When an editor opens up the envelope containing your manuscript and begins to read, you have 10 seconds to get her attention. If she's not captivated by the end of the first page (or maybe the second page if she's having a good day), it's not likely she'll continue.

If that sounds harsh, think about this: editors have more patience than your juvenile audience. So how do you guarantee that your readers will keep reading? The first sentence must be active, must pull the reader into the book. The first paragraph needs to set the stage by introducing elements of the main character, the setting and the upcoming conflict. By the end of the first page, your reader should be so involved in the story that there's no turning back.

Sound difficult? It is. Beginnings are so important that entire chapters have been devoted to them in writing how-to books. Crafting a compelling opening to your story takes practice, time and several revisions. But anyone can teach himself to write a better first sentence, first paragraph and first page by keeping one thing in mind: Begin at the beginning. Start your story at the beginning of the story, not the beginning of your character's life. Don't force your readers to wade through boring details of the character's past, lengthy descriptions of the character's family or home, or painful recitations of everything the character did since she got out of bed that morning. Ideally, your story opens with an event or a moment in your character's life that signals impending change. There are a few notable exceptions, which I'll talk about below, but in general you can't go wrong when you begin a book with action.

The younger audiences of picture books (up to age 8), easy readers (ages 5-9 reading on their own) and chapter books (ages 7-10) can't easily digest a lot of information in a short space, so you have to choose what story aspects you present in the first few paragraphs. Think about what's important to young readers of fiction — they want to know what the story's going to be about. So open your book by presenting the main character and the looming problem or conflict.

Emma's Magic Winter by Jean Little (Harper I Can Read) starts like this:

"Emma liked reading to herself. But she did not like reading out loud."

By the third page of this easy reader (six sentences) we learn that Emma is shy and when she's called upon to read out loud in class, she can only whisper. This is a conflict young readers can certainly empathize with, and they'll want to know how Emma handles her problem.

In Little Wolf's Book of Badness by Ian Whybrow (chapter book, Carolrhoda), we also learn the story problem in the first paragraph:

"Dear Mom and Dad,

Please please PLEEEEEZ let me come home. I have been walking and walking all day, and guess how far? Not even 10 miles, I bet. I have not even reached Lonesome Lake yet. You know I hate going on adventures. So why do I have to go hundreds of miles to Uncle Bagbad's school in the middle of a dark, damp forest?"

The reader knows immediately that this is no ordinary wolf. He prefers home to damp forests, but his parents feel otherwise. We also immediately get to hear the character's voice. Middle grade readers who are drawn to fast-paced, action-packed stories also appreciate knowing the conflict early on.

Here's the first sentence of The Boy Who Only Hit Homers by Matt Christopher (Little Brown):

"The Hooper Redbirds were having their third practice session of the spring season and Sylvester Coddmyer III, a right-hander, was batting."

No conflict yet, but we're given the setting, the main character, and the current action. Now look at the next three sentences:

"Rick Wilson hurled in the first pitch. It looked good and Sylvester swung. Swish! He missed it by six inches."

To any reader who's ever played Little League baseball, this signals conflict.

Sometimes setting and time period are important elements of the story, and the author needs to set the stage for the reader before the action can begin. This can work with upper middle grade and young adult novels, but don't use it as an excuse to throw in a lot of description and unnecessary character details.

In Richard Peck's A Long Way from Chicago (Dial), the small Midwestern town of the 1930's in which the book is set becomes almost a character in itself. In order to show the contrast between this town, which the narrator visits one week a year, and Chicago, where he lives the rest of the time, the book opens with the narrator describing Chicago's "bad old days" of Al Capone and Bugs Moran. However, Peck wanted to guarantee that the reader would stick around for the action to begin, so he created a grabber of a first sentence: You wouldn't think we'd have to leave Chicago to see a dead body.

That's using your 10 seconds for all it's worth. •

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Laura Backes Laura Backes is publisher of the Children's Book Insider, the publication for Children's Writers. More »

Updated 1/5/14