First Lines in Fiction
So what do editors look for in openings?
“A fresh concept,” says Stephanie Lurie, President and Publisher of Penguin Putnam. “An authentic voice. Humor or drama. A definite point of view. Intrigue—a reason to keep on reading. The old adage ‘begin your story as close to the climax as possible’ remains true.'”
“I look for either a stimulating scene that raises a lot of questions to which I’m interested in finding the answers, or for a compelling voice that invites me in instantly,” says Emma Dryden, Executive Director at Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster.
Just what will capture an editor’s attention is often hard to characterize. “I hope for a concept that grabs me. I want to be immediately immersed in the story. And that is something that is difficult to define. Usually, it’s something personal and powerful. Something that gives me a glimpse into character or story,” says Lissa Halls Johnson, Book Producer for Focus on the Family.
Nicole Geiger, Publisher of Tricycle Press, searches for, “Something that grabs me for myriad reasons, such as wonderful phrasing or unusual subject or because now I’m curious. This is highly subjective, of course, as is all writing.”
Writers and editors agree that the idea behind a strong opening is to convince the reader that the rest of the story is worth the investment of time that a reader will have to make.
“I want the reader to go on reading,” says Nancy Werlin, author of Black Mirror (Dial) and the Edgar award-winning novel The Killer’s Cousin (Delacorte). “I want to throw out a mysterious hint or two of the depths and mysteries lurking ahead. I want to intrigue. Mostly I do this by immediately getting the reader to ask questions, and by evoking some strong emotion as fast as I can.” Werlin does just that with this opening from Black Mirror: Have you ever been in a state of pain so intense, it was like a living creature wound tightly around your rib cage and shoulders and neck?
The reader is compelled to turn the page and find out what could possibly cause such pain and how the main character will resolve the situation.
Cynthia Leitich Smith, who writes from a Native American point of view, says that she often strives to shift expectations with her openings. “The vast majority of Native American children’s books are historicals or retellings. Those few set today generally take place on reservations. This is so much true that publishing anything else generates commentary. My books have contemporary Native themes, and are all set in small towns, suburbs, or big cities. So, I sometimes use a first line or paragraph to shift expectations and establish context.”
A good example is found in the opening of Smith’s book Rain Is Not My Indian Name (Harper): “That night, Galen and I jogged under the ice-trimmed branches of oaks and sugar maples, never guessing that somebody was watching us through ruffled country curtains and hooded mini-blinds. We should’ve known. Small town people make the best spies.”
Linda Sue Park, the Newbery award-winning author of A Single Shard (Clarion), believes that the “first line should engage and/or intrigue and the first paragraph should begin to establish character.” She continues, “Three of my four novels begin with a line of dialogue. I find this to be a useful trick. It helps avoid the pitfall of beginning a novel with back-story. Instead, writer and (eventually) reader are right in the middle of something. It also starts that process of establishing character. With Shard, early drafts began with a scene of Tree-ear scavenging chicken bones and sucking out the marrow. I wanted his poverty evident right from the start. I liked the scene, but it was missing a crucial element: the relationship with Crane-man, which for me is the backbone of the entire story. So I reworked the scene to include both Crane-man and hunger. The chicken bones were saved for another meal.”
Often writers will spend considerable time on their openings only to find that when they get to the end of the book, the book has changed in such a way that the opening no longer works. Writers shouldn’t be afraid to use an opening as a jump start to their story but they should be equally unafraid to toss away those first few openings in search of the perfect opening.
“The once upon a time approach is too old-fashioned and cliche these days to be wholly successful; writers should try to be as imaginative as possible and need not feel all descriptions of time, place, and character need to be addressed in the first sentences of a story,” says Dryden.
“Many writers start their hooks way before their story actually begins,” says Dian Curtis Regan, author of the popular Monster of the Month Club books.
According to Lurie, a common mistake writers make with their openings is to “begin with a downer, e.g.: ‘Emily was bored. A long summer stretched ahead of her, and there was nothing to do.’ The reader will be as bored as Emily. Why should we keep on reading? I would much rather read a novel that began: ‘Emily sat in the middle of the steaming sidewalk with five dog leashes wrapped around her legs. Her ears rang as four dogs barked furiously at the Dalmatian that was running off. “Why did I go into this business?” she asked herself and wondered what she was going to tell Marguerite’s owner tonight.”‘ Lurie continues: “Or they try to say everything in the first sentence, e.g., ‘Thirteen-year-old Carol McCully’s brown eyes flashed as she threw down the pen her stepmother had given her on the day her father remarried.”‘
Equally disappointing, says Johnson, is that authors often “start in a place of inactivity—the character waking in the morning, or something equally as slow. The only time this works is when the action is going to toss the character out of bed. Then, you have the conflict of peace versus chaos shown quite quickly. The peaceful lying in bed is actually an intrinsic part of the story.”
Picture Books versus Novels
Dryden speaks of the differences between openings in picture books and novels. “An author has more time to work out story, character, and plot in a novel, so a novel can afford to open more slowly than a picture book. A picture book doesn’t have time to waste—and a picture book audience is impatient—so the first line of a picture book must instantly grab a reader of any age and it must instantly set up something critical about the story and/or the main character.”
“In a picture book,” adds Lurie, “every line is key because there are (or should be) so few words. The first page of a picture book should introduce the character and perhaps start to set up the situation. In a novel, the author has a little bit more time to intrigue the reader, set the mood, describe the scenery, etc., but if the character and situation aren’t interesting on the first page, chances are good that the reader won’t continue.”
“Every line, every word, is incredibly important in a picture book,” says Geiger. “There are only a few hundred words, after all, or perhaps fewer. But there are also pictures to help carry the show, and the first line might be a single word (picture hooks as prose poem, for instance). A first line is possibly more important in a novel because that’s the only tool the author has to draw in the reader.” She adds, “with picture books, if we have to change the first line significantly, why are we buying this book?”
Writers and their editors don’t always agree on the perfect way to open a story.
“In my first novel,” says Werlin, “my editor wanted to excise my first chapter and start with chapter two. This was a novel with three alternating viewpoint characters, and essentially she was asking to pare it down to two. She won, because after a while I decided she was right. But she didn’t ask to change the way I had written chapter two’s opening, and on all other books, she has never once questioned my choice of an opening scene, paragraph, sentence.”
But Park stresses the importance of clear communication between the writer and the editor. “For The Kite Fighters, my editor thought the opening did not establish setting quickly enough and she asked me to fix this. We discussed this over lunch, where I was not taking notes, which may have been what led to a complete misunderstanding. I took a month to radically overhaul the first chapter, taking the brothers off the hillside where they were flying kites and putting them in a session with their tutor. She wrote back with (carefully controlled) dismay, saying that she much preferred the original opening and what she had meant was to put a single line at the start: ‘Korea, fifteenth century.’ So that is what we ended up doing. I did the same for Shard. For historicals, it is the easiest way to establish setting immediately.”
Many writers go through an evolutionary process with their openings, often finding their true opening buried within the existing story.
Werlin’s The Killer’s Cousin, opens: “My name, David Bernard Yaffe, will sound familiar, but you won’t remember why—at least not at first. Most people, I’ve found, do not. I’m grateful for that. It gives me some space, however brief. However certain eventually to disintegrate.”
“I didn’t find the opening until the third draft of the book,” Werlin says. “The key was understanding that David wasn’t just observing the action (as I’d thought earlier) but was hiding some secret of his own as well. I didn’t know what that secret was, exactly, as I wrote the new opening—which came to me like a miracle at that point—but the knowledge of it lurking beneath the surface of the story acted as a guide to me as that draft leaped much closer to the book’s final form. I literally pinned the two pages of the new prologue to the wall above my desk as an emotional guide as I wrote that draft; I knew I finally had the tone and mood I needed.”
Werlin continues, “For Black Mirror, I found the opening paragraph—which sits alone, without a chapter number or header of any kind at the beginning of the book—in the very middle of my first draft. I plucked it out and stuck it up front, where it had no context. Pure instinct; I didn’t know at first why I wanted it up front but I did. I had to write my way into this ruling emotion before I could find it, but then I realized it was the overwhelming mood of the book. This opening asks a question directly of the reader, involving him or her, and I think it also makes the reader wonder why it is that the speaker is in so much pain. The subliminal description, too, is of a snake, an invisible boa constrictor, and I wanted that to be horrifying but contained (because invisible).”
Werlin cites some basics for winning openings: “a secret the reader needs to discover, concrete details, a strong voice, and emotion, which for me is almost always some variant on emotional pain, fear, or anxiety.”
Some lucky writers find openings the easiest part of the writing process.
“My openings are the best part. They often come as pure inspiration, a total gift,” says author Susan Heyboer O’Keefe, who penned this opening to the novel My Life and Death by Alexandra Canarsie (Peachtree): None of this would have happened, I suppose, if 1 had a normal hobby like skateboarding or hanging out at malls. But I don’t do things like that. I go to the funerals of strangers.
“The hard part,” O’Keefe says, “is figuring out what to do for the rest of the book.”
—Susan Taylor Brown
NOTE: This article first appeared in the Children’s Writer Newsletter. Editors may have moved to a different publishing house and editorial needs may have changed. Please do your own research before submitting.
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