I bet you are reading this first line thinking where is this blog post going and is it worth my while reading on?
I know. I’m the kind of person who picks up a book, glances at the back cover and flips right to the opening page. Once I’ve read the opening lines, I can tell right away if I am hooked, whether I want to read on. Because the opening line gives me a really clear idea of the journey that the author is proposing.
I quickly decide: is this a journey upon which I want to spend my precious time?
For instance, here's an opening I love, from Olivia Saves the Circus by Ian Falconer:
"Before school, Olivia likes to make pancakes for her new
little brother, William, and her old little brother, Ian.
It sets up right away that Olivia is quite a character –- one that I'd like to spend time with! Also, I am intrigued by the voice which uses phrases like "old little brother". Importantly, the opening sets up that Olivia unwittingly equals trouble and, as a reader, I want to find out what she'll get up to next. (She goes on to do amazing circus acts with cool aplomb).
Editors and agents, who receive hundreds of submissions, are the same -- they have got to love the opening of a book to want to publish it.
But picture book openings are notoriously difficult to get right. They are so few words for a start . . . Plus how will a story grab so many different people -– children, parents, elusive editors and agents -- at once?!
Importantly, a fantastic opening contains the premise and situation of the whole book. In the classic We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, the opening line states right off the bat: "We're going on a bear hunt". Then, the author invites readers on an adventure that appeals to children and grown-ups alike.
We're Going on a Bear Hunt © Rosen & Oxenbury
Almost immediately, we encounter our first challenge -- long wavy grass. Oooh, we've got to wade through it . . . We want to join in! This opening also sets out the mood, tone and authorial voice. Do we want to go on this adventure? Of course we do -- we want to find out what the bear is like!
There are three key elements to every good opening: who, what and where?
1. Who? introduces the main character and tells readers who's going on the journey
In Penguin by Polly Dunbar, the book opens with the main character, Ben, receiving a penguin as a present. Why does Ben get a penguin, we wonder? What if this were us? What will happen next?
The Pig Who Wished © Dunbar & Young
2. Where? sets the scene for the story, including the setting and the circumstances of the main action.
In the classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, readers are enticed into the world of the little egg. We know we are in the natural world, full of promise and wonder.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar © Carle
Goodnight Moon © Wise Brown & Hurd
3. What? sets up the main conflict and motivation of the character (what do they need?) that is going to drive them forwards.
In the first spread of Eat Your Peas by Kes Gray and Nick Sharratt, we meet Daisy and her mum at loggerheads over dinner -- how will they resolve their differences?
Eat Your Peas © Gray & Sharratt
Fix It Duck © Alborough
Often, authors will employ a few spreads to set up the story, but the really clever openings can do this in just a couple of lines and even on one page. Here are five great ways to grab readers in the opening lines:
1. Give a hint of things to come
Emily Brown and the Elephant Emergency © Cowell & Layton
In the first spread of Emily Brown and the Elephant Emergency by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton, we meet Emily, Stanley and their friend Matilda. We jump right into an exciting adventure (one of many to come) and are intrigued to find out what will happen next.
2. Start in the middle of the action
No Matter What © Gliori
In this opening from No Matter What by Debi Gliori, the reader is thrown right into the middle of a situation -– Small is feeling grumpy. We want to know why he is grumpy and how will it be resolved. More than likely, we have been there ourselves, too, so we can empathise!
3. get readers’ attention so they want to know what’s next
The Tiger Who Came to Tea © Kerr
In The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr, readers are invited into a comfortingly ordinary scenario, but the promise of someone at the door (and the hint in the title) are intriguing enough to get readers to want to read on.
4. allude to familiar situations (we’ve all been there type scenarios)
Mr Bear's Picnic © Gliori
Debi Gliori is a master at capturing domestic situations in a light-hearted and poignant way that appeals to adults and children alike. In Mr Bear's Picnic, the prospect of a sunny day with children is a great opportunity for a picnic. But Mrs Bear, who has two little ones, is determined to catch some extra shut-eye. The role of Mr Bear as the adult leader and the source of humour is set up in just a few lines.
5. introduce really intriguing characters and situations
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie © Numeroff & Bond
Laura Numeroff and Felicia Bond's bestselling classic If You Give a Mouse a Cookie sets up straight away a set of unusual characters in an intrguing situation.
Why would you offer a mouse a cookie and what would happen if you did?
Well, the mouse would want a
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie © Numeroff & Bond
So, with just a few words (and great illustrations!), picture book authors can create openings that make readers want to read on. But what all these openings do is pique readers' curiosity. If readers are saying 'so what?' then the author has lost them . . . Now, about that blank page staring at you . . . What will its opening lines be?
Author, Editor and MentorBlue Elephant Storyshaping is an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission. Natascha is also the author of Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Regional Advisor (Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. www.blueelephantstoryshaping.com