The new year has gotten off to a slow start for me, but I’m finally back with a series of blog posts on how to hook your reader from those first few lines.
I’ve read all kinds of “rules” about first lines, first paragraphs, and first pages. And, not surprisingly, many contradict each other.
We hear a lot about how not to start your stories: no waking up in the morning, no dreams or nightmares, no looking in the mirror, no weather, no “My name is …”, no dialogue, etc. Sometimes these can work but not very often. (See Alvin Ho below. Identifying himself by name works because it tells us his ethnicity, which is important to both the list and the story. Would it work if his name were Alvin Smith? Probably not. Same with Phineas L. MacGuire, another unusual name for a kid.)
We also hear a lot of advice about starting in scene. Yet, I recently read somewhere that when writing in first person it’s best to start with narrative to get a feel for the main character’s voice. Seems like good advice. But, of course, it depends on the narrative.
Another common suggestion is to start with a big hook. This sometimes gets misinterpreted. A hook doesn’t have to be a death, a gunshot, a car accident, etc. Beginning this way can sometimes result in a lessening of tension as the chapter goes on, much like a balloon releasing air. In addition, since we haven’t been introduced to the main character yet, the emotion often doesn’t come across because we haven’t had a chance to develop empathy. Again, there are exceptions.
The two best pieces of advice I’ve heard about beginnings are this: let your readers know they are in capable hands and create enough interest that will make readers want to read on. So how do we do this?
A while ago, I did a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators workshop on starting strong. I spent several months in the bookstore and online looking at first lines. After a while, I noticed the beginnings that drew me in fell into specific categories. Since then I’ve become addicted to examining and analyzing first lines.
So, for the next several posts, I’ll talk about different techniques that PB, MG, and YA authors used to hook me right from the start. The first is one of my favorites: starting with a list. The list can be funny, sarcastic, informative, etc. But no matter what, it must draw the reader into the story. Also, notice in the examples below that whether there are three items or ten items, the humor, tension, or emotion escalates as the list goes on, and the final entry gives a bit of a punch and/or clue that lets you know what type of story you’re in for.
If you’ve written a book that starts with a list or know of any others that use the technique, feel free to add it in the comments section. In the meantime, here are twelve examples I love:
NUMBER 1: START WITH A LIST
Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin
Mom says there are three things I should always remember:
1. The earth gives us everything we need.
2. When we dig tunnels, we help take care of the earth.
3. Never bother Daddy when he’s eating the newspaper.
Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look
The first thing you should know about me is that my name is Alvin Ho.
I am afraid of many things.
Phineas L. MacGuire Gets Cooking by Frances O’Roark Dowell
My name is Phineas L. MacGuire. A few people call me Phineas, but most people call me Mac. Yesterday, when I was riding the bus to school, I came up with a bunch of cool things the L in my name could stand for. My list included:
1. Lithosphere (the outmost shell of a rocky planet)
2. Lunar Eclipse
4. Labrador Whisperer
Unfortunately, the L in my name does not stand for any of those things. It stands for Listerman, which was, like, my mom’s great-aunt Tulip’s last name or something. My mom is very big on family traditions, but even she’s not allowed to call me Listerman.
The Graham Cracker Plot by Shelley Tougas
Dear Judge Henry,
I will tell you three things right now.
Number one: I’m almost twelve years old. I do not want to go to prison, even it it’s a prison for kids.
Number two: Nobody calls me Aurora Dawn Bauer, not even my grandma, and she’s the most legal person I know. Everyone calls me Daisy.
Number three: Your face looks like squirrels flopped their tails where your eyebrows should be. I can’t tell if your eyes ever laugh, but you were all business when you told me to write this, and–
Rules by Cynthia Lord
RULES FOR DAVID
Chew with your mouth closed
Say “thank you” when someone gives you a present (even if you don’t like it).
If someone says “hi,” you say “hi” back.
When you want to get out of answering something distract the questioner with another question.
Not everything worth keeping has to be useful.
If the bathroom door is closed, knock (especially if Catherine has a friend over)!
Sometimes people laugh when they like you. But sometimes they laugh to hurt you.
No toys in the fish tank.
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
I’m surrounded by thousands of words. Maybe millions.
Cathedral. Mayonnaise. Pomegranate.
Mississippi. Neapolitan. Hippopotamus.
Silky. Terrifying. Iridescent.
Tickle. Sneeze. Wish. Worry.
The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy, Illus. by Todd Harris
THINGS YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT OUTLAWS
Outlaws have too many feathers in their hats.
Outlaws are allergic to seafood.
Outlaws never forget to floss.
Oh, and outlaws are people who are hunted down because they are accused of terrible crimes.
If I Have a Wicked Stepmother, Where’s My Prince by Melissa Kantor
dead mother dead mother
wicked stepmother wicked stepmother
evils stepsisters (2) evil stepsisters (2)
Deadly Cool by Gemma Halliday
There are three things you never want to find in your boyfriend’s locker: a sweaty jockstrap, a D minus on last week’s history test, and an empty condom wrapper.
Cracked Up To Be by Courtney Summers
Imagine four years
Four years, two suicides, one death, two rapes, two pregnancies (one abortion), three overdoses, countless drunken antics, pantsings, spilled food, theft, fights, broken limbs, turf wars—every day, a turf war—six months until graduation and no one gets a medal when they get out. But everything you do here counts.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
It’s the first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
Here is everything I know about France: Madeline and Amélie and Moulin Rouge. The Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, although I have no idea what the function of either actually is. Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, and a lot of kings named Louis. I’m not sure what they did either, but I think it has something to do with the French Revolution, which has something to do with Bastille Day. The art museum is called the Louvre and it’s shaped like a pyramid and the Mona Lisa lives there along with that statue of the woman missing her arms. And there are cafés or bistros or whatever they call them on every street corner. And mimes. The food is supposed to be good, and the people drink a lot of wine and smoke a lot of cigarettes.
NEXT UP: START WITH A JOURNAL, LETTER, TEXT, OR EMAIL