Some authors struggle for days…weeks…months…even years to write the perfect opening line to a book. Finding the right words to start a story can definitely be a challenge. A short, powerful sentence? One word? Dialogue? Or something dramatic and unusual? Not like there’s any pressure, but the first line sort of, um, sets the tone for the entire book.
I thought it might be interesting to look at some opening lines in recent middle grade novels to get a sense of the different techniques employed by authors. Some start with a bold sentence, such as:
“You’ve never met anyone like me.” — Sure Signs of Crazy, by Karen Harrington
“The sofa wasn’t there on Monday but it was there on Tuesday.” — What We Found in the Sofa and How it Saved the World, by Henry Clark
These two openings are short, strong, and full of the promise of a good story. Don’t you want to find out about a character who is unlike anyone you’ve ever met before? And of course, the intrigue and questions surrounding the mysterious sofa — absent one day, there the next — is sure to pull the reader in immediately.
Short sentences can accomplish a great deal with just a few words, while also setting the stage for what’s to come. Three other first lines that are also short and hook the reader right away include:
“Going was easy.” — A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park
“This is how Kyle Keeley got grounded for a week.” — Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, by Chris Grabenstein
“There was only orange juice in the fridge.” — Fortunately, the Milk, by Neil Gaiman
Another technique is the use of dialogue, such as the opening line in Greetings From Nowhere, by Barbara O’Connor:
“Harold would have known what to do,” Aggie said to Ugly.
Notice that this isn’t just any old dialogue, but a line full of worry, and perhaps, lament. Plus, I’m curious right off the bat — what should Harold have known? Who’s Aggie? And who would be called Ugly?
The first line in Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses is also dialogue:
“Flora,” her mother shouted, “what are you doing up there?”
I think any kid, anywhere, could relate to that opener.
I also love longer opening lines that give us a sense of the narrator’s voice immediately, such as in Twerp by Mark Goldblatt:
“My English teacher, Mr. Selkirk, says I have to write something, and it has to be long, on account of the thing that happened over winter recess–which, in my opinion, doesn’t amount to much.”
Another powerful method is starting a book with just one word, such as Sharon M. Draper’s Out of My Mind, which begins with simply: “Words.”
Once you nail that first word, or words, it’s like knowing you’re heading in the right direction on a long, lovely journey. It’s the best feeling in the world.
On a personal note, I was so saddened to hear of Barbara Park’s passing. I will miss her wit, charm, and optimism. My children, like millions of others, loved Junie B. Jones. While Barbara is no longer with us, Junie B. will undoubtedly live on forever.
Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb Books 2011) and The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days (Wendy Lamb Books, coming April 2014). Visit her at micheleweberhurwitz.com,and at her author page on Facebook.