Great Beginnings 1: The Five Line Test

For a writer, the beginning of any story – long or short, fiction or non-fiction – is a challenge.  Where to start?  What to include?  What not to include?

In To Begin the Beginning (from Telling True Stories, Penguin, 2007), DeNeen L. Brown writes: “The beginning is important, because you are establishing a relationship with the reader.  You are asking to be invited in for a while….Beginning to read a story should feel like embarking on a journey, starting toward a destination.”

A strong beginning pulls readers forward.  A limp start leaves readers – especially youngsters – floundering and wondering if it’s even worth plowing ahead. This is particularly true for boys who might be reluctant readers. A few lines, a paragraph or two at most, and if they’re not immersed in the story, many less proficient and inexperienced readers will simply give up.  The struggle is too great, the payoff too intangible and remote. As writers of children’s material, it helps to remember the competition we face: video games, television, the Internet and social media all offer gratification with less effort

Here are a few things we know about beginnings:

  • The shorter the story, the tighter the beginning.  When the entire piece is but a few hundred words, there is far less room for play and no time to waste.
  • The younger the age group, the more immediate and action-oriented the beginning should be.  Experienced teens who are savvy readers might tolerate lingering scene descriptions and lengthy dialogue, but not  so less experienced and more impatient 7-12 year olds.
  • Besides enticing the reader and introducing the story-line, great beginnings also establish mood, point-of-view and voice.
  • In Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Margaret Atwood gives us a glimpse of what it takes to write a proper beginning:  “The story is in the  dark. That is why inspiration is thought of as coming in flashes.  Getting into a narrative – into the  narrative process – is a dark road.  You can’t see your way ahead…..”  Because as story-writers we are working in the ‘dark’, often we cannot see the beginning until we reach the end Best beginnings tend to surface during revision after we have struggled through a draft.

Recently, I browsed through the children’s section of a bookstore, pulling novels off shelves to scan the first lines in some popular books written for 7-12 year olds.  How did the pro’s begin? I wondered.  To emulate the experience of young readers, I gave each book a maximum of five lines to establish the basics and draw me into the story. Anything longer and the book went back on the shelf.

Here are ten beginnings that passed my rudimentary test.  Each one teased, prodded or enticed me with a creative hook to read further, sometimes in less than my 5 allotted lines.  Do you agree with my selection?

“I’m going shopping in the village,” George’s mother said to George on Saturday morning. “So be a good boy and don’t get into mischief.”  This was a silly thing to say to a small boy at any time.  It immediately made him wonder what sort of mischief he might get into.

George’s Marvellous Medicine – Roald Dahl

Wednesday wars

Of all the kids in the 7th grade at Camillo Junior High, there was one kid that Mrs. Baker hated with heat whiter than the sun.  Me.

The Wednesday Wars – Gary D. Schmidt

Tale of Despereaux This story begins within the walls of a castle with the birth of a mouse.  A small mouse.  The last mouse born to his parents and the only one of his litter to be born alive.

                                                                          The Tale of Despereaux – Kate Camillo

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.  It’s not like I meant for Danley to get hurt, and I don’t think that what happened was one hundred percent my fault, or even a lot my fault, even though I don’t deny that I was there.

                                                                                                   Twerp – Mark Goldblatt

  It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.  No.  Wrong word, Jonas thought.  Frightened meant that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen.  Frightened was the way he had felt a year ago when an unidentified aircraft had overflown the community twice.

                                                                                                   The Giver – Lois Lowry

The Whipping Boy

The young prince was known here and there (and just about everywhere else) as Prince Brat.  Not even black cats would cross his path.

The Whipping Boy – Sid Fleischman

red pyramid We only have a few hours, so listen carefully.  If you’re hearing this story, you’re already in danger.  Sadie and I might be your only chance. Go to the school.  Find the locker.  I won’t tell you which school or which locker, because if you’re the right person, you’ll find it.

The Red Pyramid – Rick Riordan

There was a town, and there was a girl, and there was a theft.  I was living in the town, and I was hired to investigate the theft, and I thought the girl had nothing to do with it.

Who Could That be at This Hour – Lemony Snicket

girl who could fly Piper decided to jump off the roof.  It wasn’t a rash decision on her part.

                                    The Girl Who Could Fly – Victoria Forester

whimpy kid

I wish I started keeping a journal a lot earlier, because whoever ends up writing my biography is gonna have a lot of questions about my life in the years leading up to middle school.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel – Jeff Kinney


More about beginnings in Great Beginnings 2: Classic Ways to Start



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