To Write a Great Beginning

For many writers, 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?

I’m in such a place now with my work-in-progress middle grade novel.  I’ve finished the first draft.  I’ve started revisions. I know now what the story is about now.  I know the theme, the characters, how the plot evolves and yet….  I’m not quite satisfied with any of the half-dozen beginnings that are stored on my computer.

Why?  Because so much is riding on those first few lines, especially for writers of youth material.

A strong beginning pulls readers forward.  A limp start leaves readers – especially youngsters – floundering and wondering if it’s even worth plowing ahead. This may be particularly true for boys who might be reluctant readers. A few lines, a paragraph or two, maybe a page, and if they’re not captivated by the story, many less proficient and inexperienced readers will simply give up.

A few years ago, while I was visiting Arizona, I browsed through the children’s section of Barnes & Noble, 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 Marvelous Medicine – Roald Dahl

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   Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets  – J.K.Rowling

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

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