A friend of mine once told me that a professor of hers told her that if she wanted to quickly get the lay of the land in a new and unfamiliar area of study, then she should head to her local children’s library. Why? Mainly because well-crafted children’s nonfiction books distill complex topics into their fundamental components. They cut the wheat from the chaff and get to the heart of the matter, often both economically and elegantly.
It turns out that kids’ books also have something to teach us about how to write an opening line that grabs readers and pulls them into a story. Opening lines are tough to write (tell me about it!), but they pack a lot of punch: They’re a key factor in a reader’s 30-second decision to buy a book. That’s right, unbelievable as it seems, you often have just half a minute to persuade a potential reader to commit to buying your story.
Two tidbits of advice from Richard Peck, a veteran children’s writer, might be worth considering even if you’re writing an adult novel or short story: 1) If you’ve got an attention grabber — be sure to use it in the first line of your first chapter. 2) Make sure that action of your story has already begun before the opening line.
Just to prime your creative pumps, here are the openings of a few popular juvenile-targeted novels, some of which have crossover appeal:
“The Friday before winter break, my mom packed me an overnight bag and a few deadly weapons and took me to a new boarding school.” The Titan’s Curse by Rick Riordan
“There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.” The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkein
“I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.” Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
“Life was good before I met the monster.” Crank by Ellen Hopkins
“They took me in my nightgown.” Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys
Something to think about: Would you read on after these first lines? Write on!