Monday, June 1, 2015

The Opening Lines in Children's Fiction

Back when I used to perform stand-up comedy, a joke went around among my fellow comedians: You don't want a sober audience—they expect you to be funny. I feel the same way about writing middle grade fiction: the young reader will not stand for boring, unfocused prose. The most popular children's literature books invariably have well-told stories: engaging, clear and satisfying. The characters are vivid and the author's voice is commanding.

Writers who write for children don't wait to start their stories. They set out to grab their readers in the opening sentences, sometimes even before that first sentence. Many of the best middle grade books have chapter titles that excite and demand attention. I challenge you to read the following titles of first chapters and tell me that you are not intrigued.

     How Nobody Came to the Graveyard. (The Graveyard Book)

     The Boy Who Lived. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) 

     I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher. (The Lightning Thief) 

     Down the Rabbit Hole. (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) 

     Mrs. Whatsit. (A Wrinkle in Time) 

     There Is No One Left. (The Secret Garden)

And, of course, they often follow this up with a zinger of an opening.

    There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. (The Graveyard Book) 

    When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everyone agreed that she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. (The Secret Garden)

Or they combine title and first sentence for a walloping one-two punch.

    You Are Entering Camp Green Lake. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. (Holes)
    The Thief. From his perch behind the clock, Hugo could see everything. (The Invention of Hugo Cabret)
    Before Breakfast. "Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. (Charlotte's Web)

The best opening lines in middle grade fiction resonate with voice: you know immediately the author is in charge of telling the story.

    Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)
    Ba-room, ba-room, ba-room, baripity, baripity, baripity, baripity—Good. His dad had the pickup going. (The Bridge to Teribithia)
    It was Mrs. May who told me about them. No, not me. How could it have been me—a wild, untidy, self-willed little girl who stared with angry eyes and was said to crunch her teeth? (The Borrowers)

As in the example from The Borrowers, we are immediately confronted with characters who are outcasts and we are invited to make friends with them.

    There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
    Meet George Beard and Harold Hutchins. George is the kid on the left with the tie and the flat-top. Harold is the one on the right with the t-shirt and the bad haircut. Remember that now. (The Adventures of Captain Underpants)
    There once was a boy named Milo who didn't know what to do with himself—not just sometimes, but always. (The Phantom Tollbooth)

In many instances, right away, we hear directly from these outsiders. We are treated to their distinctive speech and we see the world through their eyes.

    I know I'm not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. (Wonder)
    Look, I didn't want to be a half-blood. (The Lightning Thief)
    First of all, let me get something straight: This is a JOURNAL not a diary. I know what it says on the cover, but when Mom went out to buy this thing I SPECIFICALLY told her to get one that didn't say "diary" on it. (Diary of a Wimpy Kid)
    When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. (To Kill a Mockingbird)

The reader is often presented with the conflict or else the dilemma that drives the plot right up front. No time to waste wondering whether this book will deliver.

    Beatrice Quimby's biggest problem was her little sister, Ramona. (Beezus and Ramona)
    It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. (The Giver)
    David often wondered about how he happened to be sitting there on the stair landing, within arm's reach of the headless cupid, at the very moment when his stepmother left Westerly House to bring Amanda home. (The Headless Cupid)
    Sophie had waited all her life to be kidnapped. (The School for Good and Evil)
    Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville—did not. (The Grinch Who Stole Christmas—not a middle grade book, but a magical example of introducing characters, conflict and setting (time and place) in one sweet sentence.)

Finally, in contrast to Elmore Leonard's advice, the authors are not afraid to start with weather. Many prominent middle grade books demonstrate a dark and stormy shamelessness.

    Rain fell that night, a fine whispering rain. Many years later, Meggie had only to close her eyes and she could still hear it, like tiny fingers tapping on the windowpane. (Inkheart)
    Some things start before other things. It was a summer shower but didn't appear to know it, and it was pouring rain as fast as a winter storm. (The Wee Free Men)
    It was a dark and stormy night. In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. (A Wrinkle in Time)

I once had the task of entertaining a crowd of children for a couple of hours while a filming was delayed. I was not judged as to whether I was funny enough. I was judged against the funniest people they saw on television. Similarly, an author's competition isn't merely other books, it is whether the presented story is more involving than other entertainment options. What's more daunting, the internet and reading devices make a fair slice of the archive of literature readily available. This means you're not only competing with the here and now, you are competing with centuries of giants. Practice your long strides and learn to walk among them.

With thanks to:

Frances Hodgson Burnett
Lewis Carroll
Soman Chainani
Beverly Cleary
Cornelia Funke
Neil Gaiman
Theodor Seuss Geisel
Norton Juster
Jeff Kinney
Madeleine L'Engle
Harper Lee
C.S. Lewis
Lois Lowry
Mary Norton
R.J. Palacio
Katherine Patterson
Dav Pilkey
Terry Pratchett
Rick Riordan
J.K. Rowling
Louis Sachar
Brian Selznick
Zilpha Keatley Snyder
E.B. White


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