Chapters 7 and 8 of Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul deal with story openings and first lines. This is good news for me because I frequently find that I have trouble with openings. Sometimes, I get so hung up on my original opening that I can’t bring myself to rewrite it, even when the story that follows has changed so much that it no longer works well. Other times, I think my opening works but it takes too long to get to the story problem. And sometimes, my opening just plain doesn’t work.
Today I thought I would look at a few story openings from recently published books and see how they work, and specifically how they include the 6 W’s that Ann Whitford Paul outlines in chapter 7.
I decided to use Amazon.com for this because many books include a preview of the first 4-5 pages. This was a helpful way to study openings for books I hadn’t read.
This hat is not mine.
I just stole it.
I stole it from a big fish.
He was asleep when I did it.
And he probably won’t wake up for a long time.
[Note, in the illustration, we see the fish’s eye is open. He’s awake.]
I haven’t read this book yet, but based on the opening, I’d like to.
Who is the MC? We don’t know exactly, but probably a fish (based on the cover illustration). We do learn some things about the main character – he steals things. He’s probably small, since he calls the other fish ‘big.’ He sounds a little cocky.
What does the MC want? A hat. We know what the conflict is going to be because we can guess that the fish is going to want his hat back.
When and Where is the story? When is not important; where is in the ocean.
What is the tone? The story is told in short sentences without a lot of detail or flowing description. We almost feel like we are on the run with this little fish.
What is the WOW factor? A small creature has just committed a crime against a much larger creature – definitely a topic of interest to kids! I especially love that the opening leaves the reader knowing something that the main character doesn’t know (yet) – that the big fish is awake. That makes for an irresistible page turn. We want to find out what happens when that big fish realizes his hat has been stolen.
Frog fell into a deep, deep hole.
Frog fell into a deep, deep hole
Frog fell into such a deep hole, he couldn’t get out to save his soul.
Croaked Frog, “Help! Help! I can’t get out!”
[Note, a tiger is creeping near the hole.]
Who is the MC? A frog, introduced in the first two words.
What does the MC want? To get out of a hole. There is a sense that frog has fallen in accidentally while cheerfully hopping through the jungle (“Ribbit-oops!”)
When and Where is the story? When is not important; where is in the jungle.
What is the tone? The language is very rhythmic. The phrase “Oh, no!” which is repeated throughout the story is introduced here for the first time.
What is the WOW factor? Someone small (a frog) is stuck someplace and can’t get out no matter how hard he tries. Kids can relate. We also see the tiger creeping closer, so we are compelled to turn the page and find out what happens next. If the frog gets out, will he get eaten?
On the day Henry turned six years old, he woke up early, ate a large breakfast, mounted his trusty donkey, Knuckles, and went out in search of adventure.
He had heard of a fire-breathing Dragon lurking far out in the hills, so into the hills he went.
When he found the terrible Dragon, Henry announced himself loudly:
“BEHOLD, VILE WORM! I, HENRY ALFRED GRUMMORSON, A KNIGHT OF KING ARTHUR’S BLOOD, DO HEREBY CHALLENGE YOU TO A FIGHT TO THE UTTERMOST!”
The Dragon drew in a long slow breath…
[Aren’t you just dying to know what happens? I have read this story, and as it turns out, the dragon does not want to fight. And neither do any of the other ferocious mythical creatures that Henry accosts.]
Who is the MC? Henry. We know that he is six years old, loves adventure, is related to King Arthur, and is a little bloodthirsty.
What does the MC want? Adventure. And a fight. And maybe to live up to his heritage as King Arthur’s greatgreatgreatgreat(etc.) grandson.
When and Where is the story? It seems like the story is in the present-day because we know Henry is distantly descended from King Arthur. The story setting is somewhat a mixture of fantasy (where King Arthur and dragons exist) and reality.
What is the tone? This sounds like an adventure story. There’s lots of action. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek when we hear Henry’s over-the-top speech to the dragon.
What is the WOW factor? I love the idea that a small boy would ride out on his own and challenge a dragon to a fight. We’re left wanting to know what happens to Henry.
These are three very different stories and very different openings, but they all succeed in drawing us in and making us want to read more. And they all include most of the “6 W’s” that Ann Whitford Paul mentions in her book.
Can you think of picture books that have particularly strong openings? Leave a note in the comments – I’ll be seeking out some good examples in the next few weeks as I work on my opening.
The plan is to check in next week about section 2 – Structure of Your Story. That’s the plan. Just sayin’.