Originally Published: June 2014
by Lauren Shapiro
It feels a bit like a revivalist tent show, as Richard Peck preaches the gospel that “you’re only as good as your opening line. Our readers do not read reviews or catalog copy and do not use the internet for examining publishers offerings. Our sales are the first lines. Is there a perfect opening line, yes, but it’s been used,” he says, with perfect timing.
“The first line needs to be a grenade. The story has to begin before you start. The story is already going, pulling out of the station and the reader runs to get on board. Do not begin little did I know when I woke up that morning or we were walking up the stairs when, or it was a little town where nothing ever happened. Francine Prose’sAfter doesn’t start with gunfire; it starts after the gunfire. E. B. White’s matchless first line of Charlotte’s Web is “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” You don’t give your readers time to think on the first page.”
He quoted many first lines from successful YA novels, pointing out that “There are no unfamiliar words, no adverbs. Remember Mark Twain said, ‘if you see an adverb shoot it.’
I’m still looking for my opening line while I’m writing the book. The first page is the whole novel; it’s the Table of Contents, the preview. The first chapter is the last chapter in disguise. So when I finish, I go back and write the first chapter over.
“There are five questions you must ask your manuscript and you must ask it on every page: Who, where, why, what and our topic for tonight – when. When does the story begin?
Who? Someone must tell the story and you can’t – you’re too old, your viewpoint doesn’t work. We write in the voices of characters.
Where? Where are you going to put the story?” Elaborating on this point, Mr. Peck read E. B. White’s description of the barn inCharlotte’s Web, noting that although it’s very mundane, it does sets the stage as a place where anything can happen, where animals can talk, and that as White was poet, who read every line aloud, it scans well. Still – that was then.
“We never start with setting because our readership learned no geography in school and has no idea of place. This is not the 19thcentury readership. We start with people. We are writing survival manuals. The character must be different on the last page than the character we met on the first page and somewhere in the middle there must be an epiphany. We have epiphanies all day long and what do we do with them – we wait for them to go away. If you’re in the seventh grade, you’re not waiting to change the world; you’re waiting for the world to change for you.
Story has to have a beginning, epiphany and hope in the end. We never write about someone who moved back home after college.
To help you not have to move back home, he distributed a ten-point checklist, which is below, along with some of his observations about each point:
- Is the first sentence a line and a half long at the most?
- Do we hear young voices?
- Is there a question? This was presented as preferable, but certainly not mandatory
- Does it start with people, not place?
- Is there color? Our readers live in a world of color, the page is black and white – give them some color. Pirates have green teeth when they have any teeth at all.
- If it’s not in first-person, why not? Even, if you’re writing for adults, first person is better. You don’t want to be on the stage. People are more interested in the tiniest moments of their lives than in the largest moments of yours, so don’t insert yourself.
- How are adult characters kept off the page and off the stage?
- Where are the unnecessary twenty words? When you think you’re finished, go through your manuscript and cut out twenty unnecessary words.
- Is there plenty of white space?
- Is there a good reason to turn the page? Hopefully, using these techniques to writing a good opening line, and a good story, will result in a yes.
Lauren Shapiro is a freelance writer. She has published over 50 articles in diverse publications including Crain’s American Dry Cleaner, Dance Spirit, American Small Farm and WorldandIOnline. Her article on Archie Comic Books and Literacy was published in Education Update in Manhattan, and reprinted in parent papers in Staten Island, New Jersey, Mississippi and Pennsylvania. She is hoping to find a way into the children’s book market.