I realise I am becoming increasingly impatient. This isn’t a sign of ageing, (I hope), but thanks to working in children’s publishing and while it’s easy to understand how the slow process and occasionally sleepy editors may be trying to one’s tolerance levels, actually that’s not to blame in this instance. Instead it’s to do with my shrinking attention span and growing appetite for a story to start instantly with no beating around the bush, free from gentle description or lengthy scene setting. In short, I have a zero tolerance policy for rambling openings.
As I have mentioned before, we receive hundreds of submissions every month and after the covering letter the next test is the opening. Unless it’s engaging and punchy it’s unlikely I’ll continue reading for very long. So what makes a good opening? I think there are three key components and I’ll describe them in a moment but first here’s an exemplary beginning from Joe Craig. When I read the first chapter of KILLER, the first Jimmy Coates title, I knew I wanted to work with Joe.
Jimmy knew what was coming, but he was too late to dodge out of the way. Georgie pounced on him and they both landed with a thump on the bed. She moved quickly, and easily locked her arm round Jimmy’s neck. Then she dug her knuckles into the top of his head, kneeling over him. Not again, Jimmy thought. All these years he had never been able to escape his sister’s hold.
What works so well about this is that the reader is propelled straight into the action – we’re there with Jimmy as he fails to dodge and we want to know what exactly he is dodging and then what the outcome of the fight will be. We get a sense of what Jimmy is like and of his relationship with his sister and all of this in just a few lines – plus if you read on it gets even better, but I’m not giving any more away!
So key concept number one is an active character. We need to meet the protagonist and for children’s books this should be a child or child substitute. We ought to see their personality emerge and this is unlikely to be evoked through a physical description. For instance if a character has brown hair we don’t learn much about what they’re like or their state of mind, if they’re kicking the kerb we do. So the character needs to appear quickly and they should be doing something.
Concept number two – the action starts off the page. It’s the leaping onto a moving vehicle idea – the journey has started before the first page and the reader is late to the party but desperate to play catch up. Take Eva Ibbotson’s opening to THE OGRE OF OGLEFORT, where the Hag of the Dribble has just started her day and the reader jumps into join her. The Hag isn’t actually the main character of the story, but Eva’s allowed to break the rules. Besides, as you’ll see, it works wonderfully well:
Most people are happy when their feet are dry. They do not care to hear squelchy noises in their shoes of feel water seeping between their toes – but the Hag of the Dribble was different. Having wet feet made her feel better: it reminded her of the Dribble where she was born and had lived for the first seventy-eight years of her life, and now she dipped her socks into the washbasin and made sure they were thoroughly soaked before she put them on her feet and went downstairs to make porridge for herself and her lodgers.
The Hag did not care for porridge – being fond of porridge is quite difficult – but she was glad to be busy; it helped her to cope with the terrible homesickness which attacked her each morning when she woke and saw the sooty brick wall of the house opposite instead of the wide sky and scuddling clouds of the place where she had lived so long.
Here the reader is able to form a vivid picture of the Hag without any hint of a physical description. We’re there on the Hag’s shoulder dipping her socks in the washbasin with her. This is something Tony Bradman talks about in our CBC Writing for Children Course and he uses the following example from beginning of Philip Pullman’s NORTHEN LIGHTS:
Pantalaimaon fluttered ahead and through the slightly open door of the Retiring Room at the other end of the dais. After a moment he appeared again.
“There’s no one there,” he whispered. “But we must be quick”.
Crouching behind the high table Lyra, darted along and through the door into the Retiring Room, where she stood up and looked around. The only light in here came from the fire-place, where a bright blaze of logs settled slightly as she looked, sending a fountain of sparks up into the chimney. She had lived most of her life in the College, but had never seen the Retiring Room before: only Scholars and their guests were allowed in here, and never females.
Again we’re introduced to the main characters and they’re doing something interesting, something forbidden. Which leads us on to the third component; there needs to be a question in there; something the reader wants to know the answer to.
Will Jimmy gain the upper hand?
What is threatening the Hag’s everyday life?
Why are Lyra and Pantalaimon sneaking into the Retiring Room and what will they discover in there?
So it’s simple! Character + Action + Question = The perfect opening!
If you’re an unpublished author and you are writing for children Undiscovered Voices is the competition for you and in fact it’s all about beginnings. For many it’s the start of their engagement with the children’s publishing world as the winners all have an extract of their work published in an anthology which is sent out to children’s agents and publishers. More details can be found on the Undiscovered Voices website.
Of course it’s the opening extract which is featured in the anthology and there’s still time to add the finishing touches to your work and apply the magic formula, (see the earlier equation!), as they are accepting applications from 1st July – 15th August. I’m looking forward to seeing some thrilling first chapters in the anthology when it is published and hopefully it will be the start of something exciting for many new writers.