Hello all! Ready to dive back into my notes from the SCBWI conference? Of course you are! 😉 This here is Part 5 of my 6-part series. Want to know more? You can see where it all begins with Part 1, learn about publishing alternatives with Part 2, discover how to let your characters tell you who they are in Part 3, and learn to put the real into fiction in Part 4. Or you can just skip all that and go straight into great openings…
HarperCollins editor Andrew Harwell ran the workshop on great openings in fiction. According to him, there are four possible ways authors can start their books in order to immediately grab a reader’s interest.
#1: INTRODUCE CONFLICT
One of the best ways to hook a reader right from the beginning is to introduce the conflict immediately, or at least give some hint of it in that opening line or lines. Harwell gave a few examples of books that used this method. Actually, he gave a lot of examples, which I’m just going to list here for you all to check out if you’d like:
- THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater
- CHIME by Franny Billingsley
- ASK THE PASSENGERS by A.S. King
- IF I STAY by Gayle Forman
- NERVE by Jeanne Ryan
- CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White
Of these books I’ve only read two, “The Raven Boys” and “Charlotte’s Web,” and I loved both of them. In Charlotte’s Web we’re immediately confronted with the father carrying an axe…hence the main conflict in the story. In The Raven Boys, we learn right from the start that Blue has been told her true love will die if she ever kisses him. Because of this, Blue stays away from love and boys in general, until she meets the Raven boys…
There’s definitely something to this whole “introduce the conflict immediately” thing, because just from the opening line and a brief description of the book during the workshop, I already made up my mind to pick up “Nerve” and “Ask the Passengers.” But it’s not the only way to start a good story, which brings me to option 2…
#2: ESTABLISH SETTING
Especially for books with very unusual or richly imagined settings, sometimes the best way to hook a reader is to give them a taste of that amazing place right from the start. Two examples Harwell gave were:
I haven’t read either of them, but I was immediately struck by the novelty of each just by those first few lines, and “Howl’s Moving Castle” has joined my growing stack of TBR books.
#3: ESTABLISH CHARACTER/VOICE
Maybe the main things going for your story are your amazing characters or very unique voice. In that case, be sure to show that off right from the start, like the authors did in these books:
- THE BIG CRUNCH by Pete Hautman
- MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine
- THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green
- OKAY FOR NOW by Gary Schmidt
Of these, I’ve only read “The Fault in Our Stars,” but I was immediately drawn to the main character, Hazel Grace, and was willing to follow her through the kind of story I normally don’t read. And I added another book to my TBR list, just from the opening lines alone – “The Big Crunch” sounds exactly like my kind of love story, and I can’t wait to read it.
But maybe none of those openings are really right for your own book. In that case, don’t despair, because there’s always option #4…
#4: IT JUST GRABS US
This is one of those annoying “I’ll know it when I see it” kinds of things, but it’s also very true. Sometimes an opening is shocking, so you keep reading. Or maybe it’s just really, really bizarre, but in a good way. Or maybe you don’t even know why it draws you in, but it just does, and from those first few words you’re hooked. Here are some examples Harwell used:
And once again I had to add to my TBR stack…I left this conference with a very long list, which means plenty of Fiction Fridays coming up for you all. 🙂 “Serapina” sounds excellent, and I’ve been meaning to do a Roald Dahl marathon one of these days…
And finally, there’s one other possible opening for that super over-achiever author:
#5: ALL OF THE ABOVE
That’s right – you can craft an opening that introduces the conflict, establishes the setting, character, and voice, and grabs the reader, all in one line. Harwell’s example? “A Year Down Yonder” by Richard Peck.
So now it’s your turn. What’s your favorite opening line, and why do you like it so much?