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Begin with a Bang!

by Robyn Opie Parnell

It is a fact of life that publishers will only read one or two pages of your manuscript. They receive far too many submissions to give each one their undivided attention from beginning to end. And, sadly, some of these submissions don't deserve more than a minute or two of an editor's time.

As a reader, I have given up on books that haven't grabbed me in the first chapter. Children, I'm sure, are less patient than I am.

Therefore it is vital for a writer to grab the reader in the first page or two, especially when writing for children. We can even narrow this done to the first sentence or paragraph. Your beginning should intrigue the reader and inspire him/her to read further.

Dialogue and action are a great way to start a novel. Imagine the beginning of your children's book as dropping your readers into the middle of things, when everything is starting to change or get interesting. Using dialogue or action to plant questions in your readers' minds will hopefully make them want to read on.

Of course, sometimes it's necessary to set the scene. Background information about the character, their family, home, friends etc - that is essential to the plot - should be interspersed in such a way that it never slows the story down. Certainly it should never fill the first few pages of your manuscript at the expense of the story.

Let's look at some examples from my own children's books:

Beginning with dialogue -
(From my easy reader Chick Catches Dinner)

"I can't sleep," said the chick. "I'm not tired."

In the above example, I've introduced the main character and her problem.

A few lines later:

"I wonder if anyone else is awake," said the chick. She went for a walk.

Thus begins chick's night-time adventure.

Beginning with action -
(From my junior novel The Mad Mower)

Tony felt nervous, as though his stomach was a food processor mixing a chocolate cake.

In the above example, I want the reader to wonder why Tony is feeling nervous. What is so important to him? And who is Tony anyway?

A few lines later:

Now he was ready to test his computer programme. If it worked it would be unbelievable. It would change his life forever.

The above paragraph is meant to keep the reader turning the pages. What computer programme? Why would it be unbelievable and change his life forever?

Beginning with action and dialogue -
(From my easy reader Down the Well)

The hen heard a splash in the well, so she went to have a look.

"Hello," yelled the hen.

"Hello," yelled a voice.

Again, in the above example, I want the reader to keep turning those pages to find out the answers to a few questions. Has someone fallen down the well? Is the voice simply the hen's echo?

Beginning with setting -
(From my junior novel Martian Milk)

The carpark at Shopper's Dream was busy. It was Thursday, the day when shoppers from Planet Nub and Planet Teg came to visit, looking for bargains. Paul's mother, Mrs Taylor, flew the space-car around and around, looking for a place to park.

In the above example, I'm setting the scene of a futuristic Earth. The idea is still to keep the reader turning those pages.

By now, you should be seeing a pattern with beginnings. They are all about hooking the reader and making them want to read more until they have all the answers.

The conflict should be evident as soon as possible, preferably within the first few paragraphs of your children's book. Your reader needs to know who the story is about (main character) and why there is a story (the main character's problem/conflict) as early in the novel as possible. You want your readers identifying with the character and their problem before they have a chance to lose interest. This is even more important when writing for children. Children have shorter attention spans and a lot of distractions around them, such as TV, computer games and sport.

Writers often start their story at a point then later, in the rewriting/ editing process, change the beginning. It can take numerous attempts to get the beginning right. Whole opening chapters can sometimes be discarded to improve a story. I've done this myself.

It isn't enough to captivate the publisher or reader with a brilliant beginning. You need to keep the standard. The middle and ending of your children's book should be equally as satisfying. However, it is the beginning of your novel that will keep the publisher reading or make them move onto the next submission.

Copyright Robyn Opie Parnell. All Rights Reserved.

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