Composing the first sentence of your novel can elicit screams of agony. It can be a difficult task because so much depends upon those few words. Will a prospective teen reader, already distracted by a myriad of electronic devices and entertainments, glance at this sentence, yawn and set your book down? How do you manage to entice such a fickle reader along to a second sentence and then a third?
As a practical matter, I have always liked starting my novels in the middle of a highly charged scene, ideally with one short sentence that hints at intrigue: “On the morning of September 16, 1860, my pa shot me.” “The little thumbnail moon gave no light at all; a friend to the thief.” “Better that you’d never been born.” Homicide, thievery, banishment – all themes that hint at an exciting tale.
In venturing to the local library, I found strong openings of varying lengths in many critically acclaimed teen novels. Robert Cormier’s classic, The Chocolate War begins simply, “They murdered him.” Laura McNeal introduces a mysterious character in the very first words of her lyrical Dark Water: “You wouldn’t have noticed me before the fire unless you saw that my eyes, like a pair of socks chosen in the dark, don’t match.” Then there’s Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which starkly states, “Here is a small fact: You are going to die.” (Okay, those aren’t the exact first words but they’re in bold type and centered on the page so that’s where your eyes go.)
With a first sentence as strong as any one of these, a prospective reader (and innately curious human) simply cannot resist continuing to the second sentence and then a third. Now he or she is like a fish following the bait. So you keep writing, keep tossing out interesting tidbits, not yet revealing the whole story. Remember that most teens have short attention spans – at least until they’re hooked! – so you’ve got to move things along briskly. Think of this challenge as crafting one sentence that leads to the next sentence that leads to the next sentence that leads to the next paragraph.
Admittedly, there are times when I can’t think of a good opening for a novel I’m starting, so for inspiration I’ll revisit favorite books that have hooked me early on. I’ll scan the first few paragraphs and try to decipher just how the author pulled me in. Was the protagonist in immediate danger? Was there an unusual setting? Was there an urgent problem to be solved? On occasion, the unique tone of a book or the author’s voice will pull me in. I highly recommend studying those authors that have mastered the art of the “tease”.
If I continue to be stuck on my opening, however, rather than yank out my hair and switch careers, I attack the book from a different direction. I just start elsewhere in the chapter. I pick a scene that I am passionate about and that I can easily visualize, and I write it. Sometimes I get all the way to the end of the first chapter without having created a strong beginning. Sometimes I get all the way to the end of the novel. What I’ve learned though, is that a strong beginning often reveals itself only upon the book’s completion. Once you’ve spent time with your story, once you’ve come to understand and love your characters, you’ll know how to begin their story in the strongest way possible.
So, in composing the first sentence of your teen novel, keep your teen reader firmly in mind. You’ve only a brief period to hook him, so rely on novelty and human curiosity. You’ll soon find yourself writing with confidence, with readers fully engaged.
Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com
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