Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Lately it seems I’ve been hearing a lot about first lines. This is something I’ve never really given much thought to. And yet, if you stop and think about it, your first line is the first glimpse an editor or agent will see of your manuscript. If you can wow them from the very first line you just might end up standing out in the crowd. The crowd being the other thousands of manuscripts that run across that editor/agent’s desk. Even if your book isn’t picked up, you have hopefully left a lasting impression and that editor/agent will remember your name and look forward to your next submission.

At the recent SCBWI Winter Conference, Bruce Hale gave us his best advice in writing for middle graders. His number one rule was “grab them from the get go.” Mr. Hale believes the opening line must be your hook. He quoted the first line from CHARLOTE’S WEB by E.B. White as an example: “Where’s Papa going with that axe?”

At the SCBWI-Carolinas Conference this fall, I had the pleasure of attending Mark Johnston’s workshop called: TENSION: Where the Story Begins. He, like Mr. Hale thinks tension should begin as early as possible. He shared with us first lines from other award-winning works. Here are a few of them:

HAMLET by William Shakespeare: “Who’s there?”

Holes by Louis Sachar: There is no lake at Camp Greenlake.

HARRY POTTER by J.K. Rowling: Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

By beginning your story with tension, you immediately involve the reader. You’ve piqued their curiosity and thus forced them to delve deeper into your work, in order to find answers. It is obvious from these examples, this is a tried and true technique used by the pros and proven by the popularity of their best-selling novels. But does the same apply to shorter works?

As a writer who has been primarily involved in the picture book genre I can’t help but wonder how this same technique might apply there. Coming up with a whole story, including a beginning, middle and end in 800 words or less is no easy task. It seems to me the first line has even more relevance in this genre and must make a greater impact. Therefore, I decided to take a look at the first lines of some of my old favorites and even some popular contemporary titles. Here they are:

WE’RE GOING ON A BEAR HUNT by Michael Rosen: We’re going on a bear hunt.

THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR by Eric Carle: In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf.

GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown: In the great green room, there was a telephone and a red balloon.

SNOWMENT AT NIGHT BY Caralyn Buehner: One wintry day I made a snowman, very round and tall.

I LOVE YOU STINKY FACE by Lisa McCourt: Mama said, “I love you, my wonderful child.”

BEAR SNORES ON by Karma Wilson: In a cave in the woods, in his deep, dark lair, through the long, cold winter sleeps a great brown bear.

THE CAT IN THE HAT BY Dr. Seuss: The sun did not shine.

STREGA NONA by Tomie dePaola: In a town in Calabria, a long time ago, there lived an old lady everyone called Strega Nona, which meant “Grandma Witch.”

FANCY NANCY by Jane O’Connor: I love being fancy.

HENRY’S FREEDOM BOX by Ellen Levine: Henry Brown wasn’t sure how old he was.

THE WRIGGLY, WRIGGLY BABY by Jessica Clerk: Once there was a baby who wriggled real bad.

HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! By Dr. Seuss: Every Who down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch, who lived just north of Who-ville, did NOT!

AMELIA AND ELEANOR GO FOR A RIDE by Pam Munoz Ryan: Amelia and Eleanor were birds of a feather.

HOW DO DINOSAURS SAY GOOD NIGHT? By Jane Yolen: How does a dinosaur say good night when Papa comes in to turn off the light?

YOU FORGOT YOUR SKIRT, AMELIA BLOOMER! By Shana Corey: Amelia Bloomer was NOT a proper lady.

And of course, my own first line from NATURE’S LULLABY: “Hurry,” Grandpa whispered, “the night creatures are getting ready to sing!”

In my next post, I’ll be sharing my thoughts and conclusions. I think, looking at books in this context, or first line mentality, is an interesting way to analyze my own work. That said, I’d very much like to know your take on first lines in picture books. Do these opening sentences grab you from the get-go? Do they plop you into the tension immediately? Do they pique your interest, and make you want to read more? Do some of them fall a little short on the excitement factor? If so, why? How do you think this exercise might affect your work? Do you care to share some of your own first lines?

Please add your wonderful insights to the comments section of this post and be sure to involve your friends. As the picture book market slumps with the economy, it is harder and harder to find a publisher willing to take a chance on such an expensive endeavor. Could your first line be the difference between a contract and a rejection? Let’s find out together.

-Niki Schoenfeldt


  1. So clever to apply this to a picture book!

  2. First lines. I've heard editors and agents say something like this.

    If your first line doesn't grab me by the throat or drop me in the middle of some other world it will also be the last line of your ms that I read.

    Think about that.


  3. Thank you for sharing all this wonderful info, my friend. You are a wealth of wonderful stuff!! :)



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