- John Hearne
What’s the Secret Ingredient in Great Children’s Fiction?
Here are some opening sentences to great children’s books:
· ‘Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house.’ – Coraline - Neil Gaiman
· ‘Eleven year old Virgil Salinas already regretted the rest of middle school, and he’d only just finished first grade.’ – Hello, Universe - Erin Entrada Kelly
· ‘The kitchen cat was dead and Morrigan was to blame.’ Nevermoor - The Trials of Morrigan Crow – Jessica Townsend
· ‘I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.’ Ender’s Game - Orson Scott Card.
· ‘Yes. There is a witch in the woods. There has always been a witch’ The Girl Who Drank the Moon – Kelly Barnhill.
Not all opening lines have this secret ingredient; there are many ways to open a story. But here, it’s right there in the opening words. Intrigue. There’s no better way to grab the reader by the shoulders and yank them bodily into the world of the story. No, scratch that. There’s no better way to entice the reader into the world of the story. Because that’s what we’re about right? We’re in the persuasion game, we’re asking kids to forget about all of the other things they could be doing and keep reading. We’re trying to make them desperate to find out what happens next.
I particularly like the fourteen words that open Coraline because of that door. Discovering a strange door. It’s an ancient device in storytelling, and it tells you something about the brilliance of Neil Gaiman that he’s able to deploy it with such skill and originality here. It takes less than 2 seconds to read that line and already you’re hooked. You want to know more about this door. Where is it? What does it look like? Is it locked? Most of all though, you want to know what lies on the other side.
There’s other stuff going on in those two seconds. Coraline discovers the door a little while after they moved into the house. Here is a new beginning and everything that entails. Here’s a new sources of interest, of intrigue.
It’s intrigue of a different sort in Hello, Universe. This time, that first line leaves you wanting to know what happened to poor Virgil. It’s something so bad that he regrets stuff that hasn’t even happened yet. It’s clever and original, but unlike in Coraline, where you want to know what happens next, in Hello, Universe you want to know what happened in the past. What was so bad that it seemed to shatter Virgil’s prospects of future happiness?
With Morrigan Crow, you’ve got that quirky, deadpan humour that runs through the entire series, but most of all, you’ve got questions. You already know from the cover that Morrigan is the hero of the book. So you go, ‘Hang on, the hero is responsible for the death of the cat?’ Straight away your mind is buzzing with questions. How? She didn’t really kill the cat, did she? This reminds me of another great story opener, in Holly Grant’s The League of Beastly Dreadfuls: ‘Anastasia’s day began with a funeral, and it went downhill from there.’
It’s got that same knowing humour, and it’s got the same delightful enticement into the world of the story. What on earth could have happened to make a funeral the high point of the day?
What intrigue does is that it fills the mind with questions that can only be answered by reading on. You’ve got to spark the reader’s curiosity as early as possible in the story so that they choose to find out what happens next over the plethora of other things that they could be doing.
Not everyone uses intrigue in the first line, but all successful writers use it in the first page. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the action begins with the repressed, dysfunctional world of the Dursleys, and by paragraph three, we find out that something is about to shatter it: ‘The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.’
You’ll often be advised to get the hero centre stage as quickly as possible. But if you can weave intrigue as beautifully as JK Rowling does here, you don’t have to do that. You see the disturbance in the fragile world of the Dursleys and you’ve just got to know what’s going on.
Intrigue. It comes in many flavours, but don’t try writing anything without it.