You’re Only As Good As Your Opening Line

file9421279373453I recently attended the SCBWI Summer Conference in LA, and got to hear award-winning author Richard Peck speak about crafting opening lines. While Richard Peck is predominantly a children’s book author, what he had to say about opening lines crossed age and genre boundaries. His advice caused me to reconsider my opening lines, and I thought others might find what he said useful, as well.

You’re only as good as your opening line.

Kind of puts it in perspective doesn’t it? I pick up books all the time and read their opening lines. Someone will do that with your book. Does your opening line do your book justice?

Richard Peck collects other authors’ first lines. He copies them down and studies them.

He said, especially for books for the young, the action must begin before the opening line, jumping into an already-happening story.

The opening line establishes the voice of the narrator.

Avoid overuse of detail in an opening line, and especially avoid adverbs.

One rare moment of good adverb use, he said, is in the opening line of To Kill A Mockingbird:

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”

Sometimes, he said, you find your first line on page six of your fifth draft. All the writing you did before that was just talking to yourself.

He writes six drafts or so. When he gets to the ending, he throws away the first chapter and rewrites it. Only after he knows the ending, he knows the beginning.

Beyond the opening line, he recommends trimming out as much excess from the book as you can. You can take twenty words out of the tightest page you’ve written, he said. And then he showed us an example, and the writing was better for it.

He also recommends thinking of your opening chapter as the table of contents of your book. All of the matters of the book should be present in the first chapter, perhaps not named but present nonetheless. The first chapter and last chapter, he says, function like book ends, holding the book together. When the reader reaches the end of the book, they’ll realize all of the answers were there in the first chapter.

I found Richard Peck’s advice really eye-opening, and it gave me a lot to consider as I’m writing my second book. I hope you’ve found it helpful as well. If you have any thoughts about opening lines or chapters, I’d love to hear them in the comments.

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