Start with the day that’s different.
That bit of advice comes from a writer’s workshop given by Stephanie Gordon and Judith Ross Enderle, authors of School Stinks, Six Sleepy Sheep, and my family’s favorite, Two Badd Babies, among many others. I’m sure Stephanie and Judith offered tons of tips at that workshop, but the day that’s different is the one that stuck with me, one I’ve since interpreted thus:
Nix the elaborate scenery and set-up.
Get your plot moving on Page 1!
An outstanding example of how this is done is the opening of Carnegie Medal-winner Anne Fine’s, The True Story of Christmas:
Perhaps you’d care to hear my side of the story? Here am I, Ralph William Mountfield, banished to my room on Christmas Day with no one even giving me a chance to explain.
Fine literally starts with the day that’s different, and the day is Christmas. In fact, the efficiency she displays would make a USA Today editor proud. Fine sets the hook – who can resist reading on to find out why Ralph has been banished, the poor kid? She also sets the humorous tone, reveals something about Ralph’s querulous nature, and establishes that Ralph will be writing recent history. All that in 33 words.
The opening of Susan Vaught’s Edgar Award winner, Footer Davis Probably is Crazy, another model of efficiency, not only starts with the day that’s different, it starts with a bang:
The day my mother exploded a copperhead snake with an elephant gun. I decided I was genetically destined to become either a felon or a big-game hunter. That was good, since I had already tried being a ballerina, a poet, an artist and a musician, and I sucked at all of those.
Like Fine’s opening, this one engages curiosity while at the same time squeezing a back story and characterization into a few power-packed lines.
In 25 years since I attended Stephanie and Judith’s workshop, I have written some 30 books, always trying to follow their advice. My latest, Effie Starr Zook Has One More Question, begins like this:
Effie Starr Zook looked out the bedroom window, and what she saw made her heart go thud. There in the pen with Alfred the Goat stood a little boy.
In this case, the reader gets no back story. He or she might infer the rural setting, but otherwise there’s not much. Who is Effie anyway? Who, for that matter, is the boy? What’s clear is you’ve got a child in jeopardy – a child whose survival turns out to be important to the story. (So, for that matter, is the goat’s.)
In the years since that writers’ workshop, smart phones and tablets have become ubiquitous, doing nothing to improve our species’ collective attention-span. Today getting to the point and engaging the reader is more imperative than ever. (Think Twitter.) Sure, if your last name is Tolstoy or Melville or even Knausgaard, you might be able to get away with a leisurely approach. For us mere mortals, though, starting with the day that’s different is the best way to ensure the reader turns the page.
Martha Freeman is the author of some 30 books for children, including The Chickadee Court mysteries, the Secret Cookie Club series and, Strudel’s Forever Home. New this spring is Effie Starr Zook Has One More Question.