The struggle with ‘Once upon a…’

once upon a

The one piece of advice given by literary agents and publishers the world over is to have an opening paragraph that will hook your audience so much that they won’t be able to stop reading.

Speaking to other writers at SCBWI, I’ve heard that it’s this opening paragraph that causes the most headaches. It is repeatedly agonised over and reviewed, often rewritten tens if not hundreds of times.

With this in mind, I decided to take another look at some of the best opening paragraphs of children’s books to see whether there’s  some kind of alchemy – a mixture of suspense, challenge and intrigue perhaps, which makes children (and adults) want to dive straight in. The answer of course is no. They’re all gripping, and all entirely different. But there are elements from each that new writers should definitely learn from.

In Suitcase Kid Jacqueline Wilson lays the cards out on the table and tells the main characters’ problem from the outset:

“When my parents split, they didn’t know what to do with me. My mum wanted me to go and live with her. My dad wanted me to go and live with him. I didn’t want to live at my mum’s new place or my dad’s new place.”

David Almond does the opposite in Skellig, setting a mysterious scene which reveals little enough to keep you hooked:

“I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon. It was the day after we moved into Falconer Road. The winter was ending. Mum said we’d be moving just in time for spring. Nobody else was there. Just me.”

In Patrick Ness’ Monsters of Men, there’s a sense of the reader standing on the verge of a big event:

“War,” says Major Prentiss, his eyes glinting. “At last.”

“Shut up,” I say, “There ain’t no at last about it. The only one who wants this is you.”

And then there’s the immediate comedy in Roald Dahl’s The Twits:

“What a lot of hairy-faced men there are nowadays. When a man grows hair all over his face it is impossible to tell what he really looks like. Perhaps that’s why he does it. He’d rather you didn’t know.”

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2 thoughts on “The struggle with ‘Once upon a…’

  1. Hi Eva. What a lovely looking blog. I especially like the cute photo. The little girl looks totally lost in in the book she is reading – which is exactly as it should be! You are spot on with this piece. Beginnings are sooo important. This is true of all literature but particularly children’s as are they much more ruthless in their reading than adults. If you have not hooked them by the first paragraph then your book is dead in the water. One of my favourite beginnings is from Charlotte’s Web by E.B White:

    “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. “Out to the hoghouse.” replied Mrs Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”

    Life, death and the unsentimental reality of farming life all summed up in a pitch perfect opening.

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