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Let's talk about first lines!

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Tea Drinker Extraordinaire
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Can we have a mini Blue Boards workshop/masterclass on first lines for picture books?

Share your favourite first lines...

What do you think makes a great opening line?

How do you go about crafting yours?

I've been looking at first lines/first pages recently (because it's not alway just one sentence) it's definitely been eye-opening. Some are blah. Some are good. Some are great!

I always remember reading an article once. I can't remember anything else about it apart from it quoted the first line from a book which was so powerful and simple it's stuck with me ever since. The line was:

"Mouse was mad. Hopping mad."

I don't know who wrote it or the name of the story but I'm sure lots of people here will know!

To me, that is a fine example of a brilliant first line. It introduces the character. It expresses character "hopping mad". And the reader wants to turn the page to find out WHY.

Your turn.  ::-)
#1 - April 25, 2015, 01:08 AM

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That's Linda Urban's MOUSE WAS MAD.
#2 - April 25, 2015, 04:57 AM
VAMPIRINA BALLERINA series (Disney-Hyperion)
SUNNY'S TOW TRUCK SAVES THE DAY (Abrams)
GROUNDHUG DAY (Disney-Hyperion, 2017)
among others

Yes! I love Linda's MOUSE WAS MAD. And I personally like it when picture books include the story problem in that first line.
#3 - April 25, 2015, 06:10 AM
ALIENS GET THE SNIFFLES TOO! Candlewick, 2017
LOUD LULA, Two Lions 2015
CALIFORNIA HISTORY FOR KIDS, CRP
FARMER MCPEEPERS Rising Moon

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Lynda, great topic!

I recently re-imagined a few picture books I worked on a number of years ago. Here's the first line of one of them:

"Squish. The giant stomped on another ant."

KatyD...this was my attempt to (as you said) include the story problem in the first line. This story is told from the point of view of a couple of ants who are sisters...the ant sisters.

First lines seem incredibly important to me...in any type of story, picture book or otherwise. But, especially with a picture book because you don't have much time (in word count) to convey a lot of meaning.

Now, you've got me wondering...are there typical "types" of first lines? Like those that include the story problem? Are there generally agreed upon fixed ways to write an opening line?
#4 - April 25, 2015, 07:08 AM

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In one of the Skippy John Jones books the first line is something like, "Skippy John Jones did his best work after 3 o'clock in the afternoon." The page shows him drawing pictures on the wall of his house. Sets up the book perfectly and still makes me laugh just thinking about it.
#5 - April 25, 2015, 10:01 AM

I love SKIPPY JOHN.  :grin3

But my take on first lines varies with if you're writing a strong character-driven book or more of a plot-driven book. It seems like many (but not all) character-driven books do not begin with a story problem in that first line. They often begin with the "voice" of the character. For instance, the first OLIVIA book begins: "This is Olivia. She is good at lots of things."

Also, rather than starting with a problem, some pbs begin with a "want" which is similar to a problem in that if the character is having trouble obtaining his "want," then it's a problem. :-)

The pb EXTRAORDINARY JANE, written and illustrated by Hannah E. Harrison, begins: "Jane was ordinary, in a world that was extraordinary." I just love that--and the entire book as well.

LITTLE ELLIOT, BIG CITY  begins: "Little Elliot was an elephant. He was different in many ways."

I like "collecting" first lines of my fav pbs. I often type out the first and last lines of some of my favorites. It's interesting to see how a writer gets from that first line to the last. :-)
#6 - April 25, 2015, 12:03 PM
ALIENS GET THE SNIFFLES TOO! Candlewick, 2017
LOUD LULA, Two Lions 2015
CALIFORNIA HISTORY FOR KIDS, CRP
FARMER MCPEEPERS Rising Moon

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Thanks for letting me know the book title, Anne Marie. I'll look it up now. :-)

I got a big haul of books from the library today so I'll be closely studying their first lines (and the last lines too now you've suggested that, Katy). I've recently started a notebook of first lines so I'll share some more good ones here tomorrow.

I like the distinction you make between character driven and plot driven books Katy. That's a good thing to keep in mind when trying to craft that all-important opening. Getting the 'voice' of the character to shine through in the first sentence is so hard to do well.

Ann Whitford Paul writes about 8 different types of first lines in 'Writing Picture Books' - Time, Setting, Conflict, Opinion, Provocative Statement, Scrapbook, Mood and Middle of the Action. However, I feel these might not fit all books in the contemporary market. I dunno..I haven't checked them all!

#7 - April 25, 2015, 01:10 PM

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A selection of library book first lines...

PING AND PONG ARE BEST FRIENDS (MOSTLY) - Tim Hopgood
"Anything Ping can do, Pong can do better. Anything? Yes, anything?!"
The whole story is about Ping trying to find something that he can do better than Pong, so these first lines sum it up perfectly.

OH DEAR, GEOFFREY - Gemma O'Neill (beautifull illos!)
"Meet Geoffrey, the young giraffe. He's very, very tall with a very, very long neck...and sometimes he's very, very clumsy."
The story is about how Geoffrey's clumsiness (and height) get in the way of his making friends.

AAAARRGGHH, SPIDER! - Lydia Monks
"It's really lonely being a spider. I want to be a family pet. THIS family's pet!"
This one jumps right in with the story problem - direct from the spider's mouth.

WHY? - Tracey Corderoy/Tim Warnes
"Archie was a rhino with a LOT of questions."
This one has a similar format to the examples you posted, KatyD. Why? is a character-driven book also.

THERE'S A LION IN MY CORNFLAKES - Michelle Robinson/Jim Field
"If you ever see this on a packet of cornflakes: <illo shows FREE LION - JUST SAVE 100 COUPONS> Ignore it! You should see what happened when we didn't..."

NO MATTER WHAT - Debi Gliori
"Small was feeling grim and dark."
Sigh.

Interestingly, I've just noticed that 3 of these 6 first lines are written in the present tense. Giraffe and Spider stay in the present tense throughout. Ping and Pong switches to the past tense halfway through.
#8 - April 26, 2015, 12:43 AM

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Here are a few from favorite picture books:

SWIMMY  written and illustrated by Leo Lionni
"A happy school of little fish lived in a corner of the sea somewhere.
They were all red. Only one of them was black as a mussel shell."

I'm not sure which to call this: character or plot. Both, as the story goes on, are important. It certainly gives the setting and in the next few lines (still on the first page of  the book), it hints at conflict with these lines.

"He swam faster than his brothers or sisters. His name was Swimmy." On hearing this first page read aloud and by looking at the under water world created with mono-prints and handmade stamps, a child might think this is  about a competitive little  fish family. Turn the page and disaster  strikes. In fact, with this book, page turns are  very important.

THE SKY DOG written and illustrated by Brinton Turkle

"The first time the boy saw the sky dog, it was smelling a big flower."

This first double page spread has an illustration of a boy flying a kite way, way up in the sky, and in the sky is a  cloud-dog, smelling a cloud-flower. This is one of those stories where the illustrations tell as much as the text.

So now maybe  I should re-think my PB manuscripts' opening lines and first pages . . . .
#9 - April 26, 2015, 10:34 AM
Sheila Welch,  author/illustrator. Don't Call Me Marda, Waiting to Forget, Something in the Air, The Shadowed Unicorn, Little Prince Know-It-All

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Peggy Rathmann's The Day the Babies Crawled Away. I love this book for lots of reasons and the first line is great.
"Remember the day the babies crawled away?"
#10 - April 26, 2015, 11:15 AM
www.Facebook.com/MythRiderBook
- 4RV Publishing, April 2015
NO MORE MR. DAWDLE (Caramel Tree, April 2015)
UNGLUED (Caramel Tree, June 2015)

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I love opening with a question, but I'm not sure about that line. I might answer, "No," and close the book. 
Peggy Rathmann's The Day the Babies Crawled Away. I love this book for lots of reasons and the first line is great.
"Remember the day the babies crawled away?"

Here's the opening sentence for a concept book I'm working on. "There's no hole. There's no hole in the middle of the street." This sets up the conflict and hopefully has the reader wondering why the main character wants or expects a hole. (The street is dug up so the water main can be connected to the protagonist's new house.)

Here's a question I hope all kids will answer yes to in a more character driven story of mine. "Jakey bounced on his booster seat. “Want to play, Mommy?” Jakey asked. This sets up voice and conflict, I hope.

I think the best opening lines set up the whole story. The Very Hungry Caterpillar opens with an egg laying on a leaf as I recall.
#11 - April 27, 2015, 08:11 AM
« Last Edit: April 27, 2015, 08:18 AM by Debbie Vilardi »
Website: http://www.debbievilardi.com/
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Today I have been thinking about how first lines are like seeds. They contain the DNA of the story. So, even if you only read the first line, you should be able to extrapolate what or who the story is about, the tone or mood (lyrical, humorous etc.) and the likely path the story is going to take. The first lines we've posted here all do that.

Of course, the downside of this is that if you can't clearly define what your story is about, it's going to be really hard to write a knockout first line. This is, I think, the main reason why my first lines aren't great (but I'm working on it!)
#12 - April 27, 2015, 03:28 PM

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I love first lines and I'm trying so hard to make mine as killer as these:

"Noah Webster always knew he was right, and he never got tired of saying so (even if, sometimes, he wasn't.) He was, he said, full of CON-FI-DENCE" [noun: belief that one is right] from the very beginning." NOAH WEBSTER AND HIS WORDS by Jerri Chase Ferris.

"The true story of how one gentleman—short and stout—and another—tall and lean—formed a surprising alliance, committed treason, and helped launch a new nation." THOSE REBELS, JOHN & TOM by Barbara Kerley.

"In leafy calm, in gentle arms, a gorilla’s life began." IVAN, THE REMARKABLE TRUE STORY OF THE SHOPPING MALL GORILLA by Katherine Applegate.

"Thomas Jefferson learned to read. And then, he never stopped. He sat and he read. He walked and he read. And lying in bed, instead of sleeping, he read." THOMAS JEFFERSON BUILDS A LIBRARY by Bark Rosenstock.

Love this thread!
#13 - April 27, 2015, 04:55 PM

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Here are a few of my favorites:

From TWO COOL COWS by Toby Speed and Barry Root:

Over the hills of Hillimadoon and Willimadoon
and Rattamadoon and Hattamadeen,
up the river and down the river
and over the bridge and around the bend
come Millie and Maude,
two cool cows from the Huckabuck Farm.

From IMOGENE'S ANTLERS by David Small:

On Thursday, when Imogene woke up, she found she had grown antlers.

From WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE:

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another
his mother called him "WILD THING!" and Max said: "i'll eat you up!"
so he was sent to bed without eating anything.

From my own PB, OTTO GROWS DOWN:

One week before Otto's sixth birthday, his sister Anna spoiled everything by being born.
#14 - April 28, 2015, 09:05 AM
DUCKWORTH, THE DIFFICULT CHILD (Atheneum, 2019)
INCOGNOLIO (Janx Press, 2017)
CRASHING EDEN  (Solstice, 2012)
OTTO GROWS DOWN (Sterling, 2009)


LITTLE ELLIOT, BIG CITY  begins: "Little Elliot was an elephant. He was different in many ways."


Interesting discussion! I'll be back with examples. Running out to my kid's swim practice.

But I just want to say, I think it's interesting that LITTLE ELLIOT, BIG CITY begins with that sentence. It's a wonderful, well-reviewed book, but I think most people (crit partners or editors) would say something like, "Don't start with that sentence. The illustration will show he's an elephant." But sometimes (as in this case) it's just the perfect thing to say! So it's a good reminder not to get too hung up on "rules" and just write what feels...right.
#15 - April 28, 2015, 12:42 PM
NED THE KNITTING PIRATE, GRIMELDA series,
CITY SHAPES, DORIS THE BOOKASAURUS, ONE SNOWY DAY, PIZZA PIG, and more...
http://www.dianamurray.com

You are absolutely right, Diana. We need to strive to find the first sentence that best fits our particular mss.

And you make a good point about Elliott. :-)

#16 - April 28, 2015, 02:45 PM
ALIENS GET THE SNIFFLES TOO! Candlewick, 2017
LOUD LULA, Two Lions 2015
CALIFORNIA HISTORY FOR KIDS, CRP
FARMER MCPEEPERS Rising Moon

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I've never forgotten the first line in Charlotte's Webb....Where was Papa going with that ax? 
#17 - April 30, 2015, 04:14 PM

Mike Jung

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My go-to first line from a picture book is still Deborah Underwood's A BALLOON FOR ISABEL:

"No fair," said Isabel.
"Yeah, no fair," said Walter.
It was two days before graduation.

Okay, that's actually 3 lines, but it sets things up perfectly: something's out of whack somehow; Isabel's bothered by it and her friend Walter is right there to back her up; and holy cow, time pressure!
#18 - April 30, 2015, 04:47 PM

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Last night I dreamt I thought of the perfect - most EPIC - first line for one of my WIPs. I can actually see myself writing it down in the dream. Obviously I have no idea what it was... :(
#19 - May 05, 2015, 01:37 AM

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Great topic and good input, everyone. Isn't there an article in current SCBWI Bulletin about first lines? I seem to recall one. Hope this discussion continues.
#20 - May 08, 2015, 01:50 PM
Carol Samuelson-Woodson

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Some more favorites:

"Poor Wodney. Wodney Wat."
HOOWAY FOR WODNEY WAT by Helen Lester & Lynn Munsinger (Illus.)

"Viola Louise Hassenfeffer was not an ordinary princess."
PRINCESS IN TRAINING by Tammi Sauer & Joe Berger (Illus.)

"The sun did not shine, it was too wet to play, so we sat in the house all that cold, cold wet day."
THE CAT IN THE HAT by Dr. Seuss

"Wemberly worried about everything."
WEMBERLY WORRIED by Kevin Henkes

"One day, on the banks of a billabong, a very clever dingo caught a wombat."
WOMBAT STEW by Marcia K. Vaughn & Pamela Lofts (Illus.)

"If you give a mouse a cookie, he's going to ask for a glass of milk."
IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE by Laura Numeroff & Felicia Bond (Illus.)
#21 - May 08, 2015, 02:29 PM
DUCKWORTH, THE DIFFICULT CHILD (Atheneum, 2019)
INCOGNOLIO (Janx Press, 2017)
CRASHING EDEN  (Solstice, 2012)
OTTO GROWS DOWN (Sterling, 2009)

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Are there any cliches or things to avoid when it comes to first lines or do you think anything goes, as long as it fits with the story?

For example, "once upon a time" is probably the most overused opener, but I guess not many people would use it in a modern picture book text unless they're rewriting or parodying a fairytale.

Are there any first lines that will have agents and editors rolling their eyes?
#22 - May 09, 2015, 05:30 AM

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Great topic! If they are good, first lines can draw you in and not let you go.
#23 - May 10, 2015, 05:57 AM

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Found it: SCBWI Bulletin  Nov/Dec 2014: "Opening Lines: Rules of Engagement" pp 24-25  "The opening line is a promise of the type of tale that is about to unfold...through introduction of character, setting, plot, voice or theme."
#24 - May 10, 2015, 01:08 PM
« Last Edit: May 11, 2015, 04:52 AM by DianaM »
Carol Samuelson-Woodson

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Are there any cliches or things to avoid when it comes to first lines or do you think anything goes, as long as it fits with the story?

For example, "once upon a time" is probably the most overused opener, but I guess not many people would use it in a modern picture book text unless they're rewriting or parodying a fairytale.

Are there any first lines that will have agents and editors rolling their eyes?

There are two that might be cliche. Use with caution.

"Hi, my name is..."
"_____ woke up..." This one is especially bad if it's followed by getting dressed and eating breakfast. That may not be where the story starts.   

If you're going to start with one of those. Make sure you need it in the story and it really is the best way to start.
#25 - May 11, 2015, 07:26 AM
Website: http://www.debbievilardi.com/
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Those are great suggestions Debbie, thanks.

I've been working on a first line for WIP - still am! I recently made a small change that I think makes it stronger:

Previous version:
"Clarence was an X who longed to be a Y."

New version:
"Clarence didn't want to be an X. He wanted to be a Y."

The second version, I think, engages the reader more quickly because it's more provocative and gets them to ask 'why?' straight away. It also, I think, gives Clarence a stronger character and makes him seem more determined.

I may be wrong of course! It's easy to change something and think it's better just because it sounds fresher than that line you've been readng over and over for the last two years!
#26 - May 19, 2015, 02:49 AM

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I'd go with: Clarence was an X. He wanted to be a Y. I'm assuming the two things are polar opposites.  This is tighter and more provocative.
#27 - May 26, 2015, 12:07 PM
Website: http://www.debbievilardi.com/
Twitter: @dvilardi1

I like Debbie's suggestion.   It has a crisp sound.
#28 - May 27, 2015, 05:37 AM

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Thank you both for the feedback. I'm revising it at the moment so I'll try that and see how it fits. :-)
#29 - May 27, 2015, 04:19 PM

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