Wednesday, August 21st, 2019


What does it take to draw in today’s young reader and persuade them to keep reading?

Last week, in the children’s lit class I’m teaching at Stony Brook Southampton, we looked closely at the beginnings of middle grade and YA novels.  I made a list of important elements for my grad students… but I’d love to hear what else you consider when it comes to starting a story.

Here’s my crib sheet:

The beginning of your story has to accomplish several things. It must:

→ Introduce your setting
→ Introduce your main character/s
→ Establish the tone/rules of the world
→ Hook your reader and compel them to read on

The last point is perhaps the most important. Here, then, are some tips.

Good beginnings…

Start with an event, a problem or a change. Judy Blume says that novels should begin “on the first day that something different happens in your character’s life.” Don’t worry about backstory or exposition – that can reveal itself later.

Fulfill the premise – and promise – of your story. If your book is about a girl who can talk to animals, don’t wait 50 pages before she talks to, or hears from, an animal. Even if she doesn’t realize what’s happening yet, there should she be some hint right away of what your story is really about.

Raise questions. Questions propel the characters into action, and the reader into the next page, wondering what will happen next. What’s going on here? How or why did this happen? Who could have done this?

Avoid clichés. Childrens book authors often start books on the first day of school or the day a character arrives some place new. Although these are natural starting points because they involve a change, they’re also a little too common. Try to be fresh, original. Here are some other common/cliché beginnings to avoid:

→ The weather (“It was a dark and stormy night…”)
→ The hero waking up in the morning and thinking about his/her day
→ A dream or a vision
→ A death
→ Starting with the present, and then going into flashback mode to provide exposition

Establish the rules of the world. If your story is set in a world in any way different from ours, then some hint of how the world works, or the rules operating there, should be in your opening – but remember to show rather than tell. Reveal or demonstrate the rules in action as opposed to describing them through exposition.

Establish the tone, style and pacing of the book. Your opening scene sets the overall mood of your story, whether its dark, funny, contemporary, lyrical, whatever. Whatever the primary tone of your piece is, your initial scene should establish that feeling.


7 Responses to “Beginnings”
  1. Beth says:

    Excellent post, Emma. As I read it, I was mentally going over the beginning of my middle grade manuscript. I assume the same rule of thumb can be applied to a chapter book?

    How I wish I was able to be in the class you’re teaching at Stony Brook Southampton. I know it would be invaluable for my progress as a writer.

    Last night I wrote a blog post about hook sentences for one of my posts in April, and linked to your post about “Getting the Hook!” — I will go back and add a link to this post as well. Thank you!

  2. Donna Martin says:

    Thanks, Emma, for the lovely post. I am comforted to realize that I had already addressed every one of your points in my current MG novel even before I read this great post…it means I’m on the WRITE track!

    Have a great day!


  3. Mona Pease says:

    Thanks Emma ,for this great post.

  4. Patricia Tilton says:

    Thanks Emma, for this great post. When are you going to teach it on the Hub? Add it to my questions for tonight’s webinar? 🙂

  5. Emma says:

    Patricia –
    I’m working on it! My plan is to take the material I’ve been developing for this course and adapt it for the Hub/Just Write for Kids… stay tuned. (I think I need to clone myself to try to find some more hours in the day!

  6. Beth says:

    Emma, how you manage to do all that you do is beyond me. Take care of yourself in the midst of all your ultra-busy-ness!

    I’ve just re-read this post. I was congratulating myself that I’d started my chapter book with a change in the main character’s life… until I read “don’t use a cliche.” Back to the drawing board.

  7. Diane says:

    mmm….. just rereading this post. A new novel I am hoping to get underway sometime later this year, I have made some notes on, but it needs to start in the present day and then the rest of the chapters and story is in the past…. Oh lord! do I really have to change this? Will think some more…

Leave Your Comment

I want to hear from you...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!