It was a real honour to run a workshop at this year’s Young Adult Literary Conference (YALC). I had a great group of writers who really got stuck into the exercise and produced some super-engaging openings – they certainly had me wanting to read more.
I was pretty jet-lagged and sleep-deprived but the conference was so full of energy and book-love that I couldn’t help but be wide awake and excited. Oh, and a wonderful workshop participant called Tess gave me a Diet Coke to keep going – my poison!
Here’s the workshop for those of you who’d like to try it at home. Do share your openings with me if you’d like to – either by commenting below or by contacting me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Young Adult fiction, more than any other, needs to grip its readers right from the start. There are so many exciting – and, let’s face it, less demanding – activities competing for young people’s attention: if they’re going to sit down for hours at a time, on their own, in silence, to read a book, it had better be worth it! And, more often than not, they make up their minds about that pretty quickly – within a page or so, sometimes within a few lines.
And, in some ways, they’re right. We shouldn’t have to plough through 100 pages before being convinced that the novel is worth the read.
The opening lines of a YA novel should sparkle: they are the best advert for the book. They should give readers a flavour of all that the author has to offer. Their job is to wet the reader’s appetite – to tease them a little, to charm them and reassure them that it’s worth coming along for the ride.
I work harder on my openings than just about any other part of the novel. To me, they hold the microcosm of my story: they are my invitation, an outstretched hand saying, ‘jump into my story, I think you’ll like it.’
Learning from others
In most other disciplines like art or sport, it’s common practise to study the work of those you aspire to – as writer’s we’re often reluctant to do that, but that’s just foolish. There are millions of mentors and teachers out there – all we need to do is to turn the page.
Here are 5 examples of YA openings – take out a pen or highlighter and make notes on the techniques writers have used to make them effective.
The Memory of Things, Gae Polisner
I move with the crowd, away from downtown Manhattan.
We travel swiftly but don’t run, panicked but steady, a molten lava flow of bodies across the bridge.
A crash of thunder erupts – another explosion? – and the flow startles and quickens. Someone near me starts to cry, a choked, gasping sound, soon muted by a new wail of sirens rising at my back.
(You can read my interview with Gae Polisner here).
It Looks Like This, Rafi Mittlefehldt
It looks like this:
Puffs of orange just below.
The fiercest yellow way ahead, far, far ahead.
Red slashed all across.
All of it fading to blue, getting deeper and deeper as you go out.
I only saw this once in real life. We stayed up late and walked to Mill Point Beach in the middle of the night. There was no light anywhere and we sat, blind, and said nothing. We didn’t speak for the longest time, just listened to the ocean.
Then the blackness started melting.
This is what it looked like when the sun finally came up. I was so tired, we both were, but we did it anyway.
We only saw it once because there wasn’t much after that, and now we can’t ever go again.
This is what I see when I want to remember the good parts. This is what I see when I think of him, when I let myself think of him.”
Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell
There was a boy in her room.
Cath looked up at the number painted on the door, then down at the room assignment in her hand.
Pound Hall, 913
This was definitely room 913, but maybe it wasn’t Pound Hall – all these dormitories looked alike, like public housing towers for the elderly. Maybe Cath should try to catch her dad before he brought up the rest of her boxes.
‘You must be Cather,’ the boy said, grinning and holding out his hand.
‘Cath,’ she said, feeling a panicky jump in her stomach. She ignored his hand. (She was holding a box, anyway, what did he expect from her?)
This was a mistake – this had to be a mistake. She knew that Pound was a co-ed dorm…Is there such a thing as co-ed rooms?
When We Collided, Emery Lord
I knew I was in love with Verona Cove on the first day, but I waited until the seventh to commit. After one week here, I’m carving my name into a tree in the center of town. It’s way harder than you might think, digging a pocketknife into an ancient bark. Eleven letters have taken me hours, or it feel like that, anyway. Fortunately, before the sun rises, no one polices Irving Park – or anywhere, really. I’m pretty sure the worst crime Verona Cove has ever seen is someone dropping a napkin. The napkin dropper tried to chase it, I bet, but the wind swept it up, and eventually, somewhere, the napkin became litter.
And besides, I’d actually enjoy getting caught – clearly, since I implicated myself in jagged lines forever etched into a tree older than any of the 3,051 people in the town: Vivi was here.
I’ll Give You The Sun, Jandy Nelson
With Zephyr and Fry – reigning neighbourhood sociopaths – torpedoing after me and the whole forest floor shaking under my feet as I blast through air, trees, this is white-hot-panic.
‘You’re going over, you Pussy,’ Fry shouts.
Then Zephyr’s on me, has one, both of my arms behind my back, and Fry’s grabbed my sketchpad. I lunge for it but I’m armless, helpless. I try to wriggle out of Zephyr’s grasp. Can’t. Try to blink them into moths. No. They’re still themselves: fifteen-foot-tall, tenth-grade asshats who toss living, breathing thirteen-year-old people like me over cliffs for kicks.
Zephyr’s got me in a headlock from behind and his chest’s heaving into my back, my back into his chest. We’re swimming in sweat. Fry starts leafing through the pad. ‘Whatcha been drawing, Bubble?’ I imagine him getting run over by a truck. He holds up a page of sketches. ‘Zehph, look at all these naked dudes.’
The blood in my body stops moving.
List the techniques you observed:
What did you notice that these writers did effectively in their opening lines? Try to write your own before you look at the list I compiled.
Here are some of the techniques I observed and enjoyed in these five openings:
- The author raises questions that you’re keen to find the answer to
- The author leaves out as much as she puts in, which again, has the reader wanting more
- A powerful protagonist voice
- Pace – energy to the writing, often through short sentences and strong verbs
- Engaging or original setting – either real (Manhattan) or fictional (Verona Cove)
- Vividly drawn character(s)
- Plot set in motion: ‘The Trigger’
- Elements of surprise
- A new experience for the protagonist – a ‘first’
- A turning point in the protagonist’s life
- Heightened emotions that the reader shares with the protagonist – such as nostalgia, embarrassment or fear.
- A sense that the stakes are high for the protagonist
Take it further: Make a habit of analysing the openings to the novels you love – look at how writers spark your interest and use this to craft your own openings.
Your turn: writing some opening lines that sparkle
Write freely, experiment, be uninhibited – and kick any critical voices out onto the street! This is just practice, in the same way that a carpenter practices on an old piece of wood. It may turn out to be brilliant but if it doesn’t, who cares – you’ve sharpened your skills for the next time you write an opening. The more you practise your writing skills the better your writing will be.
Either work with a story and with characters you have already or start from scratch.
If working from scratch, make these brief notes before writing – write down the first ideas that come to mind, don’t worry about them being brilliant. This is an ‘exercise’ – in other words, it’s practice, you might never use this paragraph but you’ll have trained yourself in writing a good opening.
- Protagonist’s name
- Protagonist’s age
- First or third person
- Is your character alone in this scene or interacting with others?
- A trigger event which sets the plot in motion – usually something which disrupts your protagonist’s world, even if only subtly
- A technique you want to use which you found particularly effective from reading the extracts above
Now write freely for 10 minutes, editing down as you go: focus on just a few opening lines.
Share your writing
I know that sharing your writing with others is scary but it can really help to highlight strengths and areas for improvement. Read your opening lines to a trusted friend, family member or teacher and ask them whether these lines would make them want to read on – and ask them to be specific about the things that worked. Even just reading the lines aloud to yourself will help you see them more clearly or coming back to them after a few days. And as I said at the beginning, feel free to share them with me too.
Opening of Wishbones
If you’d like to have a look at how I crafted my own opening, click here.