It is a fact of life that publishers will only read one or
two pages of your manuscript. They receive far too many submissions to
give each one their undivided attention from beginning to end. And,
sadly, some of these submissions don't deserve more than a minute or two
of an editor's time.
As a reader, I have given up on books that haven't grabbed me in the first
chapter. Children, I'm sure, are less patient than I am.
Therefore it is vital for a writer to grab the reader in the first page or two.
We can even narrow this done to the first sentence or paragraph. Your beginning
should intrigue the reader and inspire them to read further.
Dialogue and action are a great way to start a novel. Imagine your beginning as
dropping your readers into the middle of things, when everything is starting to
get interesting. Using dialogue or action to plant questions in your readers'
minds will hopefully make them want to read on.
Of course, sometimes it is necessary to set the scene. Background information
about the character, their family, home, friends etc - that is essential to the
plot - should be interspersed in such a way that it never slows the story down.
Certainly it should never fill the first few pages of your manuscript at the
expense of the story.
Let's look at some examples:
Beginning with dialogue -
(From my easy reader Chick Catches Dinner)
"I can't sleep," said the chick. "I'm not tired."
In the above example, I've introduced the main character and her problem.
A few lines later:
"I wonder if anyone else is awake," said the chick. She went for a
Thus begins chick's night-time adventure.
Beginning with action -
(From my junior novel The Mad Mower)
Tony felt nervous, as though his stomach was a food processor mixing a
In the above example, I want the reader to wonder why Tony is feeling nervous.
What is so important to him? And who is Tony anyway?
A few lines later:
Now he was ready to test his computer programme. If it worked it would be
unbelievable. It would change his life forever.
The above paragraph is meant to keep the reader turning the pages. What
computer programme? Why would it be unbelievable and change his life
Beginning with action and dialogue -
(From my easy reader Down the Well)
The hen heard a splash in the well, so she went to have a look.
"Hello," yelled the hen.
"Hello," yelled a voice.
Again, in the above example, I want the reader to keep turning those pages to
find out the answers to a few questions. Has someone fallen down the well? Is
the voice simply the hen's echo?
Beginning with setting -
(From my junior novel Martian Milk)
The carpark at Shopper's Dream was busy. It was Thursday, the day when
shoppers from Planet Nub and Planet Teg came to visit, looking for bargains.
Paul's mother, Mrs Taylor, flew the space-car around and around, looking for a
place to park.
In the above example, I'm setting the scene of a futuristic Earth. The idea is
still to keep the reader turning those pages.
By now, you should be seeing a pattern with beginnings. They are all about
hooking the reader and making them want to read more until they have all the
The conflict should be evident as soon as possible, preferably within the first
few paragraphs. Your reader needs to know who the story is about (main
character) and why there is a story (the main character's problem/conflict) as
early in the novel as possible. You want them identifying with your character
and their problem before they have a chance to lose interest.
Writers often start their story at a point then later, in the rewriting/editing
process, change the beginning. It can take numerous attempts to get the
beginning right. Whole opening chapters can sometimes be discarded to improve a
story. I've done this myself.
It isn't enough to captivate the publisher or reader with a brilliant
beginning. You need to keep the standard. Your middle and ending should be
equally as satisfying. However, it is the beginning of your novel that will
keep the publisher reading or make them move onto the next submission.
About the author:
Robyn Opie is the
author of more than 75 children's books. She has been writing for
children for 9 years; most of her books are sold around the world
and many have been translated into foreign languages. Robyn lives in
Adelaide, South Australia, with her partner Rob Parnell, two dogs and
thousands of children's books. She works full time writing for children.
Robyn is the author of three comprehensive
How To Write a GREAT Children's Book: The Easy Way to Write for Kids (Volume