First lines are extremely important. They signal what is to come. When chosen well, they provide a framework for an entire piece of writing. First lines must serve as more than just a framework, however. They need to form a “hook” that draws readers in, and makes them want to keep reading. A good lead raises a question in the reader’s mind–Who is this character? What’s going on here? Why did he say that? Beginning closest to the “day that was different”–the day something changed for the main character–is a good strategy. Beginning with action, a bit of intriguing dialogue, or a statement that raises a question in the reader’s mind are some ways that writers hook their readers.
- “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” 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.” (Charlotte’s Web)
- It was a brilliant day, and instead of going straight home from school, Pearl dawdled. (The Amazing Bone)
- “You’ve bought a church?” Michael and I looked up from the pile of homework covering most of the kitchen table. (Wait Till Helen Comes)
- If Jennifer Murdley hadn’t been forced to wear her brother’s underpants to school, the whole thing might never have happened. (Jennifer Murdley’s Toad)
- They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring. (Maniac Magee)A few teaching suggestions:
- Ask students to help you collect effective first lines from favorite books. Share them in class. What makes the lines effective? What questions do they raise in readers’ minds?
- Give students some boring leads (make them up, or take them from a boring book or textbook), and ask them to rewrite the leads to make them more interesting.
- Have students examine their own writing and revise for/create better opening lines and leads.
THREE TYPES OF FICTION LEADS
THE STARTLING OR CHALLENGING STATEMENT:
First thing Monday morning, Lily Spencer knew she was going to run away from home the next afternoon, right after her piano lesson. (Lily and the Runaway Baby by Susan Shreve)
Mommy doesn’t know my name. (Mommy Doesn’t Know My Name by Suzanne Williams)
I bet you think all librarians are mousy little old ladies. (Library Lil by Suzanne Williams)
THE DIALOGUE OPENING:
“The suburbs!” said Anastasia. “We’re moving to the suburbs? I can’t believe it. I can’t believe that you would actually do such a thing to me. I’m going to kill myself. As soon as I finish this chocolate pudding, I’m going to jump out the window.” (Anastasia Again! by Lois Lowry)
“You’ve bought a church?” Michael and I looked up from the pile of homework covering most of the kitchen table. (Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn)
THE ACTIVE STATEMENT (Reveals setting and/or character details. Notice how important verbs are in introducing each statement–Melinda Pratt rides; Emily hopped; Matthias cut and wobbled.)
Melinda Pratt rides city bus number twelve to her cello lesson, wearing her mother’s jean jacket and only one sock. (The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt by Patricia MacLachlan)
Emily hopped up and down as she stood in line outside her new classroom. (Emily at School by Suzanne Williams)
Matthias cut a comical little figure as he wobbled his way along the cloisters, with his large sandals flip-flopping and his tail peeping from beneath the baggy folds of an oversized novice’s habit. (Redwall by Brian Jacques)
A good nonfiction lead captures a reader’s interest, just as a good fiction lead does. The lead should also give some idea of what the piece of writing will be about, and lead smoothly into the body of the report. What makes a good lead? Here are five types commonly used by nonfiction writers:
THE ANECDOTE: A FICTIONAL APPROACH
An Indian bent over a tiny, thin plant and plucked it from the ground. He held it up to his face and looked at it curiously, sniffing it. He bit into the kernels in the center. They were mealy, and tasted sweet. He grabbed handfuls of the tiny plants and took them to the shelter of his cave.
Seven thousand years later, in Mexico, scientists would find the fossilized remains of this first ancient corn…
YOU ARE THERE
You slather butter over the steaming hot cob and sprinkle it with salt. Your teeth sink in and the juice spurts out. It dribbles down your chin. How good that first bite of corn tastes, fresh off the cob. But did you know you are eating a food that was eaten by people some seven thousand years ago?
“Man is meant to live on corn.” So says an ancient Mexican legend. And so it has been for centuries. But times are changing.
THE STARTLING FACT
Though corn is grown on half of all the farming land in Mexico, it’s not enough to feed the people.
Do you know the name of a thin pancake that can be folded, rolled, fried, and stuffed to make over a dozen main dishes? It’s the tortilla.
Students can practice creating opening paragraphs using these techniques. Divide them into groups and assign one technique to each group, i.e. “You are there.”
Using the same set of notes about a topic (or a page out of an encyclopedia), the class groups could practice writing leads. Share the leads out loud. Students will discover how many different ways there are to write a catchy opening paragraph.
Here are some actual leads from nonfiction books. What types of leads are they? (see above)
Creating Cartoon Magic:
Did you ever wish you could climb buildings like Spider man?
Have you ever walked by a bakery just as the loaves are being taken out of the oven?…
Meet the Letter Carrier:
Snow! It was a blizzard and the radio bulletins announced the cancellation of school….
The Thinking Kid’s Guide to Holiday Shopping:
We all, enjoy sharing gifts, but too often holiday shopping is nothing but a chore…
Around the World to School:
For most of you, school is probably just a short walk or a bus ride away….
Paper is so basic in our lives that it is almost impossible to imagine life without it.. ..
Making 3-D Paper Snowflakes:
Did you ever cut flat snowf1akes from rolled paper when you were sma11 ? …
The Quaker Whalers: Settling in a New Land:
Communities are enriched by the contributions, customs, and activities of different groups of people…
The histories that lie behind the names of dog breeds are usually simple and brief….
Nerene Virgin–A “Special Kind of Actress”:
Enthusiasm sparkles from her eyes when Nerene Virgin talks about her show, “Today’s Special.”…
Unbutton your coat and let the warm seep in…
From the Writing Curriculum Files of Children’s Author, Suzanne Williams www.suzanne-williams.com