The beginnings of manuscripts are important. Publishing professionals receive and read hundreds of manuscripts a month and don’t have time to read them all through to the end. The beginning isn’t more important than other parts of the story, but because it’s read first, it has to grab their attention, pique their interest, and indicate either that the author can write or has a good idea.
If you write a good beginning, editors and agents will read on to see if you develop a compelling plot, create credible characters, and sustain reader interest.
If your beginning isn’t strong, the manuscript will likely be rejected before the reader reaches the end of the first page. Just as important is the response of the ultimate ‘reader’ of the picture book, the child who either is—or isn’t—engaged by the end of the first few spreads.
How do you write a beginning that makes the reader want to read further? There are no rules when it comes to writing, but one idea is to use dramatic structure. Having a structure helps anchor your narrative and gives you a way to think of plot.
For our purposes, a plot is simply a way of organizing a series of related incidents, events, and situations leading to a satisfying resolution. It’s helpful to divide the plot into three sections—the beginning, middle, and end.
A good beginning accomplishes three things:
1. Introduces your main character or characters—the who of your story.
2. Introduces the circumstances and situation, shows the world where the story takes place and gives the reader a sense of what the story is about—the where of the story.
3. Introduces the desire/need/conflict that will drive the character and the story—the what of the story.
The beginning, also known as the set-up, engages your reader’s interest and makes them want to continue to read. A rule of thumb is that the beginning should take up about a quarter of the book. In a standard thirtytwo page picture book (which allocates a spread to the title/dedication page, a single page at the beginning to the half title, and a single last page of the book), there are twenty-eight pages (or fourteen spreads) to tell your story. That means the beginning should be three to four spreads. For a thousand-word count story, that’s two hundred and fifty words. The trend is toward even shorter books, so you don’t have much time to set up the story and engage the reader.
You need to be a word miser, and the best way to do that is to find a way to introduce all three elements at once. The best openings start with the situation in which the protagonist finds themselves, combined with dramatized action, conflict or the expression of a desire.
A skilled writer can establish mood and tone in an opening that contains the premise and situation of the whole book. You should aim to do the same. At the very least, you should set up the who, where, and what of the story.
Analyze good beginnings in some of your favorite picture books and see how the masters handle the challenges. Then try to apply the principles that worked for them to your own work.
For example, take a look at the three enduring picture books on the next page. Three spreads, sixty-six words, and the three basic requirements of a good beginning have been met.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
Who is the main character? Peter, introduced on the first spread. Where is the book set? A city neighborhood on a snowy day. By the third spread we’re outside experiencing the wonder of an urban snowscape. What is the dramatic need or confl ict? What is the book about?
Like many picture books, the ‘what’ of the book is established by the title. The book isn’t driven by conflict or the frustration of desire, but by the need of a small child to immerse himself in an experience—in this case, a snowy landscape. The book is an exploration of need fulfi lled. We know that by the third spread.
All three requirements of a good beginning have been met within the first three spreads.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Who is the main character? The caterpillar. He appears in the second spread, although, in a stroke of brilliance that foreshadows the transformation into a butterfly on the last spread, the caterpillar appears in egg form on the very first spread.
Where is the book set? The natural world. That’s established within the first spread. It’s also set in an abstract world of concepts, established by the third spread.
What is the dramatic need or conflict? What is the book about? Once again, the title establishes the topic. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is about—well—a very hungry caterpillar.
The dramatic need is that of a small critter to satisfy one of the life’s most basic needs—food. On the second spread we’re introduced to the need; on the third spread the caterpillar starts his quest to assuage his need. The book is also about the days of the week, different kinds of food, counting one through ten, and transformation. All these elements organize the book and entice readers to turn the pages.
All three requirements of a good beginning have been satisfied within the first three spreads.
Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
Who is the main character? Harold, who appears on the first spread.
Where is the book set? In a fantastical world Harold creates. He—like any creative person—is both creator and explorer of the world he creates. All this is set up within the first three spreads.
What is the dramatic need or conflict? What is the book about? Harold wants to go for a moonlit walk, but there is neither moon nor a surface on which to walk.
Harold’s need is to create his world. The book is about how he does it—with his purple crayon—and what he creates. Harold’s challenge—to create his world—is set up on the second spread.
The solution—his ability to create it using his purple crayon—is established in words by the third spread, although it is established visually by the end of the second spread.
Simone Kaplan is a picture book lover, editor, consultant, and writing coach, and is dedicated to making you a better picture book writer. You can fi nd out more about her work at http://www.picturebookpeople.com, or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Originally printed in Sprouts Magazine 2010.