Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Behind the Books: An Irresistible Beginning

Whether a book has 500 word or 50,000 words, it’s the first few sentences that make all the difference. That’s true for both fiction and nonfiction. With TV and video games and all kinds of activities vying for a kids’ attention, children’s book authors have to hook their young readers right away.

Book beginnings haven’t always been so critical. When I teach writing classes for adults, I often encourage students to choose any shelf in the children’s section (middle grade novels work especially well). I tell them to read the first page of the first book on the shelf and then look at the copyright date. I ask them to repeat this procedure for the second, third, fourth, etc. books on the shelf. By the time they are half was through the shelf, they are usually able to make a reasonable guess about a book’s year of publication based on the style of the beginning.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was growing up, book beginnings were more leisurely. Most of the time, an author introduced a story’s setting and the characters quite thoroughly before getting to the action.

But things are different now. Kids have come to expect action and intrigue and fascinating facts right there on the very first page—the very first paragraph—the very first sentence. This is more critical today than it was even five or ten years ago.

When I first started out writing, a meaty question was often enough considered enough to whet a reader’s appetite. But most editors won’t settle for that kind of beginning anymore. Maybe it’s because they’re just sick of it.

These days, when I write about an animal, I sometimes start with an image that builds a portrait of the creature. This works especially well when the animal has some unusual features. For example, when I wrote an article on seahorses for National Geographic World, I could have started with something like:

The seahorse is an unusual ocean animal. It’s a fish, but it doesn’t look like one.

But I wanted to draw my readers in, so I started like this:

A seahorse has a head like a horse, a snout like an anteater, a pouch like a kangaroo, and a tail like a monkey. But it’s a fish. Its delicate body seems to be a curious collection of spare parts.
One of my favorite ways to begin an article or book is with a you-are-there scene that pulls readers into the animal’s world. This is especially effective if the animal lives in an unfamiliar place, like the African savanna or a tropical rainforest.

Here’s an example for my book Baboons:

As the sizzling mid-day sun beats down on an African plain, a pride of lions snoozes lazily in the open grass. Not far away, zebras and gazelle graze nervously. A leopard rests on the lowest branch of a lone tree, while vultures fight for the final scraps of an early morning kill. A small herd of elephants slowly saunters by. They are headed toward the river, where hippos lounge in the shallow water. The savanna is quiet and peaceful.

After a busy morning of foraging, a troop of olive baboons naps in the row of trees lining the river. But one rambunctious youngster can’t get to sleep. He climbs down from his safe perch and begins exploring. The little baboon’s movements don’t go unnoticed. A hungry crocodile watches his progress. As the baboon wanders closer and closer to the water’s edge, the croc quietly glides toward him.

Just as the predator is about to lunge, a series of short, sharp barks shatters the silence. It is the alarm cry of a female baboon. She has just awoken and realized her youngster is in trouble. Without a moment’s hesitation, a nearby male races to the ground, scoops up the little one, and carries him back to safety. It was a close call.

Creating a scene like this is hard work. In fact, I’m not sure how successfully I could have written this kind of scene is I hadn’t witnessed it myself when I was on safari in Kenya. For more about the importance about firsthand research, see this post.

The point is you have to grab your reader’s attention and interest right away. One of the best ways I know for doing that is by making them relate to the animals and worlds I’m writing about.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful! You really create some tension. I've spent time in Kenya watching baboons and your description took me right back to the hot and dusty savanna! Thanks for the mini mind safari.